Figuring out which species of tree seedlings work best, and where, in British Columbia’s warming climate

by | Feb 16, 2024 | 2024, January/February, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, The Last Word

Out in the bush near Fort Babine, B.C. is a plot of recently planted tree seedlings. They are destined to be under unusual levels of scrutiny as they battle for survival and growth—if they grow at all. The odds are stacked against them.

The seedlings are trying to establish themselves in a hostile environment. They are competing with a host of faster growing forest plants for sunlight and moisture under drying conditions. The young trees will also face predation from other forest dwelling species and possible infestation from a variety of pathogens.

The Fort Babine site includes species not normally planted in that part of west central British Columbia. It is why the response and health of the surviving seedlings will attract more than the usual levels of interest. Spruce and pine seedlings are included in the Fort Babine sample plot as would be expected in central B.C. But they are joined by the seedlings of five other species not normally associated with planting programs in the region. The list includes Douglas fir; ponderosa pine; western larch; cedar and birch.

The Fort Babine plantation site initiative is being spearheaded by the B.C. Ministry of Forests with the support of a variety of forest industry partners. The hope is the Fort Babine plantation will become part of a chain across the province. The mixed species plantations are in direct response to B.C.’s warming climate. The idea is the various Fort Babine’s across the province will in time produce a useful insight into which tree seedlings respond best, and where.

The interconnected implications of a warming climate have become more numerous. What’s not so easy to determine is what the cumulative effects will be across time. Data drawn from multiple sources can help answer some of the questions.

The warming climate tosses a spanner into the works of conventional thinking. Some of the old norms must be re-examined in light of increases in forest research in a warmer and more volatile growing environment for tree seedlings. What are the impacts on a tree’s growing cycle from the warming climate? And what happens to the traditional character of a species grown under warmer conditions?

A white spruce grown east of Prince George under long cold winter conditions develops a cellular structure making the wood manufactured from it ideal for construction compared, say, with a eucalyptus stud made from a fast maturing plantation-grown tree west of Punta Arenas, Chile. What effects will the warming climate have on the B.C. white spruce?

Recent research is indicating seedlings don’t need to be planted with seeds originating from the same geographic area. There’s been a shift in thinking. The spruce and pine seedlings in the Fort Babine site are taken from different areas. The driving factor is now thought to be a compatible climate type.

The timing of seedling planting is another variable entering the equation. Spring is the traditional season for planting tree seedlings in B.C. It’s the time when troops of usually young people descend on small towns across the B.C. Interior and on Vancouver Island. Many of them are students trying to earn a grubstake for university and colleges across the country. Research is now indicating that fall planting might be a more beneficial time to introduce tree seedlings to a new environment. It’s a grey area, south to north in a province with rising temperatures and precipitation extremes.

“We’re in the early stages here of putting these trials in,” explained Pamela Dykstra at the start of the Fort Babine experiment last spring. She is research lead, forest ecology interpretation, with the Ministry of Forests in Smithers, B.C. “What we have to do as time goes on is to create a more widespread network of trials in other areas of the province.” She added the project’s staff were becoming more involved with the needed collaborative process with its partners and fine tuning the trial management process. The trials are a small part of a broader process to learn how future forests in B.C. will respond to the warming climate.

The inclusion of birch in the species list at Fort Babine is significant. It’s the only hardwood species to be included. But birch has other attributes especially suited to the times: it acts as a natural forest fire inhibitor. Its thick bark helps slow a fire’s spread and its structure reduces “flaring”.

The devastation caused by forest fires in B.C. in recent years to people, infrastructure and ecosystems has been incalculable. Last year set yet another new record. There were 2,124 wildfires which burned 2.84 million hectares of forest land in B.C. between April 1 and October 31, 2023. The experts hold out little hope for any positive change in the trend in 2024 and beyond.

The Fort Babine style experiments are likely to reinforce one fact: trees are remarkably resilient organisms. They have the genetic ability to respond to changes in their growing environments. It gives rise to an important question. Will the forest industry and its decision makers demonstrate an equal ability to best plan the composition and health of future forest lands in B.C.?

Jim Stirling

Author

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