the edgewidespread aspen dieback in Alberta

Landowners urged to take action to mitigate impact of widespread aspen dieback in Alberta


Trembling aspen, also called white poplar, is a commercially important hardwood species that grows throughout Alberta, but more abundantly in the northern half of the province. But for the past two decades, it has experienced widespread dieback.

Not only is there a severe aspen dieback occurring in Alberta, but replacement trees in the understorey are in decline.

Private woodlot owners, municipal governments, and the forest industry should be aware that the combination of severe drought, climate change, insect defoliation, and disease infection are resulting in a significant aspen dieback in parts of Alberta and North America, says Toso Bozic, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Bioenergy/Agroforestry Specialist.

This is creating a fire hazard, ecosystem change, loss of biodiversity, water retention issues, and loss of commercial potential for this wood species.

At present, 3.4 million hectares of privately-owned forests in Alberta are pure or mixedwood aspen stands, consisting of about 70 per cent of the entire privately-owned forest in the province.

Bozic says that according to the Alberta Climate Records website study dataset of almost five million climate-observed records from 6833 locations across the province—collected by the University of Lethbridge from 1950 to 2010—the weather is getting warmer, the growing season is getting longer, the number of frost days are declining, and the number of days of minus 10 degrees Celsius or lower has declined to almost half of what it was in 1950. These trends are continuing in the same direction every year.

Aspen is the most widely distributed wood species in North America. It is commonly used in the production of oriented strandboard (OSB) and pulp, and to a lesser extent, solid wood products. It is an important commercial species in Alberta, as OSB and pulp producers source between 10 and 20 per cent of their wood supply annually from private land throughout the province, or between two and three million tonnes of aspen.

It is considered a pioneer hardy species that grows in a range of soils and habitats, but prefers adequate soil moisture and nutrients. It is not shade tolerant. In this habitat, it is described as a water-limited and drought-sensitive species, where prolonged drought can lead to dieback.

The Canadian Forest Service (CFS) has been monitoring dieback in Alberta’s aspen forest since the mid-1990’s, initially with industry support and then with additional and ongoing support from the provincial government, including the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Department. CFS has established 30 aspen research and monitoring sites across Western Canada, Ontario and the Northwest Territories through the Climate Impacts on the Productivity and Health of Aspen (CIPHA) project. Alberta sites are being monitored on an annual basis.

Mike Michaelian, Forest Health Technician with CFS and researcher with the CIPHA project, says that more than half the aspen tagged on all CIPHA sites since 2000 are now dead, and the number of trees growing to replace them is in decline.

“The northern half of Alberta has been exceptionally dry since 2000, with 2015 being one of the driest years in many parts of northern Alberta in probably more than 80 years,” he says. “We’ve also had a forest tent caterpillar infestation.”

The combination of these two factors has meant that the severity, speed, and extent of the aspen dieback issue has been magnified.

As this dieback trend is expected to continue, Bozic suggests that landowners take a careful survey of their woodlots to identify any dieback issues. They can put a plan in place to derive an income from the woodlot before it decays beyond commercial value, which could include sale of the wood for use locally by small or large energy companies in the production of bioenergy. Hopefully, they also put a woodlot regeneration plan in place, although some landowners may choose to convert that land to agriculture production.

Bozic says that what landowners can also do to help preserve the commercial value of an at-risk aspen woodlot is to plant coniferous species in the understorey, turning a pure aspen stand into a more resilient and valuable mixedwood forest.

For more information about Alberta aspen dieback and mitigation strategies, contact Toso Bozic at [email protected].

Nutrien Environmental Scientist Dr. Connie NicholCWFC brings science to life, planting short rotation woody crops to revegetate phosphogypsum stacks


The Technology Development and Transfer Group of the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) has experienced an unqualified success with the world’s first implementation of a short rotation woody crop to revegetate several phosphogypsum stacks.

Nutrien Environmental Scientist Dr. Connie Nichol stands beside one year of short rotation woody crop growth on a reclaimed retention pond.

Starting in 2015, CWFC partnered with Nutrien, formerly Agrium Canada Partnership, and the University of Alberta to test CWFC’s proven, short rotation woody crop system in an industrial reclamation application at Nutrien’s Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta nitrogen plant. The entire revegetation project takes in about 19 hectares consisting of two phosphogypsum stacks and a reclaimed retention pond.

Taking this approach was new for both Nutrien and CWFC. Typically, phosphogypsum stack closure involves contouring the piles, covering with soil, and seeding a grass mixture. CWFC’s short rotation woody crop technology is applied primarily on agricultural and non-industrial afforested lands, which are sites where trees are not present.

