Responding to climate change: Reinventing forestry practices in British Columbia

The problem is not coming – it's already here. Writer David Jordan took an in-depth look at how British Columbia researchers have been tackling threats to forest health.

Forestry remains a cornerstone of the B.C. economy, even though its relative contribution to the provincial economy has slipped in recent years. In 2013, forest-resource industries accounted for $11.6 billion in exports (35 per cent of total B.C. exports, compared to 48.6 per cent in 2004); they employed 59,000 people (compared to 79,000 in 2004), and accounted for $675 million in provincial government revenue (compared to $1.4 billion in 2004).

Forestry is a notoriously cyclical industry, and a large part of its reinvention in recent years was attributed to political and economic conditions beyond the control of government or industry, particularly declining demand from U.S. home builders, and declining global demand for paper products. Though new markets are being developed in Asia, other challenges will continue.

Natural disasters such as wildfires and pest infestations have also long been recognized as cyclical forces that impact the forest industry. Industry experts, however, are increasingly concerned about one environmental influence that cannot be dismissed as transient: Climate change has been widely acknowledged as responsible for recent pest infestations and catastrophic wildfires in B.C. One forest ministry report noted:

“After several decades of debate, there is now abundant scientific evidence that global climate change is a reality…. We are starting to see evidence of climate change on the ground, such as … increased wildfire frequency, length, and intensity; and increased survival and expansion of forest pests."

The authors stated that not only are the effects of climate change on B.C. forests now undeniable, but those effects will rapidly accelerate:

“Over the next 100 years, the rate of climate warming is expected to accelerate. While the global warming trend over the last century was around 0.6°C on average, scientists have predicted that British Columbia’s climate will warm by somewhere between 1-4°C from 2000 to 2100.”[1]

Between 2000 and 2013, B.C. lost 18.6 million hectares of forest to the mountain pine beetle. Natural Resources Canada estimates that by the time the infestation subsides, in 2017, the province will have lost 750 million cubic metres of timber that would otherwise have been sold on commercial markets. That works out to 58 per cent of the province’s inventory of merchantable pine lost to the mountain pine beetle.

A 2009 article co-authored by two B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO) scientists attributes the rising incidence of pest infestation to climate change, saying the rate of warming is outpacing the ability of native tree species to adapt:

Pest and disease problems may be exacerbated as the climate changes, with trees finding themselves exposed to new pests to which they have little or no resistance. [2]

Added to the anticipated increase in pest infestation is an increased risk of wildfire. Wildfires burned 330,000 hectares of B.C. forest in 2014. That’s not a record—855,000 hectares burned in 1958. However 1958, and several years since then, were anomalies, one-year spikes typically resulting from a rare convergence of high temperatures, low rainfall and high winds. Wildfire experts are more concerned by a pattern in recent years: since 2002, every year has surpassed annual averages dating back to 1971, and three of those recent years came close to surpassing the most recent anomalous spike in wildfires, 1982, when 349,000 hectares of B.C. forest were lost to fire.

“We’ve been aware the climate change is not just coming; it’s here,” says Lyle Gawalko, who manages wildfires for the Wildfire Management branch of MFLNRO. And it’s not just the pattern of ever-bigger fires that concerns Gawalko; it’s the increasing intensity and rate of spread of the fires themselves. “Our crews are seeing fire behaviour they’ve never seen before,” he notes. The wildfire season of 2017 has already provided ample evidence that these fears are well founded.

Private companies and government policy-makers alike are scrambling to manage B.C.’s forests in response to the increased threats resulting from climate change. Not only will planners have to mitigate the effect of increasingly destructive and persistent natural forces such as draught, disease and pest infestation, but all those who work in the industry must now rethink how they do their jobs. From the professional foresters who draw up our reforestation plans, to the nurseries that grow the seedlings and those who plant the seedlings in the wild, to the loggers who will ultimately harvest the trees, B.C.’s traditionally conservative forest industry is reinventing itself at an unprecedented pace.



It’s impossible to talk about forestry planning, management and operations in B.C. without talking about government. B.C. is unique in the developed world not only in the abundance of its forest resource, but in the extent of public ownership of that resource: 95 per cent of B.C.’s land mass is publicly owned, which means that almost all of the province’s forests are managed by the provincial government on behalf of the residents of B.C. Fifty-five million hectares of the province’s 95-million-hectare land mass are forest land, and of that area, 22 million hectares are considered suitable for timber harvesting. About 200,000 hectares are harvested every year.

