The Edge: Operational options, issues and economic values of first generation managed natural forests in Canada

by | Dec 18, 2023 | 2023, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, November/December

The transition from natural forests to natural managed forests or ‘plantations’ is well advanced in Canada. Unbeknown to many, approximately 15 per cent of all primary commercial forests in this country are now first generation, managed forests—approximately 40 per cent of those being plantations representing about 20 million hectares, which in many cases are suitable for a first entry partial harvest.

By way of background, over the past 50 years, there has been a major effort to maintain, enhance and create a healthy sustainable wood supply within Canada’s commercial forest. More recently, a changing climate has added a new element that in some cases has resulted in unique and advantageous growing conditions, such as warmer weather and more moisture in some cases. The downside to this changing climate is the potential for more catastrophic events, such as what we witnessed this past summer with wildfires.

Today, we have a vast resource of first generation, managed forests/plantations of both softwoods and mixedwoods. Many of these plantations have been subjected to moderate to intensive forest management, to re-establish and enhance the commercial forest value.

“They are different, with higher yields, better diversity from a localized species perspective, and with a systematic distribution of stems as it relates to what the preferred crop species is, with the management goal of maximizing growth and consistency through access to sunlight, soils, moisture, heat, etc,” says Derek Sidders, Program Manager, Technology Development and Transfer at the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC). “They’ve been transformed from natural systems to enhanced systems, and now we have an opportunity to reap the benefits of that.”

Today, many managed forests have reached a state of being able to deliver commercial value. However, in many cases, they are vulnerable due to such issues as minimal management after meeting regen standards, overstocking, and a changing climate, making them susceptible to natural disturbances and agents such as tree crop competition, mortality, wildfire, drought, insects and disease.

“We should definitely be evaluating every managed stand that is 30 years or older for potential commercial value,” Sidders says. “Even though the stems will be smaller, we could be making entries, removing some of the volume while reaping the value early, and then reaping the long term benefits of a very healthy forest with diversity and more control over the commercial products that industry values most.”

The CWFC, Canadian Forest Service (CFS), other research agencies and provincial and industry partners have numerous studies and demonstration sites that can guide industry in a variety of potential first entry approaches, while also providing evidence of outcomes.

“There is definitely value in making an early entry, accessing those sites through such activities as commercial thinning to increase values and volumes, reduce risk and address the current fibre supply shortage with the development of a sustainable fibre supply,” says Sidders.

While the public sees the regeneration of a forest, these first generation plantations typically consist of systematic patterns that often make first entry harvesting easier and thus more economical. Furthermore, there is often infrastructure that still exists or can easily be re-commissioned to regain access for this first entry. So there can be significant savings to industry compared to the typical costs associated with planning and entering a natural site, which further validates the benefits of this approach.

Industry should be aware that there are also some potential operational challenges with planning and implementing an early entry. For example, there have been various approaches to the establishment of micro-sites and seedling placement for ideal growing conditions. Equipment could encounter furrows, undulations and depressions created from such activities as plowing, mounding and disc trenching, resulting in physical impediments to the mobility of equipment. Therefore, equipment choice, such as a preference for tracked equipment, should be considered, but on a site-specific basis.

Also, each plantation should be evaluated on its own merit as to its suitability for a first entry because depending on the management intensity and other factors as the site evolved toward ‘free to grow’ status, regeneration can be quite variable.

Finally, harvesting smaller stems in a higher density environment will likely require the application of novel practices in variable site retention using partial harvest systems. CWFC and its partners can assist in this regard, with many demonstration sites, showing a variety of softwood and hardwood retention scenarios and outcomes, depending on the overall commercial objective.

For more information about management strategies on first generation plantations, contact Derek Sidders at or Tim Keddy at

Tony Kryzanowski



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