Andy Goodson: Interview with a Forester, Chad Wilkinson: FPAC 2022 Green Dream Internship Program

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August 25, 2022

When I met Chad, I found it amusing how he always seemed to have a piece of grass to roll between his teeth, even when there was no grass to be found. I learned this bit of mystique is something even his long-term co-workers recognized, so it was perhaps a stroke of luck that I got to lock him down for an interview and learn more about his job as a harvest planner and operations forester.  

Chad is a family man, outdoorsman and biologist with a varied background in natural resource management. In the interview he shares details about the career path that led him to forestry, his perspectives on wildlife and stakeholder engagement, and an encounter with a pack of wolves.  

How long have you worked with Tolko? Is Tolko your first job in forestry specifically?  

I have worked for Tolko for seven years and before that I worked for the [Saskatchewan] government running their silviculture program. Then I worked for Weyerhaeuser on a couple term positions for two years in the early 2000s. And I worked a year for the Canadian Forest Service doing mostly First Nations forestry projects. A lot of tree planting projects. A bunch of the other jobs I’ve had had forestry aspects, but they weren’t specifically forestry jobs.

Where did you work before forestry, just out of curiosity?

I worked at the Star Diamond mine out at Fort à la Corne, so I ran their environmental program for almost ten years. Basically I ran anything to do with the environment on the site. The permitting, all the work involved with environmental impact assessment, the mill site, the big drill rigs, the drill pads, the roads, the trails—any forestry that had to happen like cutting down the trees and the reclaim. Before that I worked with Ducks Unlimited, Canadian Wildlife Service, doing a bunch of different wildlife jobs for a few years.  

So it’s been a storied career in the resources sector for sure.  

Yeah, a good variety, I actually worked up north at the McClean Lake mine for a few months too, but I didn’t like that. And before that I worked construction, which helped motivate me to go to school and get a job that I really liked.  

You went to school for biology, correct?

I went into resource management in Prince Albert first. And I always wanted to work in forestry. That was my goal right from when I was in high school. My grandparents on both sides—both worked in forestry and I grew up right on the edge of the forest. It’s what I always wanted to do really because I enjoy being in the forest so much. It just took a while to get back to it because, right when I graduated from resource management, that’s when the forestry sector crashed. I kept going to school and did a wider variety of jobs, which in hindsight was pretty nice.  

Did you find that you needed to change or adapt to work in forestry?  

I think the biggest thing with forestry is the scale—the amount of people and the amount of area you’re associated with. Other jobs were really project-specific, so there was a narrow focus of people you’re dealing with, whereas forestry is much wider. You have to deal with a wide variety of people and a lot of different perspectives. To me that was probably the biggest change. You really need to keep your focus on what your goal is.  

Our goal is keeping the thousands of people employed in forestry in northern Saskatchewan, working in their back yards, where some would have really limited opportunities to work close to home otherwise. So that is one of the big drivers. Trying to do a good job to make sure all those people can continue to work in forestry. Because obviously I really believe it’s a sustainable industry, and it’s a good industry because it renews the forest in a way that also benefits many, many people. In the long term it’s clearly very sustainable and we get to see that every day as the trees grow.  

A large part of your job is engaging with stakeholders and a lot of them have varied and sometimes conflicting opinions on forest management. I’m wondering, how have you learned to approach these conflicts?

You really have to be confident and you have to know what you’re talking about, to put it bluntly…My approach is to really just stick to the facts. It’s a discussion stating facts around what happens – from a forestry perspective – when you compare to a wildfire, or blowdown or any of the other inevitable events that impact forests here. Here’s the hard numbers on how many people are employed, how many First Nations and Métis people in the north make their living off forestry. Also the facts around renewal, and harvest levels, just reality check as opposed to rhetoric.  

There’s always a small percentage of people you’re not going to convince, but even them, when you give them the facts, you don’t hear a lot of relevant arguments against forestry on a large scale. Like, in any specific spot, some people don’t want change. But that’s just the nature of people. You can only do so much with that.  

Right, I imagine there’s just so much to teach in these situations. Have you had any successful teaching moments you can remember?  

In any group there’s a percentage of people who are on the fence and willing to listen. So like in any other discussion, those are the people you’re really speaking to whether or not you’re one-on-one speaking to them. Because lots of times after a public meeting we have people reach out who weren’t particularly vocal. But they reach out and say hey, we’re really supportive of what you’re doing, and keep doing what you’re doing. We know there’s a percentage of people who are opposed to forestry, but I think the majority of people support it and realize it’s sustainable. And I get feedback from people from meetings once in a while that they appreciate it…the discussion and all the facts that were presented.  

