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Bigger wood basket

Afforestation—returning open land to forests—and short rotation hybrid tree species offer the potential of significantly increasing Canada’s wood fibre basket.

By Tony Kryzanowski

             It’s a sight that has become all too common throughout Canada—‘For Sale’ signs plastering the fences of vast acreages of freshly cleared and empty marginal farmland. It may come after the owner has lost his shirt, thinking he was going to make a million dollars overnight by raising buffalo or subdividing the land for country-loving city folk.

            Then the bottom falls out of the real estate market or the farm grows too big, too fast, and before you know it, the land is up for sale. The dream has ended.  Since the land is often covered with lighter soil, wind gusts soon begin the process of erosion. Sometimes, even native grasses have difficulty taking root.

Acreages of land originally cleared for agriculture could provide future timber for the forest industry, if this open land can be brought back to forest.

            But there is hope to correct these types of land management errors and Canada’s forestry companies have a key role to play. The answer is a combination of afforestation—the process of returning open land to forest—and short rotation forestry. This prescription has the potential to significantly increase the supply of wood fibre, portray the forest industry as an environmental white knight and produce carbon sinks to combat the effects of global warming.

            The potential of afforestation and short rotation forestry was recently demonstrated to a wide cross section of industry representatives during a three-day tour of research sites in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Hosted annually by the regional reforestation technical committee (RRTC)—a group of researchers formerly attached to the Canadian Forest Service—the tour covered 1,700 kilometres and visited 12 research sites, some dating back to the 1940s.

            Tour stops at locations such as the Mortlach historic hardwood and softwood site in southern Saskatchewan and Rosedale farm conservation project near Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba showed various hybrid poplar and conifer species planted as far back as 1945. These research sites were established on poor soil, in areas with a history of extreme weather condition. Yet, a number of hybrid tree species are flourishing like islands on the bald prairie.

            These hybrids are not trees whose genes have been genetically altered through artificial gene splicing in a laboratory—a process leading to the creation of controversial genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These are tree species that have been genetically enhanced through cross breeding of native and non-native species. They naturally create a hybrid tree species that is better adapted to withstand harsh weather conditions and/or is able to achieve full maturity over a shorter period of time.

Certain species of hybrid trees, when combined with intensive forest management, could reach market potential - and feed mills - in as little as 15 years.

            “We’ve found hybrid poplars and conifers flourishing in areas of the Prairies where even cactus wouldn’t grow,” says Derek Sidders, RRTC chairman and silviculture operations specialist with the Canadian Forest Service. That addresses the problem of hardiness.

            What about the problem of convincing forestry companies and private landowners to practise afforestation when it often takes native species at least 50 years to achieve any commercial value?   Several research sites demonstrated that certain species of hybrid poplar, aspen, spruce and pine, when combined with intensive forest management, the right soil conditions and the right climate, can reach market potential in as little as 15 years.

            Weyerhaeuser Canada representative Wally Rude was among those participating in the RRTC tour. He works in the company’s woodlands operations in Drayton Valley, Alberta. It operates both a sawmill and an oriented strandboard plant in the community, about 100 kilometres southwest of Edmonton. It derives half of its deciduous fibre source from private land.

            Rude says Weyerhaeuser is concerned about the amount of deciduous fibre harvested from private land in its area that is not being replenished. So the company is interested in finding new ways to meet its future fibre requirements. The data presented by the RRTC relating to the fibre volume achieved by various hybrid poplar varieties located in particularly harsh environments at scatter sites throughout Saskatchewan and Manitoba was intriguing.

            “Frankly, a lot of our people just didn’t believe the numbers related to the mean annual increments (MAI) being reported from the research sites we visited,” he says. The MAI is the volume of fibre per hectare at rotation, divided by the age of the stand. Weyerhaeuser is used to achieving MAI yields of 2 to 2.5 cubic metres of native poplar per hectare per year. RRTC data was showing hybrid poplar stands with MAI’s anywhere from eight to a stunning 16 cubic metres per hectare per year. Once Rude saw the evidence for himself during the RRTC tour, he took plenty of photographs to share with co-workers.

            “Look at that. It’s amazing,” he commented, upon reviewing a stand of 35 year old Walker hybrid poplar with an MAI of 8.56 at the Rosedale Farm Conservation Project.  A tour highlight included an extensive review of Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) tree cloning sites at its shelterbelt centre in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. This federally-funded organization’s experiment—aimed at developing hardy trees for shelterbelts over the past 100 years—is fuelling growing interest in the economic potential of afforestation and short rotation forestry.

            Over the past century, PFRA has developed, tested and proven the viability of a number of hybrid poplar and conifer varieties, with properties that are a drastic improvement over native species.

               Certain species of hybrid trees, when combined with intensive forest management, could reach market potential—and feed mills—in as little as 15 years.  For example, researchers have cloned a number of hybrid poplar varieties that are preferred for shelterbelts, but also have characteristics that make them attractive for short rotation forestry. A lot of PFRA research is focussed on poplar because this species is easy to establish, simple to maintain and resilient to a large variety of harsh weather and soil conditions.                                  

            Head inspector at PFRA, Bill Schroeder, adds that this is an exciting time for hybrid tree research. For example, a number of new hybrid poplar species are expected to be developed and tested over the next decade. The organization is working on a joint venture with Canada’s largest single line pulp producer, Alberta Pacific Forest Industries Inc (Al-Pac), to develop many new poplar hybrid species.

            Al-Pac is already well advanced in its short rotation forestry program, which includes planting hybrid poplar on private land. It has seeded 750 hectares of hybrid poplar varieties on a combination of its own private holdings and land leased from area farmers. Its program includes both commercial fibre production using proven hybrids as well as research pertaining to new hybrids.

            Al-Pac’s fibre farm co-ordinator, Al Bertschi, says the company has a long-term strategy to offer private landowners within a 200-kilometre radius of the plant the opportunity to grow hybrid poplar as a cash crop.

            The federal government, through the Canadian Forest Service, has also made a commitment to offer technical support to landowners interested in afforestation and short rotation agroforestry. It has assigned Al Jurgen to the new  Saskatchewan Forest Centre in Prince Albert to focus primarily on this issue. His activities are part of a federal-provincial initiative called Forests 2020 that encourages poplar plantations on private land across the country. Initially, he wants to establish a network of demonstration agroforestry sites, so that landowners can learn more about the practical implications of wood crop management.

Jurgen adds that a 40- to 45-year-old farmer could realize a short-term benefit and maybe some retirement income from a short rotation hybrid poplar plantation that matures in 20 years. However, the focus is not just “growing trees for the pulp mills.” He wants to encourage farmers to consider the benefit of growing timber that is capable of producing high end products such as paneling, furniture and flooring. By focusing on more than just the hybrid poplar’s pulp value, this will encourage growth within the sawmilling industry.

            Some may suggest that replacing native trees with hybrid species is toying with nature. However, a survey of the world’s landscape shows definitively that nature macro-manages the environment on its own.

            If the world’s weather patterns really are changing, it is reasonable to assume that forestry companies may simply be anticipating what nature would have accomplished over millennia: replacing current native species with species better adapted to new climate and soil conditions.

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