The Forest and Range Practices Act and related regulations designate the Province as the steward of public forest lands on behalf of the people of B.C., and specifies that the government is responsible not only for caring for the province’s trees, but for doing it in a way that safeguards such values as cultural heritage, biodiversity and water quality.

The Province grants companies, individuals and other legal entities including communities and First Nations the right to harvest timber through a variety of licenses. Most license holders must submit a stewardship plan before they cut down any trees, specifying how their operations will meet the values that the Province is entrusted with safeguarding. Most license holders have to pay annual rent to the government, based on the size of the area covered by their license, and must also pay a fee, known as stumpage, for every cubic metre of wood harvested. Most licenses to harvest timber on Crown land also include an obligation to replant harvested land, with reforestation plans subject to government approval.

The Province’s chief forester is responsible for determining how much timber can be harvested from Crown land in a given year. In recent years, about 200,000 hectares have been harvested annually, averaging about 80,000 cubic metres of wood. (In 2013, 77.4 cubic metres were harvested.)

While compulsory replanting approximately replaces the area of forest land harvested every year, reforestation in areas affected by fire, disease and pests falls outside the private-sector’s reforestation responsibility. In 2012, for example, 189,000 hectares of timber were harvested, and a total of 171,000 hectares were planted. Another 111,645 hectares were lost to wildfire and another 3,016,228 hectares were lost to the mountain pine beetle. As part of its mandate to manage the province’s timber resource, the provincial government takes responsibility for reforestation in areas that fall outside of obligatory reforestation tied to harvest licenses.

Not all the forest land lost to natural causes is productive forest land, and some of it will be replaced through natural seed dispersal and germination, but even without the extraordinary losses to pests and wildfire of recent years, natural forces can’t be counted on to maintain the province’s timber inventory indefinitely.

In response to extraordinary loss of forests to wildfires and the beetle infestation, in 2005 MFLNRO created an agency to handle its tree planting operations: Forests for Tomorrow now has responsibility for all the planting not covered by timber-harvest license obligations. Forests for Tomorrow currently plants approximately 20 million seedlings a year, and with a projected increase in funding, it expects that number to rise to 28 million seedlings a year. Since its formation, Forests for Tomorrow has reforested 100,000 hectares, and it plans to plant an additional 300,000 hectares over the next 15 years.



Seed_Ctr_Seed_Handling-8.5x11.jpgIn addition to deciding how many trees can be cut down every year, the chief forester determines how many will be planted every year, and is responsible for establishing standards for seed quality. Approximately 200 million seedlings are planted on B.C. Crown land annually, and every one of those seedlings passes through MFLNRO’s Tree Seed Centre in Surrey, where the seeds are processed, stored and catalogued. The 3,600 square-metre facility is the starting point in fulfilling the government’s mandate as steward of the province’s forest resource.

About 100,000 hectolitres of cones arrive at the seed centre every year. (Although some non-coniferous trees, such as alder, aspen and birch, are planted on B.C. forest land every year, these account for about one-tenth of one per cent of total annual planting; almost all reforestation planting involves coniferous species such as lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar.) The cones arriving at the seed centre come increasingly from tree orchards managed specifically for seed production; today approximately 65 to 70 per cent of cones arriving at the seed centre come from orchards. While not all seed orchards are publicly owned, the Province manages 40 orchards, and all orchards producing seeds for planting on Crown land must be registered with MFLNRO.

Seed_Ctr_160.JPGUpon arrival at the Seed Centre, each seed lot is tagged with a registration number that enables the tracking of the seed from collection to mature tree. Data encoded in the registration number include details of where the seed was collected and when, the results of test data conducted during processing at the seed centre, and ultimately, when and where the seed is planted and how the tree fares during its growth. The registration data are maintained through the electronic Seed Planning and Registration system (SPAR), which is available online to foresters throughout the province.

After initial sorting, tagging and storage in outdoor cone sheds, the cones are moved indoors and placed in a kiln, where heat causes the cones to open. From there, the cones proceed to an extractor—a giant tumbler where seeds are shaken loose from the cones. The seeds then move, via conveyor belt, along a series of shaker tables, separating them from ever-finer levels of foreign material. After this initial cleaning, seeds pass through a final round of cleaning and drying, then move into the laboratory, where samples from each batch are tested for purity, moisture content and germination rate. Sample seeds from each batch are also X-rayed, with the X-rays remaining on file for future reference.

Seed_Ctr_P1010282.JPGFinally, the cleaned, dried and tested seeds are moved into a secure vault, where they can be stored at a constant temperature of -18 degrees Celsius; seeds that have been in storage for up to 50 years still show high rates of germination. When it comes time to ship them to a nursery, the seeds are thawed and soaked to “reawaken” them from their dormant state, and shipped to nurseries at between two and five degrees Celsius.