Going in a different direction just to get to know you a little better. In your free time, what keeps you busy?

I have kids who are at a busy age right now. Age four, eight and ten. So they’re super busy with sports. Lots of time in the hockey rinks and at the soccer fields. But whenever we’re not doing that, we’re in the forest doing lots of shed hunting, hunting, berry picking and lots of time at the lake, fishing, and on the boat, at the beach and all that stuff. So, yeah. Being out in the forest is a big thing in my spare time too.  

As a hunter, how do you see forestry’s role in maintaining wildlife habitat?

That’s a difficult one. Because – from a wildlife perspective – everyone’s focused on generally a few different species that they’re interested in. And that’s not really how the forest is managed. I think the idea is that if you manage it in a similar manner to forest fires, the wildlife will be fine. And I think that’s true on a large scale. But on a small scale, fires drastically change how the forest looks in any specific area. At any given time, for any specific species that you’re looking at, they may or may not be doing really well in one particular area. So it’s impossible to manage at a small scale, because even if it was left alone in nature there’d be a lot of variability in terms of the amount of habitat that was good for any specific species.

You kind of have to manage it at a large scale, which leads to a lot of the challenges with stakeholders, because most stakeholders are focused on a relatively small scale. But in the long term and on a large scale, forestry is a way to renew the forest and try to create a forest that has all the types and ages of forests that would naturally occur, so the wildlife will be fine. But on a small scale, there can be times when habitat when any specific species is not adequate, but that is what would happen naturally with fires.  

Bit of an oddball question. What is the strangest thing you’ve come across in the woods? Do you have any particular stories that stick out from your years in the field?  

Well one guy that I shed hunt with—I wasn’t there, but it’s probably the craziest story. He found a human skull when he was shed hunting. That was a pretty wild one. It had been there for a long time I guess. It was from the 50s or 60s or something. They linked it to a missing person from a long time ago.

Wow, that’s pretty incredible.

Yeah. And lots of encounters with animals. For me, that’s what sticks out in my brain. Had some close calls with wolves and lots of really cool encounters with deer and elk and moose at close range, which is always fun.  

Tell me about your encounter with the wolves.  

I had one really bad encounter when I was archery hunting. I got tied up out there too late trying to get an elk, so when I was walking back to my truck, it was almost pitch black. I just had my bow and I didn’t bring a backpack or anything, because it was a really quick hunt after work right by home. And I ran into a pack of eight wolves. And three of them decided to rush right up on me and they were like, five feet from me for a mile when I was trying to get back to my truck. And they kept rushing me trying to get me to run.  

Wow.

Eventually I got back to the truck. I think it was the young ones that didn’t know any better—like, the yearlings. And I had elk urine on my boots and stuff, so they were pretty excited and pretty interested in what I was.  

Did you have to work to maintain your cool there?

Well when they first rushed me, I almost took off running. But I managed to stop myself from running, and I almost passed out. It felt like pins were pricking me all over my head and my hands. I think I almost passed out when I realized they were wolves because it was dark, and I could just see shadows. I thought they were deer. So when they took off running, I thought they were running away from me. And then I realized they were running towards me. It wasn’t until they got about ten feet away that, all of the sudden, the shadows turned to wolves. And that one second was pretty freaky.  

Wow… That’s just…awesome.  

Yeah. (chuckle)

Any parting advice for aspiring biologists, or people who might be interested in this line of work?  

If you really like being outside—and as a kid, I was always outside in the forest chasing after deer and just being outside exploring. Forestry is really high up there in terms of just the amount of time you’re able to spend out in the bush. And on a personal level, it’s really good for a person like me, to be out there. It’s good for your mental health and keeps you grounded and keeps you happy. It just keeps you in touch with the real world. The fact that—what a difficult life animals have trying to survive day to day, it helps put things into perspective of how easy people have it generally in comparison, and makes everyday problems seem pretty trivial. Also, don’t be afraid to get a wide variety of experiences and jobs that will help you find what you like or don’t like, so you can choose what you want to do in the long term.

For more information contact:
Kerry Patterson-Baker
Vice President, Communications and Public Affairs
kpatterson-baker@fpac.ca
(613) 563-1441 x 314
Follow FPAC on Twitter: @FPAC_APFC
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