Category Archives: Species & Ecosystems

Wildfires and climate change: seeking the facts through the haze

by Stan Hirst

Living under smoky skies every day is an uncommon experience for Vancouverites. The TV spectacle of thousands of people having to evacuate their homes and ranches in the interior of British Columbia as threatening forest fires advance is not so unfamiliar. Just one year ago we watched over 88,000 people leaving their homes in Fort McMurray as wildfires swept through nearly 600,000 hectares in northern Alberta. This year nearly 500,000 hectares have burned within B.C., 75% of those in the Cariboo region and another 25% around Kamloops.

It was probably inevitable that the conversation would switch easily to global climate change and its connection to the wildfire blight. For many people and most Suzuki Elders the link between wildfires and climate change is taken as a given. The linkage is now commonly quoted in the press, in current literature and in conversations. The same theme of wildfires becoming ever more frequent as the world warms appears often in the media for western Canada, the western U.S.A., Australia, Portugal and parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

Yet the sceptics remain unmoved and say so through social media. “Fires have always been a feature of forests and rangelands in North America” they say. They point to history books abounding with descriptions of massive fires, some deliberately set, but many linked to natural causes, especially lightning.

It’s not uncommon to find fire scars in centuries-old trees such as sequoias and western junipers across western North America. Studies of lake sediments have found wood charcoal layers which can be dated back for thousands of years. Early researchers attributed these historic fires to lightning strikes, but studies in the past few decades indicate that they may also have resulted from deliberate burning by aboriginals to keep forests free of undergrowth and small trees.

The specific question is not whether wildfires are a natural feature of North American forests or not, but whether global climate change is prompting an increase in wildfires. By being overly simplistic about the two parts of the equation (climate change and fire) we could obscure the underlying linkages between the two and possibly mistake the causalities.

I find it helpful to break the subject matter into simpler relationships (dissecting the argument always helps in winning arguments anyway).

First, the question of a changing climate. This is the easy part; the answers are unequivocally yes. Temperature trends summarized by Environment Canada for the period 1948 through 2012 show statistically highly significant rises across most of Canada. Mean increases range from 0.5 to 3oC, with the highest numbers occurring in the arctic and subarctic regions. Mean ambient temperatures in the Pacific region of B.C. rose 0.7 oC over the same period and 1.2oC in the mountainous areas of southern B.C.

There are also statistically significant changes in geophysical and ecological parameters which are driven by ambient temperatures:

  • longer growing seasons, more heat waves and fewer cold spells, thawing permafrost;
  • earlier river ice break-up;
  • increase in precipitation over large parts of Canada;
  • more snowfall in the northwest Arctic;
  • earlier spring runoff and the earlier budding of trees.

Indigenous people of the Arctic are no longer able to predict the weather as accurately as their forefathers did (cited by the Society for Ecological Restoration).

Have wildfires increased significantly in B.C. over the same period? This brings us to the realization that fires can be measured by more than one parameter, i.e. the frequency with which they occur, the area which is burned over, the costs of fire damage, suppression and management, etc. Any, all or none could be linked to climate change.

Three measures of wildfire activity in B.C. are available from the B.C. government website. These are all shown below for the twelve most recent years.

 

The broad conclusions from these data are that while the annual frequency of wildfires across B.C. has dropped by roughly one-half over little more than a decade, the areal extent of wildfires for the same period has increased six-fold and the associated costs of dealing with the fires has increased twelve-fold.

These results are very similar to those reported in the western U.S. for recent years. University researchers and federal and state forest agencies in California have linked the occurrence of more widespread, bigger, longer-lasting wildfires to higher ambient temperatures and less or later snowfall. They have also indicted past practices of aggressively preventing fires as having had the perverse effect of creating much more fuel within forests themselves to feed future wildfires. The average California wildfire in the 2000s was double the size and burned twice as long as the average fire in the 1990s. Escalating fire-associated costs have also been linked to higher levels of damage as more homes are built on picturesque hillsides and mountains and other areas prone to wildfire.