While the provincial government once owned tree nurseries throughout B.C., it sold its nurseries to the private sector in the 1980s. In 1988 former ministry employees bought six of the Province’s nurseries and today the resulting company, PRT Growing Services Ltd., is one of the biggest forest seedling nurseries in North America, with 13 nurseries: eight nurseries in B.C., four in other provinces and one in the U.S.

In addition to providing the province’s tree nurseries, the Seed Centre serves as a genetic bank, storing representative seeds of the province’s indigenous species. The seed bank’s primary role is to ensure the continued genetic diversity present in each species. Collections may also be made available for research purposes. The seed bank currently holds about 9,000 seed samples and that number is growing every year.



Making better use of a threatened timber resource starts with efficient planning of on-the-ground operations, and the private sector has a big role to play in this area. Drawing up forest-operation plans is occasionally done by the major corporations that account for the bulk of forestry work done in the province, but more often planning is contracted out to private consulting firms.

In B.C., a number of laws and regulations, including the Forest and Range Practices Act and the Forest Practices Code of B.C. Act, require that a comprehensive plan be drawn up and approved by MFLNRO before any logging or silviculture can proceed on Crown land. Responsibility for drawing up forest land-use plans falls to the province’s 5,300 registered professional foresters and registered forest technologists, whose accreditation is overseen by the B.C. Association of Professional Foresters, which in turn is governed by the Foresters Act.

While the province’s sawmills and pulp plants continually invest in upgrading their equipment to remain competitive in global markets, on-the-ground operations in B.C. have traditionally been slow to change: planning and carrying out surveying, planning and planting and harvesting operations has for generations involved sending crews of workers to remote locations for weeks and months at a time. That is quickly changing, however.

“The digital age is coming to forestry,” notes Steve Platt, a registered forest technologist with Strategic Natural Resource Consultants Inc., headquartered in Port McNeill. Historically, Platt explains, drawing up a forest management plan would start with sending crews into the bush with surveying equipment to map the terrain, assess the ecosystem, and measure the variety and volume of timber. Twenty years ago, surveying a cut block in preparation for drawing up a harvest plan would begin with a team of surveyors whacking their way through the bush, pausing every few metres to consult paper maps. The more detail required, the bigger the map: precise details of elevation and topography would require a wall-sized map.

Today those paper maps have been replaced by digital files. Strategic Natural Resource Consultants, for example, has an inventory of 50 iPads, which it supplies to its field workers. “It still looks like a map,” explains Platt, “but I’ll see a blue dot—that’s where I am—and I might see that 10 metres to my right there’s a four-metre bluff, a knob of rock.” That level of detail, he says, would have been impossible with a paper field map.

Highly detailed digital images are only the end result of a far more disruptive development in forestry planning, one that day soon eliminate the need to send those crews into the forest at all. A technology commonly referred to as LiDar brings big data to forestry planning. The term’s origin is open to debate: some believe it’s an acronym for “light detection and ranging” (just as radar is derived from “radio detection and ranging”), while others believe the term is simply an amalgamation of “light” and “radar.” Platt explains that a more precise term would be “aerial laser scanning.” 

LiDAR_Profile2.JPGpost-image.jpgAerial laser scanning is a remote-sensing technology that measures scattered light; it works by sending out a laser pulse from an aircraft and measuring the return of reflected light to a sensor. Each emitted pulse of light may be partially reflected before it hits the ground, resulting in multiple pulses returning to the sensor. For example, one pulse might be partially reflected by a leaf, while the remainder of the pulse continues to the earth’s surface. The receiving sensor factors in GPS coordinates while also compensating for the elevation, pitch and roll of the plane to produce an enormously rich data set that can be used to produce stunningly detailed 3D images of the forest and its underlying terrain like the examples above.

The cost of aerial laser scanning varies depending on the level of detail required; for example, a scan emitting one or two light pulses per square metre will be less expensive than one emitting 10 or 15 pulses per square metre. The volume of recorded data grows exponentially in relation to the number of emitted pulses, which means the cost of processing all that data will also increase.

Aerial laser scanning technology is not new; it has been used for decades, but primarily in the utility and energy industries, where huge capital projects typically justify the added expense. Those industries are typically interested only in mapping the earth’s surface in order to plan pipeline or power-line right of way routes. Steve Platt explains that he had been conducting this kind of aerial survey since 2007 when had an epiphany about two years ago: all the data that was typically discarded as “noise”—the light pulses deflected by vegetation—would be invaluable to forestry planners.

