Malcolm Squires: Canada Is a Forest Nation

Book Cover Dynamic Forest

The boreal forest is constantly changing, often dramatically. We like to picture it as a stable, balanced system. Really, it is anything but stable. The boreal forest is dynamic.

For over sixty years, forester Malcolm F. Squires has seen mature forests within protected areas devastated by insects, moose, wind, and wildfire. While the forests often return from this destruction, they are never quite the same. A naturally balanced boreal forest is a human notion that does not match the reality of nature. If we don’t soon recognize and accept that reality and stop making irrational demands that a forest be “protected” from change or human management, we may be dooming them to disaster.

Read the introduction to his new book, Dynamic Forest: Man Versus Nature in the Boreal Forest


Canada is a forest nation. Our forests benefit each and every one of us, regardless of whether we live in Whitecourt, Millertown, Gull Bay, or Toronto. Some of those benefits are obvious, but many are less obvious, especially if we live in larger cities far from the boreal forest. Those benefits are often thought of as separate and independent, but, like in the forest itself, every benefit is part of an interdependent whole.

The forest industry can’t be easily separated from the transportation, energy, mining, and tourism industries, because to variable degrees they are all dependent on each other for their success. The success of businesses within those industries in turn helps ensure the economic and social viability of our communities and the quality of life we have come to expect.

There are many other benefits that, because of the wealth provided by business, we can participate in or use. First to come to mind are the numerous everyday products that are on our store shelves: lumber and the scores of paper and pulp products, such as tissue, magazine, packaging, and wrapping papers. Then there is wood fibre in some of our clothing and even forest-derived ingredients in some of our toothpastes and medicines. We keep adding new products with advancing knowledge and technology. As I write this, I am looking around my office and all, or a part, of practically everything I see came from the forest. The wood in the framing, walls, and floors of my house, the paper on the wall, my book case and the books in it, the reports and files in my filing cabinets, even some of the ingredients in the paints on the walls and in my art supplies are made to some degree from forest products.

All of those products are dependent on trees, but trees are only part of the forest. Think of the other products of the land: the wild meat, fish, skins, berries, and mushrooms. These are all items that we extract from the forest, and they easily command a dollar value. However, there are other, less tangible benefits, including carbon storage, oxygen production, water regulation, climate buffering, aesthetics, relaxation, and spiritual enhancement. The boreal forest is home to billions of migratory and non-migratory birds, mammals, insects, spiders, reptiles, amphibians, plants, and fungi. Time spent in the woods is beneficial to our mental and physical health. Yes, the boreal forest is a necessary part of our human habitat.

Of course, it is easier to quantify the economic importance of Canada’s forest to Canadians. Our forests and forest industry supported directly and indirectly 288,669 jobs in 2014 and when the industry was at a low point it paid $8.657 billion in wages during 2012. Total revenue from goods manufactured by the industry was $53.159 billion in 2012 and total exports from the sector were valued at $30.774 billion in 2014.

Because of the immense importance of forests to Canada and the world, it is imperative that we sustain them and ensure their health. In order to do that, it is necessary to use proper forestry practices, which in many cases, particularly in Canada’s boreal forest, involves clear-cut harvesting. I acknowledge that probably the majority of Canadians believe that clear-cutting the forest is bad for the environment, but I intend to demonstrate in this book that if we are to live in, utilize, and sustain a healthy boreal forest, then clear-cut harvesting and even-aged stand management has to remain the predominant silvicultural system.

Some Comparative Statistics

Forests cover only 27 percent of the world’s four billion hectare land area. Because of human population increase and forest area shrinkage, the available forest per person has dropped from 0.8 hectares in 1990 to only 0.6 hectares in 2015. I feel that if that ratio continues to deteriorate we are headed for serious trouble. It is becoming clear to me that we must control our birthrate, sacrifice some of our wants, and co-operate at sustaining our forests.

Canada has a total of roughly 347 million hectares of forested area, or approximately 9 percent of the world’s total, and 9.5 hectares of forest for every one of its citizens. That provides us with a wealth of opportunity compared to the opportunity available to residents of most other nations. It also places a huge responsibility on each of us to ensure our forests are well managed.