A recently published study from the University of Idaho has neatly linked wildfires in western forests to human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change. The research group has quantitatively examined the statistical relationship between the essential requirements for wildfires (fuel availability, fuel aridity, etc.) to climate variables such as ambient temperature and vapour pressure which are changed by human activities such as increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The university research group concluded that for the period 2000–2015 climate change contributed to 75% more forested area across the western U.S. experiencing high fire-season fuel aridity. It also added an average of nine additional days per year of very high fire potential. Anthropogenic climate changes were calculated to have accounted for ∼55% of observed increases in forest fire fuel aridity from 1979 to 2015 across western US forests.

Hopefully this all adds a little more fuel to the fire in a quest to hasten meaningful climate action in B.C. and the rest of the reasonable world.

 

 

 

Extinction is forever

The Living Planet Report 2016 – risk and resilience in the new era

by Stan Hirst

4ff8753daf761f70af20b5e0c0ed9b0cExtinction is one of those words in the English language which seem distant and not particularly relevant to anything until you grasp the context. For me the significance of the term came on a hot summer day more than 60 years ago when my high school class shuffled obediently through the musty halls of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, South Africa.  We stopped in front of one ancient cupboard from which the museum guide brought forth a yellowing and battered skull, no jawbone attached.  It looked like a horse or a donkey, but Mr Naudé proudly advised it was the skull of a quagga which had once roamed the barren plains of the Karoo. We were sombrely reminded that the quagga had been extinct since 1885.

Gone forever, extinct not just in the Karoo or just in southern Africa, but everywhere in the world. Hunted to extinction because they were considered by farmers to be expendable and a damned nuisance, competitors with their sheep and cattle for scarce grazing, and good for nothing except maybe for the hides which made passable thongs for stock whips.

Extinction seemed profound to me at the time but it has always been passé for Earth. Over the past 500 million years there have been five major periods of mass earth wide extinctions, each one linked to profound changes in climate.  The Cretaceous mass extinction 65 million years ago is famously associated with the demise of the dinosaurs. Virtually no large land animals survived, while plants were greatly affected and tropical marine life decimated.

Now we’re well into the sixth extinction which has garnered the name Anthropocene extinction because of the strong causal links to human activity.  At least 875 extinctions of whole families of plants and animals  – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods – have been documented to date by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  The rate of extinction has been roughly estimated at something like 140,000 species per year, making it the greatest loss of biodiversity since the Cretaceous extinctions.

lpr-coverScientists have been warning for decades that human actions are pushing life toward a sixth mass extinction, and more evidence comes from the recent 2016 Living Planet Report. This report documents how wildlife populations have declined, on average, by 67 per cent over the past decade, mainly the result of rampant poaching and wildlife trafficking.

The Anthropocene climate is changing rapidly, oceans are acidifying and entire biomes are disappearing – all at rates measurable during a single human lifetime. The future of many living organisms is now in question. Not only are wild plants and animals at risk, we ourselves are now the victims of the deteriorating state of nature. Climate and other predictive models indicate that, without decisive action, the Earth is on its way to becoming considerably less hospitable to modern globalized society.

global-living-planet-indexThe Living Planet Index (LPI) is a measure of biodiversity.  It draws on population data from 14,000 monitored populations of 3,700 vertebrate species (mammals, birds, fishes, amphibians, reptiles) around the world and then calculates an average change in abundance over time.  From 1970 to 2012 the LPI showed a 58 per cent overall decline in vertebrate population abundance. That means that global vertebrate populations have, on average, dropped by more than 50% in little more than 40 years.

Five threats show up consistently as the causes of wildlife population declines:

comp-fig

The most common threat to declining terrestrial populations is the loss and degradation of habitat, followed by overexploitation by humans. For marine species overexploitation is the main impacting factor, followed by loss and degradation of marine habitats.

wordl-populationWe have strained the limits of natural resilience all the way to the planetary level. The world’s population has grown from about 1.6 billion people in 1900 to today’s 7.3 billion.

