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Facing the threats that climate change poses for the forest industry

A new guidebook aims to help forest companies adapt to the significant climate change-related threats to the fibre supply that could lie ahead for Canada’s forest industry—and will be a welcome tool for companies looking to make adjustments in their forest management practices.

By Tony Kryzanowski

The devastation wrought by the mountain pine beetle is one example of how climate change could have a significant impact on the Canadian forest industry’s medium to long term timber supply.

For example, one worst case scenario predicts that without human intervention, the boreal forest—which now extends as far south as the midpoint of Alberta—could retract as far north as the Northwest Territories border, with the new landscape resembling the grasslands of Montana by 2080.

Many forest industry professionals already understand that climate change is a threat to fibre supply for Canadian forest companies, and they now have a climate change adaptation guidebook from the Climate Change Task Force to help address climate change-related issues.

A retraction of the boreal forest is not only a threat to localized ecosystems, but could have a considerable impact on the global environment, as Canada has 397 million hectares of forests and other woodlands, representing 10 per cent of the world’s forest cover.

Many forest industry professionals already understand that climate change is a significant threat to the fibre supply for many forest companies, but until now, they have had few resources to work the problem. That has now changed.

A climate change adaptation guidebook has just been released by the Climate Change Task Force working under the direction of the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (CCFM). It addresses two important issues—a company’s ‘organizational readiness’ to respond to the impact that climate change could have on their short, medium and long term fibre supply, as well as a carefully conceived, step-by-step, guidebook for companies to evaluate and respond to identified threats to that fibre supply.

In its introduction, the guidebook states that “failure to acknowledge the new reality of climate change may result in widespread impacts, many of which could be reduced or avoided if appropriate adaptation actions were identified, planned, and implemented today”.

The guidebook does not take a one-size-fits-all approach, concluding that “impacts will differ widely from region to region within Canada”.

Jason Edwards, a forest officer with the Adaption Research and Knowledge Exchange Group with the Canadian Forest Service, and part of the technical group that drafted the guidebook, says working through the guidebook’s various stages could take a company a couple of days or a couple of years, depending how organizationally ready the company is and whether they take a basic or comprehensive approach to assess their vulnerability and adapting to climate change.

“It depends who you have around the table and the resources available,” says Edwards. “It can be a couple of days’ event with some structured formats or it could be a couple of years’ process. It really depends on the level of information required to actually move forward.”

The guidebook was piloted with the Government of Manitoba, which spent two years working through the document’s stages. However, it was a learning process for both them and the Task Force technical team, which accounts for how long it took to complete the process. Guidebook revisions and refinements were made along the way.

Based on his interaction with various forest companies over the past decade, Edwards says that there is no doubt in his mind that the guidebook will be a welcome tool for many forest practitioners.

Some companies have already made some adjustments in their forest management practices towards adaptation while others are just starting out. Development of the guidebook was in direct response from workshop attendees who expressed a need for a ‘how to’ and ‘hands on’ document to complement the academic theories and concepts expressed in many of the preceding documents produced by the Climate Change Task Force.

“The guidebook actually leads you to an implementation plan, and therefore you can scope out who is responsible for what, provide timelines, assess available resources, and take action to move forward,” says Edwards.

The CCFM identified climate change as one of two priority issues for Canada’s forest sector as far back as 2008. That resulted in the Climate Change Task Force, consisting of a national network of scientists and technicians that have delved into the key issues concerning climate change and its impact on Canada’s commercial forest. Phase 1, which was completed in 2010, involved a comprehensive assessment of the vulnerability of various tree species and identified management options for adaptation. Phase 2, which is wrapping up now, has gone beyond the level of trees to look at climate change adaptation within forest ecosystems and the broader forest sector. Its goal is to equip members of the forest sector with a suite of tools and state-of-the-art information to enable them to make better decisions about the need for adaptation and the types of measures that may be most beneficial.

The adaptation guidebook developed by the Climate Change Task Force draws upon the technical reports and review papers generated by nearly 100 individuals over two years from a wide range of organizations, and is part of CCFM’s Climate Change Adaptation series consisting of 10 documents, which includes the guidebook, aimed at better equipping industry.

The guidebook is targeted toward the forest resource professional.

“What we mean by that is anybody that is working in the forest sector,” says Edwards. “It could be people at the provincial or territorial level, people in policy and regulation roles, and those within the forest industry itself. It would likely be people in planning roles.”

The guidebook takes a structured decision-making approach, broken down into four stages of adaptation, with a menu of tasks and worksheets. It also cites a variety of case studies along the path of what’s been tried at various stages to date as possible approaches.

“Throughout the process that we have developed here, the idea is that you are engaging all your staff in the process, so that you are getting feedback from all your planning and operations team,” says Edwards, representing such individuals as operational silviculturists, forest engineers responsible for building roads, and planning foresters. He emphasizes that everyone from harvest planning down to replanting needs to be involved because climate change has the potential to impact all stages of this process with adaptation methods built into each function, as needed.

Stage 1 tackles the issue of organizational readiness. This is a separate process, with the adaptation guidebook assuming that a company has already completed this process before embarking on further analysis and adaptation work. This process has its own report and guidebook entitled, “Adapting sustainable forest management to climate change: a systematic approach for exploring organizational readiness.” Initially, it may just be one person within a forest company testing the waters to assess the company’s organizational readiness to move forward to the impact assessment and implementation stage.

“A crucial first step is to identify the strengths and capabilities, along with weaknesses and gaps, that will affect the organization’s readiness to respond to the challenges of climate change,” says the Task Force’s organizational readiness report.

Stage 2 is a pre-vulnerability analysis. Fundamentally, this allows a company to describe current climate and climate-forest relationships, and develop future climate and forest impact scenarios.

Stage 3 is a detailed vulnerability
analysis. Its purpose is to identify where sustainable forest management is vulnerable to climate change, and therefore where adaptation is needed, and where opportunities or positive effects could occur, which could be enhanced by adaptation activities. That is one of the notable findings of scientists working on the Climate Change Task Force: that while the overall impact of climate change on Canada’s commercial forest will be negative, there are situations and places where it could in fact have a positive impact.

Stage 4 is to identify, implement, and monitor adaptation, with the goal of mainstreaming these adaptation measures into sustainable forest management decision making.

For forest companies, implementing initiatives like this typically comes down to resources. The guidebook takes this into account, as it offers several paths forward from basic to comprehensive—with the caveat that if companies opt for the basic approach exclusively throughout, they could miss critical aspects of the sustainable forest management system.

According to Michael Norton, Canadian Forest Service Director General at the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton, the work of the Task Force, including the guidebook, has been presented to all members of the CCFM for further dissemination and distribution throughout their jurisdictions. The Task Force has been given a limited and modest continuing mandate, with one of its tasks being to work with its fire and pest working groups to incorporate climate change considerations into their regular work plans.

The guidebook, as well as the entire catalogue of reports developed by the task force, are available online at