While cost has so far deterred widespread adoption of Aerial laser scanning technology in forestry planning, Platt points to one project in a particularly remote and difficult terrain where efficiencies resulting from using aerial laser scanning covered the cost of the technology.

In the summer of 2013, B.C. Timber Sales contracted Strategic Natural  Resource Consultants to survey a 450-hectare block of timber on the northern tip of Vancouver Island and draw up plans for a timber harvest. Strategic Natural Resource Consultants was able to engineer a 27.5 km road on the site entirely from its offices, without sending a single worker into the field. Ordinarily, this would have required a team of two on the ground, surveying about 2 km of roadway a day, requiring about 60 person-field days, at an average cost of about $500 per day per person (including transportation and accommodation).

Aerial laser scanning does have limitations. For example, it cannot be used to precisely survey timber inventory because while it can determine the height of trees to within a metre, it cannot accurately determine species. (Platt notes, however, that a skilled reader of the data can make a good educated guess for planning purposes.) With the current technology, assessing tree diameter from aerial laser scanning data—and therefore timber volume of a given area—is also as much an art as a science. For the Vancouver Island project, Strategic Natural Resource Consultants performed a preliminary assessment using aerial laser scanning data at its offices, but still had to send foresters to the area to confirm details of the timber inventory. Nevertheless, the company estimates that the preliminary work done using aerial laser scanning data saved another 60 field person days.

Add to that another seven field days saved by using aerial laser scanning data to map topographic contours, and Strategic Natural Resource Consultants estimates it saved a total of 127 person field days on the project, or approximately $63,500. Other savings are less easily quantifiable: for instance, the fact that the client retains the detail-rich aerial laser scanning data, which can be analyzed for further applications as the project proceeds.

Strategic Natural Resource Consultants is a pioneer in adapting aerial laser scanning, or LiDar, to forestry planning, but the technology is quickly gaining more widespread acceptance among forestry planners, and the technology improves it will become both more precise and more affordable. This innovation in the private sector is rapidly upending generations-old practices in on-the-ground forestry operations.



Forestry planners have acknowledged for more than a decade that B.C.’s climate is warming faster than the province’s trees can adapt. The solution, however, is not as simple as the wholesale replacement of the province’s indigenous species with trees better adapted to warmer climates.

Section 31 of the Forest and Range Practices Act requires that forest professionals comply with specifications for seed use laid out by the Province’s chief forester, and these specifications have traditionally limited the transfer of seeds from one location to another by specifying elevations and geographic regions where specific species can be planted. These proscriptions are based on the fact long established by genetic studies that tree populations generally perform poorly when taken out of their native habitat.

In response to unprecedented climate change, the chief forester in recent years has relaxed restrictions on planting species outside of their native habitat. As described by MFLNRO, adopting a practice called “assisted migration” means that “generally, seed sources are moved northward, and upward in elevation, in a manner that mimics recent observed climate change and expected shifts in climate over the next few decades.”

However, scientists are increasingly concerned that this practice of shifting boundaries of defined geographic zones by a few degrees of longitude or latitude will not respond to anticipated changes in B.C.’s climate fast enough. As a result, in 2012 MFLNRO launched what it calls the Climate-Based Seed Transfer project. The goal, as specified in the project charter, is “to transition from the current geographically-based seed transfer system to one that is climate-based.”

The project charter clearly acknowledges the economic imperative behind forging a comprehensive response to the impact of climate change on B.C.’s timber resource:

“Climate change is expected to result in forests becoming increasingly maladapted in many regions as the climates they will be growing in … diverge from the climates in which they evolved…. This problem will intensify over time as climate-change impacts increase, resulting in losses of economic activity and jobs, losses in environmental services … and increasing costs to the public.”

The Climate-Based Seed Transfer project is still in the first of four planned stages. The goal of this preliminary stage is to provide a scientific foundation for climate-based reforestation decisions and the ensuing implementation of those decisions. The project’s charter lays out an aggressive timeline, with the transition to a climate-based planting program to be completed within five to ten years of the projects inception, or by 2022 at the latest.

One important part of this preliminary research phase is a project headed by UBC forestry professor Sally Aitken, dubbed “Assessing the Adaptive Portfolio of Reforestation Stocks for Future Climates.” As Aitken points out, the project’s planners wanted to make it clear that this is no mere theoretical exercise, but has clear economic implications. Reference to the province’s “portfolio” of  “reforestation stocks,” she says, is intended to draw a parallel with a diversified investment portfolio, suggesting that “when you have different genetic strains, the diversity buffers catastrophic ups and downs.” 