In the early 1900s an industrial method was developed for fixing nitrogen into ammonia; the resulting synthetic fertilizers now sustain more than half of the world’s population, but at the same time causing massive pollution of air, water and soils. Fossil fuels incur tremendous costs in terms of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations and resultant global climate change. (Figure C)

Since the early 1970s we have been demanding much more than the planet can sustainably provide. By 2012, the biocapacity equivalent of 1.6 Earths was needed to provide the natural resources and services we humans consumed in that year. Exceeding the Earth’s biocapacity to such a degree is simply not possible in the long term. We cannot cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than the oceans can replenish, or emit more carbon into the atmosphere than the forests and oceans can absorb. The consequences of this “overshoot” are already abundantly clear everywhere.

How can we change the course of socio-economic development onto a pathway that does not conflict with the welfare of the biosphere? How can we begin to affect development in a way that will make essential changes at a relevant magnitude?

We’d better decide fast.  In the time it took to read this post one more species somewhere on Earth – maybe a plant, an  insect, a fungus, a bird, a fish, a marine invertebrate  or maybe a mammal, went extinct.

 

 

Genetically engineered crops: discord in the public square

by Stan Hirst

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageIn his recent book I’m right and you’re an idiot author James Hoggan describes the ‘public square’ as a literal and symbolic place where people meet to discuss important community matters and governance, and to participate in democracy. He notes that the modern public square, especially in relation to environmental concerns, has become toxic and polluted. Participants in public dialogue are typically strongly divided over issues based on background, belief, social situation and a host of other factors, and true dialogue and consensus-building suffer accordingly.

The long-standing dispute over genetically engineered (GE) food crops (=genetically modified (GM) or the commonly used acronym GMO’s [genetically modified organisms]) is an excellent example of such polarization leading to discord in the public square.

monsanto logoOn one side of the GE stand-off are the biotech multinationals Monsanto, Syngenta, DowDuPont and others who have monopolized the GE seed industry in North America and in many other parts of the globe. Their signature GE crops (also termed ‘biotech’ crops) are now grown on more than 180 million hectares globally. Over 40% of these are in the US, the remaining 60% are spread among 23 countries. Biotech multinationals are hugely profitable (e.g. Monsanto had gross revenues of $15 billion in 2015, with profits of $8 million), but these gains have come after decades of expensive genetic research and massive investments in biotechnology.

The application of GE crops is growing rapidly. More than 80% of soybeans, 75% of cotton, 29% of maize and 23% of canola cultivated globally are now GE. Seven other food crops – apples, sugar beet, papaya, potato, squash and eggplant – currently have varying proportions of GE modified plants in their annual harvests. Four GE crops are widely grown in Canada (canola, corn, soy and sugar beet. We also import small amounts of GE papaya, GE squash, GE cottonseed oil and some milk products made with the use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone.

What attracts farmers to GE crops over conventional varieties? The most commonly quoted reasons for US farmers who grow such crops are economic and environmental benefits – lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields. One of several economic assessments puts the global farm income gain from GE crops from 1996 through 2014 at $150 billion.GO_Soybeans

The opposing factions in this public square comprise hundreds, possibly thousands, of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), various international organizations and groups, and many private and public groups and individuals. Their concerns are multifaceted and have been summarized by the FAO (Table 1).


Table 1
Environmental:
  • genes potentially being passed on to other members of the same species or even to other species;
  • genes potentially mutating with harmful effects;
  • potential destabilization and mutations in receptor plants;
  • “sleeper” genes potentially “switched on” and/or active genes “silent”;
  • potential interactions with wild and native populations;
  • potential impacts on birds, insects and soil biota and other non-target species.
Human health:
  • potential transfer of allergenic genes;
  • potential mixing of GE products in the food chain;
  • potential transfer of antibiotic resistance.
Socio-economic effects:
  • loss of access to plant material;
  • biotechnology products and processes potentially preventing access to public-sector research;
  • “terminator” technologies preventing farmers saving seeds for future seasons;
  • imposition of huge financial risks and burdens on peasant and family farmers in third world countries planting and harvesting GE crops.
Corporate behaviour:
  • corporate secrecy surrounding gene and crop research;
  • control and censorship of data and technical publications on GE.