This project, demonstrating the planting of high yield afforestation crops like hybrid poplar and concentrated biomass beds of hybrid poplar and willow, has been so successful that CWFC is confident that Nutrien, with facilities throughout the world, now has the knowledge and tools it needs to expand this rehabilitation approach on its own, wherever appropriate and on its own schedule.

“We went into this project from the science point of view of asking if the trees would survive in that environment,” says Tim Keddy, CWFC Wood Fibre Development Specialist. “Now that we are quite sure that we have created a system and a protocol for Nutrien to use on future sites, they can proceed on their own, although we continue to provide support.”

Keddy adds that CWFC’s primary goal on this project was to bring research to life.

“We’ve conducted a lot of research and development work on short rotation woody crops since 2002,” he says. “This was an opportunity to bring all that research to industry, and bring it to life. Now, there is not only national uptake of this research, but also international interest.”

Nutrien Environmental Scientist Dr. Connie Nichol says that she has shared this revegetation concept with people from many countries, including Malaysia, Sudan, Turkey, China and Jordan. They are very excited about the project and applying a similar concept to their gypsum stacks.

One of the benefits of this revegetation approach vs. a grass cover is that once these plantation sites achieve crown closure which normally occurs within five years of establishment, vegetation growth beneath the trees is inhibited, with the site essentially left in a free-to-grow state without any need for maintenance. This is compared to grass sites that require regular maintenance.

Establishing short rotation woody crops on these sites also improves their aesthetic value, improves carbon sequestration, and produces a commercial crop that could be harvested for use in such applications as bioenergy production.

There were some areas on the reclaimed sites where Nutrien had difficulty growing grass, but trees were able to establish. The company was also interested in evaluating how tree plantations vs. grass cover would impact snow cover and water movement, as their goal was to minimize infiltration into the stacks, especially in spring.

CWFC started by planting four different plots of concentrated biomass on a reclaimed retention pond, consisting of two willow clones and two hybrid poplar clones in a concentrated biomass pattern.

“They all did well that first year. Nutrien liked the response, so from there, they asked us to revegetate two stacks in that same area,” says Keddy. That project proceeded the following two years, and CWFC introduced its high yield afforestation pattern involving hybrid poplar.

CWFC would like to establish a mixedwood plantation where it has grown its high yield afforestation plantation by planting coniferous seedlings in the understorey once crown closure occurs. The benefit of this approach is that it extends the lifespan of the plantation. Once the faster-growing hardwood crop reaches maturity and is ready for harvest, the slower-growing coniferous crop then takes over, providing Nutrien with another commercial crop while continuing to manage such important issues as water run-off for 80 or more additional years.

The woody fibre crops have themselves benefitted from being applied on these phosphogypsum stacks. Although a benign byproduct of fertilizer production, the phosphogypsum still contains some nutrients that benefit plant growth. This has expressed itself in vigorous tree growth within the first three years.

“It is quite a paradigm shift for them (people from other countries) to be thinking about the beneficial use of phosphogypsum in situ to grow trees,” says Nichol.

For more information about the Nutrien project, contact Tim Keddy at [email protected], or CWFC Program Manager Derek Sidders at [email protected].

Nutrien Environmental Scientist Dr. Connie NicholAlberta Aspen Innovation Centre launches in China through Alberta Innovates collaboration


One goal of the new Alberta Aspen Innovation Centre at Nanjing Forestry University in China is to open new export markets for oriented strandboard produced in the province.

Alberta’s forest industry has a new pathway to tap into China’s vast market with the recent launch of the Alberta Aspen Innovation Centre at Nanjing Forestry University. It is a new platform of international collaboration in technological innovation of wood processing and furniture manufacturing.

Through its joint support of the centre with the university, the province’s goal is to encourage more use of Alberta’s abundant aspen resource in China.

Alberta’s oriented strandboard (OSB) producers have a strong desire to diversify their product mix and markets to reduce their dependency on the American housing market where most of the province’s OSB is used. This initiative addresses those industry priorities.

Alberta Innovates CEO Laura Kilcrease represented the province at the signing and inauguration ceremony last November at Nanjing Forestry University in China. Establishment of the Alberta Aspen Innovation Centre is an excellent start to a new five-year partnership to continue development of new strand-based products, she noted. This extends a decades-long partnership with the university, to develop non-structural applications of panelboard products using Alberta aspen in China.

The last five-year partnership agreement, signed in 2013, yielded significant benefits to Alberta’s forest industry. Norbord, one of several, large oriented strandboard (OSB) producers in the province, has established a business partnership with Tubao, one of China’s leading flooring, wooden door, veneer and plywood manufacturers. Tubao has 753 franchised stores in China and 3,000 employees.

