Mercer International Inc. CEO David Gandossi was one of many forest and forestry experts from across Canada who gathered in the woods north of Dixonville on May 29 to tour the largest forest management experiment in the world.
In past, people from as far away as Sweden have travelled to the remote area to take a tour of the forest trails and to learn more about the results of the world-class research being done there.
This year, the tour was attended by people from as far away as Ontario, and included representatives of Mercer Peace River, the University of Alberta, Tolko Industries, the Canadian Forest Service, and many more.
Ecosystem-Based Management Emulating Natural Disturbance, or EMEND, is a long-term experiment stretching over some 7800 hectares of boreal forest.
The experiment started in the mid-90’s and is designed to last for an entire forest rotation, or 80 years.
It was created out of a partnership between university researchers, the provincial and federal governments, and the forest industry.
The idea behind EMEND is to see if it is better to harvest trees in the same ways a natural forest fire would take trees.
A forest fire is a disturbance to the forest that not only burns down trees, but also helps the forest renew itself regularly.
EMEND research is proving that techniques like leaving some patches of forest alone when logging, in the same way a forest fire would leave “skips”, might help trees grow back and allow animals to continue to thrive in the forest while also helping the forestry industry remain sustainable.
Smoke from the wildfire near High Level filled the forest during the tour, a constant reminder of the reality of wildfires and the destruction they can cause.
EMEND also hosts all kinds of other more specific experiments, like the study of over 1500 different species of insects, amphibians, bats and more, and has led to the discovery of 13 new species.
The experiment has included 25 research scientists, 62 grad students and 14 postdoctoral research associates, 124 field assistants, 117 Core Crew members and has resulted in over 150 publications.
Dr. Ellen Macdonald, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Alberta and the expert in the research being done at EMEND, led this year’s field tour.
The tour began at the EMEND research camp.
“We’re in kind of a lull phase for two reasons,” Macdonald said. “One is the lack of funding, and the other is we’ve been very busy concentrating on trying to analyze data and get it all written up from the first 15 to 20 years of research at EMEND. So we’ve collected a huge amount of data on the experiment since it was initiated and we’re trying to catch up with that and make sure everything gets analyzed and written up as a foundation for making decisions going forward about the sampling.”
There are four different types of forest represented at the experiment, and scientists are researching how the forest transitions over time from a more deciduous forest with a lot of trees like aspen to become a forest that has more conifers like spruce and pine trees.
The treatments being done on the experimental area range from clearcut or only about 2 per cent of trees left, through 10 per cent, 20 per cent, 50 per cent, and 75 per cent retention of trees, with a control area that is not harvested at all.
“We wanted to test across the range of possibilities of retention,” Macdonald said.
The EMEND experiment has about 1000 hectares of different treatments, or about the size of 1200 football fields.
Experiment wide sampling is done every five to ten years by graduate and undergraduate students who are part of the “Core Crew.”
Research so far shows a certain level of retention can help provide a “lifeboat” for both tree and animal species, allowing them to naturally regenerate and maintaining biodiversity.
The experiment has also shown the importance of leaving some fallen trees to decay on the forest floor instead of cleaning them out, because research proves deadwood is a critical part of a healthy forest.
Companies such as Mercer Peace River and others are using the research done by EMEND to change how they harvest trees and how many trees they leave behind, or their retention level. Mercer maintains an average retention level of 15 per cent, setting a high standard for the industry.
“We’re living in a time when there is so much change. Climate change, social attitudes are changing, there is a lot of crazy stuff happening in government, [like] populism,” Mercer CEO David Gandossi told the assembled tour group.
“Half our business is in Europe so I see that whole situation as well and I’m really familiar with what is going on in Scandinavia and so on.”
“This is really great that this is happening at this level, but as an industry, and with government, we need to recognize how important it is to tell our story, because politicians listen to voters, and voters are in the urban areas. They don’t understand us, and we’ve never really said how important we are other than we are an economic engine, and we provide jobs in rural communities,” he said.
“But we don’t present ourselves as a solution to what’s going on with the planet, and that’s what society is going to care about in the next 10 years. We’re all feeling it, weather patterns globally are all changing, there’s too many people, resources are short, and society is going to freak out.”
“For us to maintain our social license as foresters, we need to tell that story,” Gandossi said.
Gandossi then promised that Mercer will continue to support the EMEND experiment.
“Mercer will 100% support this with whatever we can to help keep it going, and I think government should as well, and I think there is going to be a discussion at the table above with associations, and with industry members that we’ve got to put some money together and we’ve got to tell our story,” Gandossi said.
“If we’re misunderstood we don’t stand a chance when society gets angry.”