Canada stands out in many ways among forested nations. For instance, only 6.2 percent of the Canadian forest is privately owned, and that is predominantly held by industry. The provinces own 76.6 percent, the territories 12.9 percent, First Nations 2.0 percent, and the federal government 1.6 percent. The majority of forest harvesting in Canada is carried out by industry and their contractors through timber licences acquired from the provinces.

By comparison, in Finland, individuals and families own 66 percent of the forested land. “There are approximately 350,000 privately owned forests in Finland, making private, non-industrial forest owners central actors in the Finnish timber trade.” There, for practical reasons and economy of scale, land owners sell standing timber to firms who do the harvesting.

No two nations in the world have the same legislation, forest policies, land ownership patterns, climate, forest soil, plant and fauna species, and disturbance patterns. Even within Canada there are differences in all of those across the nation, sometimes over relatively short distances.

I have discovered in my reading that there is a trend among many nations, including in Canadian jurisdictions, toward returning forests to their more natural patterns. Most acknowledge that objective will never be fully achieved, because of our human need for resources.

Significantly, “more than 46 percent of the country’s forests are certified. As of 2015, Canada had 166 million hectares of independently certified forest land. That represents 43 percent of all certified forests worldwide, the largest area of third-party certified forests in any country." I am proud of that.

Fire is the greatest renewal agent in the Canadian boreal forest. The average area burned each year for the past twenty-five years has been approximately 2.5 million hectares, with this area being consumed by an average of approximately 7,500 fires. Only 3 percent of the fires are responsible for burning 97 percent of the area that is burned, doing so in large firestorms. In comparison, timber harvesting is responsible for only a fraction of the depletion of Canada’s forests caused by fires. During 2015, the area harvested—0.77 million hectares—was only 31 percent of that which is burned in the average year. Also in 2015, 0.44 million hectares, equivalent to 57 percent of the harvested area, was planted and 17.4 thousand hectares was seeded. The remainder was left to regenerate naturally.

Among the Nordic and Baltic nations, “The highest proportion of planted forests, but also the smallest forest area, is found in Denmark, with an estimated 66 percent share of productive planted forests (FAO 2014b). Second and third are, however, the two largest countries, Sweden and Finland, with planted forest shares of 43 and 26 percent, respectively.”

Forest Management Is About Balancing Competing Interests

There are few easy decisions in forestry. Forest management is about balancing competing interests; an action that satisfies the needs of one person may, and usually does, damage the interests of others. Ontario’s legislation and regulations that pertain to forest management require forest planners and practitioners to weigh competing interests and maintain balance while obeying the law. To be successful, forest managers have to be excellent dancers, or to use another analogy, they have to be excellent skaters and stick handlers.

Competing interests include the province as it tries to satisfy our economic and social needs; First Nations’ treaty rights; forestry, tourism, mining, energy, and transportation industries; and cottagers, hunters, gatherers, those who find spiritual connection with nature, and others. Most of those interests are in direct conflict at some time over forest use, but sometimes they may co-operate when they perceive common ground. 

It is not surprising that tensions exist, because so many depend on the forest for so much. With an ever-increasing number of people but an ever-shrinking area of forest land available to them, conflicts inevitably arise. When humans first evolved, our first priority with the forest was to extract the raw materials for food, clothing, and shelter that were necessary for our survival. In those earliest days, there was no real conflict regarding harvesting food and wood from the forest because the number of people was small and the forests were so vast. As our populations increased and we spread around the world, however, our pressure on the forest increased. More and more, we used what tools were available, or we created, to extract from and change the forest to meet our increasing demands. The first tool was possibly fire and it appears to have been used by all humans, wherever we went, to change our surroundings to our benefit. The clear-cutting tool was developed much later by an evolving human society.

We have since increased in sufficient numbers and developed the technology to eradicate all forests and change the world’s entire ecosystem. Of course we didn’t collectively intend doing such a crazy thing, so some nations have enacted laws to control their citizens who would, through disregard for others, endanger the well-being of humanity. Canada is one of those nations.

Excerpt from the first chapter of Dynamic Forest, by Malcolm F. Squires. Copyright © 2017 by Malcolm F. Squires. All Rights Reserved. Published by Dundurn Press, Toronto.

August 24, 2017
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