Norbord, a Canadian-based global producer of panelboard products, has 15 OSB mills. Two OSB plants are in Alberta. The company’s High Level mill can produce 860 million square feet of OSB annually on a 3/8th inch basis, and the Grande Prairie mill is capable of producing 730 million square feet on a 3/8th inch basis.

Last April, Alberta Innovates renewed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Tubao to continue joint research and development of wood products in the Chinese market.

Kilcrease noted that encouraging more aspen use by China’s forest products industry represents a significant business opportunity for the province.

“One thing we do have in great abundance is forest,” she said at the Alberta Aspen Innovation Centre inauguration event, noting that of Alberta’s 30.7 million cubic metre annual allowable and sustainable wood harvest, 12 million cubic metres is deciduous, with most of it being aspen.

“Half of our deciduous annual allowable cut is under-utilized,” she said. “So, we see a strong fit for Alberta aspen to meet China’s market demand for wood products.”

Alberta Innovates and Nanjing Forestry University will jointly perform research and development, creative design and technology transfer at the Aspen Innovation Centre. The centre will also promote applications and develop markets for Alberta aspen in China.

While in China, Kilcrease also represented the province at the Alberta Cup awards ceremony at the LuoYang Peninsula Training Centre. It is a home furnishing design competition among Nanjing Forestry University students. The event is organized by Dehua Tubao New Decoration Material Co. Ltd and the university to feature the use of Alberta panelboard products in home furnishings applications. This was the fourth Alberta Cup competition. Sponsors include the Alberta government, China 
National Forest Product Association, Nanjing Forestry University, Tubao and Norbord. Past competitions have yielded as many as 750 design entries.

Both events were an opportunity to bring Alberta’s Chinese partners in wood product development up to date on the consolidation of four research and innovations agencies into a single agency operating under the Alberta Innovates banner. Since this consolidation in late 2016, Alberta Innovates has become the province’s largest research and innovation agency with 600 employees in 10 locations.

According to Alberta Economic Development and Trade, Alberta’s merchandise exports to China between 2012 and 2016 totalled $3.26 billion.

China is Alberta’s third largest lumber market and second largest pulp market, accounting for 21 per cent of the province’s total export market with shipments valued at $489 million in 2016.

In addition to Tubao, the Alberta government and industry have also developed a productive relationship with Dongshun Wood Products, and has hosted five successful softwood lumber grading seminars at various Chinese locations to educate lumber buyers on Western Canadian SPF lumber.

For more information about Alberta Innovates trade initiatives in China, contact AI Communications Specialist Julia Necheff at [email protected].

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
February 2018

On the Cover:
Successful sawmill owners are always seeking ways to improve their operations and make them run more efficiently. If an upgrade in one area of the mill contributes a positive ripple benefit elsewhere in the process, that’s so much the better. That’s exactly what happened with the installation of the first Brunette Machinery Retract-To-Load (RTL) log singulator unit at Carrier Lumber’s Tabor mill operation near Prince George, B.C. (Photo courtesy of Carrier Lumber).

Goin’ south—with PinkWood
Calgary’s PinkWood, which sets itself apart by producing a fire-resistant I-joist line, was initially set up to serve the market in Western Canada, but is now making big inroads into the U.S. market—which is good news for the mills that supply it with lumber and OSB.

Logging Win all the way ‘round
The Snuneymuxw First Nations and Vancouver Island logging contractor A&K Timber are part of a successful venture that is seeing work and revenue being generated for the band, logging work for A&K Timber, and timber being harvested for mill operations on Vancouver Island.

What will sawmills of the future look like?
Will the sawmills of the future be run entirely from an I-Phone or I-Pad? Logging and Sawmilling Journal looks at what might be in store for future sawmills with UBC wood science assistant professor Julie Cool.

Hauer Bros. mill has a lot of history
The mid-sized Hauer Bros. Sawmill in B.C.’s Robson Valley has a long history in the area, and these days finds its market niche producing mostly timber for regional markets in the B.C. Interior.

Advance look at the COFI Conference
Logging and Sawmilling Journal takes a look at the issues—from the softwood lumber dispute to dealing with wildfire-damaged timber in the sawmill—that will be under discussion at the upcoming COFI conference, being held April 4-6 in Prince George, B.C.

New singulator unit increases mill efficiency—and more
New sawmilling technology, in the form of the first Brunette Machinery Retract-To-Load (RTL) log singulator unit, is helping to make operations run more efficiently—and reducing maintenance downtime—at Carrier Lumber’s Tabor sawmill in Prince George, B.C

The Edge
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates and Alberta Agriculture.

The Last Word
The ITC decision on Canadian softwood lumber duties is pure theatre, says Jim Stirling.


Tech Update

Supplier Newsline

For all the latest industry news, subscribe to our twice monthly newsletter!


* indicates required