Corporations typically counter the allegations by defending their legal right to protect their proprietary [and very expensive] biotechnical assets gained over many years as a result of extensive research and testing and associated high expenditures. They emphasize that their GE products are approved for sale and use by local, state, federal and international authorities, and that they comply with all laws, regulations and requirements levelled at their research, testing and marketing of GE products.  Both assertions are verifiably true.

There is a third set of players in this GE public square. These are groups, organizations, commissions, panels and the like which are established on the basis of academic or judicial credentials, have no vested interest in the commercial benefits or costs of GE foods, and are thus able to express unbiased observations and opinions.

One such group, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) appointed a Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops in 2014 with the objectives of examining the evidence regarding potential negative effects and benefits of currently commercialised genetically engineered (GE) crops and the potential benefits and negative effects of future GE crops. The Committee comprised 20 highly qualified scientists from universities and research organisations in the U.S. and abroad, plus seven professional support staff. The Committee heard presentations from 80 people with expertise and experience with GE crops, and read more than 700 comments and documents submitted by individuals and organisations. The Committee’s draft report was reviewed by 25 specialists from academia and government, both in the U.S. and abroad, and was published in final form in 2016. Their summary findings are shown in Table 2.23395-0309437385-450


Table 2
Agronomic and environmental effects of GE crops
  • Inconclusive evidence to connect GE crops and their associated technologies with adverse agronomic or environmental problems.
  • Some GE crops containing Bt toxin increased yields when insect pest pressure was high, but there was little evidence that GE crops resulted in rapid yearly increases in on-farm crop yields compared to the period before GE introduction. Use of Bt crops is associated with a decrease in insecticide applications but the evidence is equivocal for herbicide resistant crops.
  • Evolution of resistance to Bt toxins in GE crops by insect pests was associated with the overuse of a single herbicide.

[There is no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems, but the complex nature of assessing long-term environmental changes makes it difficult to reach definitive conclusions. Declines in monarch butterfly populations was a case in point. Detailed studies of monarch dynamics failed to demonstrate adverse effects related to increased glyphosate use with GE crops, but there was no consensus among researchers that the effects of glyphosate on milkweed has not caused decreased monarch populations.]

Human health effects of GE crops

Research with animals and on chemical composition of GE foods reveal no differences that implicate a higher risk to human health from GE foods than from non-GE counterparts. Time-series epidemiological data do not show any disease or chronic conditions in populations that correlate with consumption of GE foods. The committee could not find persuasive evidence of adverse health effects directly attributable to consumption of GE foods.

There is some evidence that GE insect-resistant crops have benefited human health by reducing insecticide poisonings and decreasing exposure to fumonisins.

Social and economic effects of GE crops

Existing GE crops have generally been useful to large-scale farmers of cotton, soybean, maize and canola. Benefits to smaller-scale farmers have varied widely across time and space, and are connected to the institutional context in which the crops have been deployed. Small-scale farmers were more likely to be successful with GE crops when they also had access to credit, extension services and markets, and to government assistance in ensuring accessible seed prices.


So, how are we to explain the huge discrepancies between what GE food opponents say about the issue and what emerges from a (hopefully) cool and rational appraisal of the data and the facts?  Three items stand out from a long look at Table 1 above (possibly more if one keeps looking).

The words ‘potential‘ and ‘potentially‘ appear many times in the list of environmental and public health issues. Translation = it appears in the text books but nobody has been able to prove it in real life.  That is not all that remarkable for something as intricate and complicated as a gene and the way it expresses itself in nature.  The NAS found no conclusive evidence of a linkage between a GE food and a human health issue, but the general public seems a long way from understanding that.

I’ve heard the view from Elders that researchers are prevented from examining the GE-health issue because they’re denied access to the modified genes which are ‘owned’ and ‘protected’ by the multinational biotech companies.  The companies do indeed hold patents to their modified plant genes, but a researcher interested in searching for a link between a GE food or substance and human health doesn’t need the gene, they just need the genetically modified food, and that’s available from the supermarket.  Another Elder asserted that there is no money available for such research. Possibly true, but I note that Canada is hardly short of money for other public health research, e.g. we spend $400 million per year on geriatric drug research.

