Post-Waterton: Fire & Trees

Albertans LOVE their forests.

Albertans LOVE their forests.

Editor's Note: The fires this summer were so unrelenting, massive and traumatic, that it almost felt like PTSD when Waterton was finally put out. Very few people were untouched by the magnitude of what happened. We caught a tweet from AFPA (Alberta Forest Products Association) telling people how happy they were that they had planted 80 million trees in 2017 - and thought that news might give people some hope. They plant an average of 2-3 trees for every one felled. It would be interesting to have a compound total of number of trees planted throughout the province by various groups - if anyone ever finds that stat, please pass it along! This is a guest post by AFPA's CEO - and thanks also to Brock Mulligan for the communications work! Our goal at OWC is to hear from everyone - only together can we make conscious decisions about watershed management and health. With elections now top of mind, it should be clear to everyone how your chosen candidate chooses to view, protect and champion the lifeblood of Southern Alberta. #loveyourwatershed

P.S. For logophiles: the word of the day is'silviculture' - the growing and cultivation of trees - 'silvi' = Latin: 'trees').

Trees and Our Watersheds
Last week was a very important week for forestry in Alberta and Canada. First, it was National Forest Week, a time to celebrate the many benefits of forests for our environment, lifestyles, and economy. Second, the Alberta Forest Products Association celebrated our 75th Anniversary. We also celebrated the fact that our members planted 80 million trees in 2017. That’s 19 trees for every Albertan, in case you’re doing the math.
 
What does all of this have to do with watersheds? Well actually, lots. Healthy forests and healthy watersheds go hand in hand. A tree’s root network is very large, often larger than the tree itself. These roots filter harmful substances out of water as it soaks through the ground. Also, the roots of a tree act like thousands of small anchors that prevent soil from washing away with the water.
 
Now, I know what you’re saying, if forests are so good for our water supply, it doesn’t make any sense to log them. Well, maybe not. In Alberta, our forests are part of what’s known as a ‘fire-driven ecosystem’. This means that our trees typically grow for 80-120 years and then they burn. We’re really good at putting out forest fires.

 

Pine trees growing at Coal Camp Creek

Pine trees growing at Coal Camp Creek

But with a changing climate, it’s becoming harder and harder to prevent them. We’ve all seen the recent devastation in Waterton Park this year and in Fort McMurray last year. This was largely the result of increasingly warm and dry weather and older forests that tend to burn more easily.

While fires are a natural part of the landscape, the large, intense fires that may be fuelled by climate change are not.

And they’re really hard on our water. After the Fort McMurray fire, one of the biggest problems that the city faced was filtering all of the ash and debris out of the water and getting the water treatment plant up and running so that people would have safe water to drink.
 
Managed forests, with well thought-out logging operations, are a reasonable alternative to forest fires in many parts of our province. Take the area around the Oldman watershed. It has lots of human activity, including recreation, tourism, houses, and ranches. Not a landscape that we would want to see large-scale fires in. One of the ways to mitigate fires is to have a healthy mix of tree ages. Older majestic forests are beautiful, but they are much more likely to burn than younger forests. Old forests need to be balanced off with younger forests that are much more fire resistant.

And that’s where our 80 million trees come in. They help to replace older forests with younger ones in a way that doesn’t require a big fire. As an added benefit, younger trees take a lot more carbon out of the atmosphere than older trees. Carbon is the food that fuels their growth, and like growing teenagers, they need lots of food. Older trees, that are nearly done growing, take much less carbon out of the atmosphere.

Seedlings ready to be planted.

Seedlings ready to be planted.


 So next time you see logging or tree planting operations, keep in mind:
 
·        All areas that are logged must be regenerated within two years – it’s the law in Alberta. Some species like aspen will regrow on their own, but with conifer species, companies typically need to replant to meet the requirement.
·        Less than 1% of the forested landbase in Alberta is harvested each year.
·        Far more trees are planted than are harvested. It depends a bit on the area, but companies will typically plant 2 or 3 trees for each one that they harvest.
·        After a forest has been logged, it’s not gone. Companies are required to ensure that a younger forest takes its place – so that beautiful vista will be back again.
·        Healthy forests mean healthy watersheds.

Paul Whittaker, President and CEO, Alberta Forest Products Association

Paul Whittaker, President and CEO,
Alberta Forest Products Association

P.P.S. Special thanks to OWC Board Director, Wade Aebli, of Spray Lakes Sawmills, for partnering with us on our big restoration event :-) There will be plenty more about this in upcoming blogs!

Someone planting on the Spray Lakes Sawmills FMA (Forest Management Area).

Someone planting on the Spray Lakes Sawmills FMA (Forest Management Area).