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Posted: September 26, 2021

The science and art of forestry

Letter to the Editor

As we celebrate Canada’s National Forest Week, it’s time to reflect on the sector’s importance to the people of British Columbia.

This year’s theme, Our Forests – Continually Giving, reinforces how forests are at the heart of our identity here in B.C. They are essential to a healthy environment and provide good jobs to tens of thousands of British Columbians so they can support their families.

As British Columbia’s chief forester, I’d like to highlight how we’re managing B.C. forests. This year, our goal was to plant another 300 million seedlings throughout British Columbia, with the safety of our workers and the surrounding communities being our highest priority. We accomplished that.

During the 2020 tree-planting season, almost 6,000 tree planters safely and successfully planted a record number of trees – more than 300 million – during a global pandemic. The advice of Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and the diligence of tree-planting contractors and crews who worked in unprecedented conditions ensured the safety of the tree planters themselves, as well as rural First Nations and communities.

Our approach to tree planting is based on science, just like everything we do to manage forests in this province. B.C. is renowned for its commitment to prompt, science-based reforestation, as it is an important step to ensure sustainable forest management, address climate change and the rehabilitation of areas devastated by wildfires.

Forestry has been my passion for many years, because I know forests are much more than just trees. They are fascinating clusters of organisms that provide so much to our society, not only for the products we need for our daily lives, but also for their beauty, their contribution to cleaning our air and for supplying us with clean water and places of cultural significance. Forests are integral to our collective history.

In my role, I have been tasked with guiding forestry for the province through the “hangover” of the mountain-pine beetle epidemic, the catastrophic wildfires of 2017 and 2018, and the increasing effects of climate change. We have come from a time when we thought of our forests as a places of abundance, to a more modern awareness that forests are a finite resource. This is not because forests are not renewable. They are the most resilient and renewable natural resource we have. However, they are finite in the sense that the land they occupy is limited and there are many encroaching elements affecting their health.

We are in times of change. I see that reflected not only in our forests, but in how we talk about them. When I started in the forest sector more than 30 years ago, no one was talking about climate change. No one was talking about the possibility of creating biodegradable plastics from tree biomass. The idea of providing wood for rural areas to replace diesel fuel heating wasn’t in the cards, and there was definitely no thought given to carbon management. Now, all of the above is happening, and so much more.

Essentially, my job as chief forester is to care for B.C.’s forests for today and the future. It’s a delicate balance. Many British Columbians are looking to keep forests pristine to ensure culturally significant areas remain wild and ecosystems are preserved. However, others see the forest as a “working” forest to support their livelihood.

As B.C. comes to terms with a changing wood supply as a result of the various factors I’ve mentioned, we need to be open to new ways of doing things. Our work is constantly evolving in response to new knowledge, while respecting the traditional Indigenous understanding of forest management.

Sound forest management is our best tool for enhancing wildlife habitat, ensuring clean water, contributing to carbon sequestration and providing us with products and other ecosystem benefits. Our forests are changing, and we need to think about what those changes mean to the diverse needs of the forest.

Forest management needs to be science-based: biology, chemistry and mathematics, as well as ecology and silviculture. But it’s also an art. While science guides the decisions I make, there are times when I must consider conflicting interests and opinions in my decision-making. That is the art of forestry, where my team and I collaborate with Indigenous peoples and use our collective experience and judgment to chart the path forward.

Planting trees. Protecting old growth while protecting forestry jobs. Taking action on climate change and helping to prevent wildfires. These are complex goals, but we are up to the challenge.

Diane Nicholls,
Chief Forester of B.C.

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