Multinational biotech companies have become notorious for their corporate behaviour, including secrecy, use of patent laws to protect their seeds and products, no reluctance to use legal strong-arm methods against opposing groups, and inept public relations (all well summarized by Lessley Anderson) The name ‘Monsanto‘ has become a label for negativity, and that does (but should not) obscure the true facts surrounding genetic modification of crops and public health specifics.

One seldom hears the same negative tones about GE crops from farmers (who actually plant and harvest them) as from environmental activists and the general public who generally get their information from the internet and the popular press. When farmers focus on the negative issues of GE crops it involves the extra costs involved and the fact that they have no propriety rights to any seed harvested from GE crops planted on their lands.  The latter issue has been a huge stumbling block for GE crop deployment in Asia and Africa.

GE corn

In his book James Hoggan summarizes a number of key learnings on public discourse, dissonance and advocacy gleaned from many specialists in the field of communications, sociology and public affairs.  He stresses the need to break out of the advocacy trap and to steer well away from self-justification.  All the points in the book have some bearing on the understanding of the discord surrounding GE crops and foods.

On the basis of what I’ve read about the whole subject of GE crops as well as what the hopefully objective experts in the form of the U.S. Academy of Sciences have to say on the issues, I suggest there is one missing item of cardinal importance in improving the quality of discourse – public understanding.

Genetics is a technically difficult subject to understand from the public perspective, and becomes even more convoluted when moving to the technicalities (and language) of genetic modification.  Throw in more technical issues in the form of ecological explanations of  things like chemical weed control, lots of economic arguments around who wins and who loses when GE crops enter the competitive market-place, and lots of mistrust around who is responsible for approvals and vetting of GE crops, and the dissonance pot boils merrily away.  I doubt there is a stronger case to be made for seeking common ground between proponents, opponents and the public than in this subject.

 

The crow – a bird for the times

by Stan Hirst

Some years ago the Elders, in casting about for a suitable logo to represent our image, chose the owl. They said it was a universally recognized symbol of wisdom and beloved by all, unless you happened to be a mouse. Now we’re stuck with this goggle-eyed fowl on the blue background you see over on the right. My fellow elders will likely disagree with me but I think we may have erred. We should have opted for a more adaptable, resourceful and smarter bird as an icon. We should have gone with the common or garden crow,

Consider their merits. Crows are adaptable in their choice of domicile. They typically nest in tall coniferous or deciduous trees, but readily opt for hedgerows or shrubbery as well. In urban areas they often nest on window ledges or the sides of buildings. They believe sincerely in gender equity and family support. Both sexes build the nest during a period of 1 to 2 weeks, from mid-March to mid-July, depending on latitude and elevation. Females incubate four to five eggs for 18 days, and are fed at times by the male or sometimes by offspring from the previous year.

Crows are omnivorous and eat whatever is available—insects, spiders, snails, fish, snakes, eggs, nestling birds, cultivated fruits, nuts, and vegetables. The crow population in the B.C. Lower Mainland has increased over the past 40 years as burgeoning human populations and urbanization have reduced forest cover, creating open foraging areas and generating food sources such as garbage that crows have been adept at exploiting. We too might have to adapt similar foraging habits here in B.C. as our productive land base is progressively depleted by subdivisions, highways, hydroelectric dams and drought.

hungrycrowCrows are gregarious – surely a useful trait in these trying times. They roost communally during the non-breeding season for the same reason many other birds do—to avoid predation and to share information about food resources. As winter moves in the birds form large roosts when they congregate at sunset. The birds disperse from their roosting areas early in the morning and follow each other to traditional foraging sites. Generally, the larger the roosts the greater the dispersal distances during the day. Feeding and roosting sites may be many kilometres apart.

Crows are regular in their habits, just like elders. They typically commute along regular flight paths, stopping at traditional feeding and staging sites along the way, where they usually vocalize loudly and noticeably. Large roosts usually number in the hundreds or even thousands, but can reach truly huge numbers, e.g. up to 2 million birds in the mid-western U.S.