The $4.7-million, two-year project was funded primarily by Genome Canada and Genome B.C., with additional funding provided by MFLNRO, UBC and others. The research project targeted two key species in B.C. and Alberta: spruce and lodgepole pine. The harvest volume of the two species is expected to decline between 10 and 35 per cent this century due to climate change. Aitken explains that according to a very preliminary economic analysis done in a related study, “If you assume that you can offset those losses by five to twenty per cent by getting the right trees in the right places, that would have an annual impact of $23 million to $363 million.” Projecting 125 years into the future, she says, that would mean reducing projected losses due to climate change by somewhere between $1.2 billion and $20 billion.

The Province’s seed selection criteria have always had a genetic component, for example singling out trees exhibiting genes responsible for desirable traits such as tree height and diameter. Aitken’s research aims to redefine the criteria by identifying genes responsible for specific climate-related characteristics, such as resistance to draught or thriving in the cold. “We need to move to a whole new system, where we think about moving things from one climate to another, rather than this many degrees of latitude or this many degrees of elevation,” Aitken explains.

Aitken is quick to point out that the research has nothing to do with genetic modification, or splicing genes. The goal is to use genomics, or DNA sequencing, to better understand how trees adapt to climate, and to find existing populations of lodgepole pine that may have adapted to specific climate conditions. Aitken and her team have collected samples from lodgepole pine trees ranging from the Yukon to Baja California in an attempt to identify specific climate-related genetic markers. They may find, for example, that a particular genetic marker tends to be found in tree populations that have adapted to a warmer climate, while another marker is prevalent in those growing in colder climates. In this simplified example, there may, in other words, be a warm allele and a cold allele.

The goal is not to transport seeds wholesale from warmer climates to colder, but rather to see if, for example, those warm alleles might already be present at low frequency in a cold region that is expected to get warmer, then to propagate trees in that zone bearing those genetic markers.

To date, Aitken’s team have analyzed samples from between 500 and 600 trees each of spruce and lodgepole pine, sequencing genes for between 8 million and 10 million genetic markers. The next step is to narrow those millions of genetic markers down to 50,000 that look most likely to correlate with such climate-related traits as heat stress or draught stress. Then the researchers will return to the field, sampling further thousands of trees in an attempt to validate whether the isolated genes do indeed correlate with specific climatic conditions. The research is expected to conclude in summer 2015.



The numbers are stark: while current replanting programs account only for the approximately 200,000 hectares lost to logging annually, since 2000, B.C. has lost 18.6 million hectares of forest land to the mountain pine beetle, and over the past ten years it has lost, on average, an additional 135,000 hectares annually to forest fire. While not all of the trees lost to pests and fire are commercially viable forest land, and some of that land will be naturally regenerated, there’s no denying that B.C. is losing its timber resource faster than it can be replaced, and the rate of loss is expected to increase in coming years—and not gradually, but exponentially.

MFLNRO has responded with multiple initiatives, including the creation of Forests for Tomorrow, an agency tasked with implementing accelerated reforestation efforts, and an increase in silviculture and reforestation funding of approximately $10 million a year—funding reforestation of approximately an additional 20,000 hectares annually. Other ministry efforts include altering prescribed planting zones to account for a warming climate, and “assisted migration” trials aimed at speeding up nature’s adaptation to a warming climate.

But clearly what’s needed goes far beyond the creation of another government agency or action plan, or another line item on an annual budget. What’s needed is a wholesale reinvention of a practices that have changed little through generations of forestry in B.C.

Private industry is responding by aggressively adapting new technologies to forestry planning, which will make more efficient use of an increasingly limited resource. Academic research shows great promise in the application of genomics to ensuring that the forests of tomorrow will be more resistant to the effects of climate change.

It’s too early to tell whether these efforts to reinvent forestry practices in B.C. will respond quickly enough to the effects of climate change, but there is cause for optimism, given that government, industry and academic researchers have mobilized with unprecedented speed to reinvent forestry practices in B.C.

Copyright Resource Works Society 2017



[1] “Assisted Migration: Adapting Forest Management To A Changing Climate,” Susan March Leech, Pedro Lara Almuedo, Greg O’Neill; B.C. Journal of Ecosystems and Management, Vol. 12, No 3 (Nov. 22, 2011). (Greg O’Neill is a MFLNRO research scientist, based in Vernon)

[2] “Adapting to Adaptation: Assisted Migration Addressed Climate Change,” Nicholas Ukrainetz and Greg O’Nelll, B.C. Forest Professional, May-June 2009]

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