March 2007 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
THE LAST WORD
Ecosystem restoration: seeing the BIG picture
By Jim Sterling
Fire and forestry are entwined in a volatile relationship. For decades the forest industry has declared war on forest wild fires. It has become exceptionally good at fighting them. The old villain hasn’t been vanquished, but it has been kept in its place and controlled significantly from its historic levels.
But one meddles with Mother Nature only at one’s peril. There’s always a reaction, or a consequence, that may not become apparent for years, given the slow growth cycle of trees in most parts of Canada.
A classic example is British Columbia’s mountain pine beetle epidemic that’s now crossed the Rockies and is threatening Alberta’s forests. Curtailing natural wild fire occurrences created huge tracts of mature and overmature pine forests. Add in successive years of mild temperatures conducive to beetle population growth and the perfect storm scenario was set for the out-of-control epidemic that’s now in full force.
The result of this will continue to be the evolution of a very different forest landscape. And, in typically ironic fashion, it will be a landscape upon which fire seems destined to play a crucial role in risk abatement and habitat renewal. How to best manage this changed landscape and what it will support is looming as a major challenge. But it doesn’t represent uncharted territory.
A glimpse into the future possibilities of large-scale ecosystem restoration in BC was presented recently at the Western Silvicultural Contractor’s Association annual conference and trade show in Prince George. The view was delivered by Greg Anderson, the province’s ecosystem restoration manager with the Ministry of Forests and Range. Anderson pointed out ecosystem restoration is more than just focusing on trees. “It’s economic; it’s social; it’s ecological; it’s cultural.”
Which is to say it requires examining the big picture.
That mindset fits well with many observers, from grassroots community groups to academics wrestling with what can be reasonably expected in a post-pine beetle epidemic landscape that shows every indication of being warmer and drier than in the past.
Anderson offered two other pivotal observations regarding ecosystem restoration. You’ve got to know what you want to achieve, what the landscape will look like and what values it will have and be likely to maintain. And secondly, don’t dilly-dally around with the concept: Make a commitment to it or steer clear.
Anderson says to do those things you must have a sustainable plan and a strategy for its long-term maintenance. Good, demonstrable planning provides not only a practical roadmap to achieve objectives, it’s also a useful tool to help open the coffers of non governmental funding sources, notes Anderson.
On the subject of funding, in 2006 the BC government committed $2 million to restoration work in two dry ecosystem areas: the Rocky Mountain Forest District in the East Kootenays and the Central Cariboo district around Williams Lake. The basic idea is to restore the landscape more to what it was or believed to have been pre-European settlement. That includes unlocking stagnant, even aged stands, resulting in part from more efficient wild fire fighting. The process requires navigation through a variety of issues. These surround forest health (including, of course, beetle epidemics); losses of wildlife habitats; grasslands and recreational opportunities; and the build-up of fuels in forests abutting communities.
Dozens of BC communities have reasons to be twitchy about urban wood fuel build-ups after the Kelowna tinderbox experiences of 2003.
Anderson says there’s a whole suite of ecosystem restoration treatments available, depending on objectives. A harvesting pass of some prescription is required and should preferably be done in winter when there’s less ground impact.
What was done in a site in the Rocky Mountain trench was to leave nonuniform clumps of trees interspersed with more open areas. After harvesting, using everything from conventional systems to horse logging, slashing, spacing, piling and burning may typically follow. Anderson says prescribed burning returns nutrients to the site and is cost effective. But clearly, the practice is not without its risks. There’s no room for error when working close to houses and other property, he cautions.
It places a premium on experienced burn bosses. And they’re in short supply, echoing the lament for skilled, trained people in all sectors of the forest industry. Anderson advises careful monitoring of the treatment prescriptions chosen and tweaking where and when appropriate.
He says foresters in other districts are paying more attention to the ecosystem restoration concept and how it can be molded to suit circumstances within their forest lands. Indeed, he notes, the bloom is on the ecosystem restoration flower in a growing number of jurisdictions across North America.
But the successful projects will be the well-planned and monitored ones. And those whose managers are willing to make a friend of a foe with site specific and judicious use of fire.
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Monday, August 06, 2007