Ornithologists speculate that roosting crows return to the same tree night after night, possibly even to the same branch. Some studies have shown that crows who occupy superior positions in the group hierarchy are more likely to take sleeping spots in the higher branches. That alone would seem a good indicator of intelligence.

Intelligent they certainly are. Crows are ranked amongst tool-using wild creatures, along with parrots, finches, monkeys and chimpanzees, and have been observed to use twigs to dig worms and insects out of holes. They are commonly observed to post sentries at foraging sites to alert feeding crows of danger.

Crow intelligence has been tested on the university campus in Seattle. Researchers donned masks and then captured and tagged a group of resident crows. They released the birds and checked their reactions on subsequent days when they wore the same masks and, alternatively, when they walked about maskless and when wearing a different set of masks. The results were somewhat in excess of what the researchers expected. Tagged crows would not react to people clad in unfamiliar masks, but they scolded and dive-bombed researchers wearing the same masks as the people who had initially captured and tagged them. Not only that, untagged crows in the neighbourhood rapidly caught on and joined in the dive-bombing.

This all confirmed what had been seen in other behavioural studies on crows, i.e. they communicate with one another in an advanced fashion. Its a contentious point whether crows actually employ what could be called “language”, but they do obviously communicate information to one another. Some researchers have surmised that different crow populations might have different ‘accents’. Its a common belief in the American mid-west that crows will modify their daily or seasonal movement patterns to avoid farms or localities where other crows have been killed in the past. The avoidance response has been reported as persisting amongst subsequent generations of crows. Attractive idea, although at this point one might ask for a little more evidence.

One of the B.C. Lower Mainland’s most remarkable natural ornithological spectacles is still occasionally to be seen in Burnaby. Pre-roosting crows gather in the evening in their thousands around Still Creek near Willingdon and Lougheed. The site serves as a central location from which the crows can radiate out to feed around the Lower Mainland, flying as far afield as the North Shore and Richmond.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhVdcjyKdSU

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

by Bob Worcester

About 30 years ago wcougare began sojourning from the city to our cabin in Howe Sound. Our island retreat was an idyllic place to relax and recharge before returning to the work and worries of the city. It was also a safe and stimulating place to introduce children and now grandchildren to the wild outdoors. They spent summers exploring beaches and forest trails, mostly unsupervised and unstructured. It was hard to get lost on an island and they were mostly isolated from serious hazards. There were the acceptable risks of wasps, water sports, fires and falls. Deer, ravens, owls and occasionally raccoons visited our clearing on the island but they were mostly welcome unless they took excessive interest in our garden.

Recently, however, rumours circulated of a cougar on the island. A dog had been mauled, paw prints were found in mud, and there were second-hand reports of sightings. It is a large island so such warnings were filed mentally away with the forest fire advisories as something to be aware of but not too concerned about. Then we heard first hand that the cougar had been seen on the rocks above our beach where the grandchildren had played on their summer visit.

The abstract became real. Our sense of safety shifted as we imagined an encounter on the trail to the beach. Cougars are iconic creatures and efficient predators. They rely on stealth, speed and precision to bring down prey often twice their size. Attacks on humans are rare but have been fatal. Although the probabilities are low, when shadows lengthen and you are alone on a trail the possibile seems real enough. I found myself more vigilant, scanning my surroundings more closely and listening more carefully to sounds I might have otherwise ignored. I carry a walking stick now that is a bit more solid than before and a flashlight when I am out at night.

There is something primal in this reminder of my tenuous position on the food chain. The feeling probably predates the ice age when humans were fair game for predators before technology gave us the edge in close encounters. I can imagine the cougar watching me from the shadows to see what the upright apes are up to now. It is good to remember that the wild is not a Disney movie or a nature documentary. And I am glad cougars are not vengeful since this one was no doubt displaced from its home range by land development or clear cut logging.

We can share the island as long as the cougar does not develop a taste for grandchildren. I am probably at greater risk from ticks than from this new neighbour and there certainly are far greater dangers in the city than from cougars in the wild. That said, I will continue to carry a stout stick when I walk in the woods and be more alert to the sudden, swift and silent movement that would presage a dramatic end to my story – but one well worth telling to the grandchildren.

Industrial Forestry or Ecoforestry: Alternative Cultures

by Josef Kuhn

Some of the people I most respect and admire for their work in promoting forest conservation and stewardship of all of our natural resources are foresters. They often refer to themselves as forest ecologists as well as foresters, an important distinction that I want to make as clear as I can in this brief essay.

There are many foresters who are driven by motives and methods that do not truly respect forest ecology. These industrial foresters have developed a culture much like modern agriculture, asserting that they can replace natural forests with tree crops, thereby increasing economic benefits from harvesting trees from these management units which they refer to as forests.

In my view of life, which comes from both western culture and the ancient teachings of many tribal cultures, forests are created by Nature and are a gift from Mother Earth, the Sun and ultimately from the Creator. The natural ecosystems created by this life-giving process over eons of time contain a mix of interacting species best suited to the bio-physical conditions at each unique location. This view makes me and others who respect and value Nature and forest life part of the naturalist culture, which includes ecoforestry. It is very different from the industrial culture which values financial gain above Nature.

As a student working on a degree in forest management back in the 1960’s I became disillusioned with the university’s required courses. They were mostly about how to log forests to maximize industrial profits and produce a steady revenue flow to government ministries. There was one course in forest ecology and one in forest soils, but the rest were mostly about forest engineering and various aspects of financial management of timber and pulpwood resources. I had to change majors and get my degrees in geography and ecology in order to pursue the career path that was best for me.

Forest aesthetics, biodiversity and soil and watershed protection considerations over the long term (seven generations in First Nations’ culture) are not the focus of most of the forest management plans which are being approved by our government ministries today. Outside ‘consultations’ are supposed to address these concerns, but these inputs are not given equal weight with so called economic development considerations.

Ecoforestry on the other hand focuses on watersheds and/or ecological land types, seeking understanding of the interactions taking place in these ecosystems. In our modern information technology world, forest and wildlife ecologists model and monitor natural processes and human impacts in natural resource stewardship/management programs, unless this is precluded by industrial forestry and other ‘development’ interests.

The use of ecosystem models such as geographic information systems (GIS) are absolutely essential if true stewardship of the natural resources our children and grandchildren will depend on for their well-being is ever to be accomplished. In addition, we, as citizens and stewards of our environment, must make sure that the cumulative impacts of logging and all resource extraction activities on our forests, wetlands and waters are being monitored and assessed on an ongoing basis to ensure that our ecosystems remain healthy.

In my opinion, government ministries upon which we rely to protect our forests and related natural resources should be employing more people educated in biological and earth sciences who demonstrate good ecological intelligence and a good grounding in the land ethic, established by Aldo Leopold in 1948. Along with forest ecology and ecoforestry, as well as a focus on ecosystem and human health, they can provide us with the more complete view needed for good stewardship.

Stewardship of primarily natural forests doesn’t require ending forest harvesting. Commercial forestry and other extractive enterprises have a role in natural resource stewardship and land use decision-making, but they should not dominate these processes. Selective harvesting of over-crowded and unhealthy trees on an ongoing basis can provide truly sustainable jobs for local people. Industrial foresters have been saying for decades that the only way to harvest the magnificent west coast rain forests is to clearcut them. It just isn’t so! Selective harvesting is practiced in many of the world’s forests and British Columbia’s outstanding ecoforestry pioneer Merv Wilkinson showed us that selection forestry can produce sustainable ecological and economic benefits in our west coast forests.

The ecoforestry harvesting approach benefits wildlife by letting more energy from the Sun reach the shrubs, grasses and herbs in the lower canopy levels of a healthy forest. It maintains a healthier soil cover, full of life and holding more water and nutrients than the compacted surface left by clearcut logging. These healthy forests are needed for cleaner water and to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere for a healthy climate.

We who care about our forests must insure that our political and business leaders know what kind of stewardship we want – industrial forestry or ecoforestry.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Josef Kuhn is a naturalist, ecologist and elder living in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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