Forest Health merger will help our forests “weather” a changing climate

We’ve spent quite a bit of time on the blog talking about warming temperature trends and what they mean for our forests. For example, the report that studied 2011’s Flat Top fire in Slave Lake predicts that as temperatures rise, wildfires will only continue to get more powerful – and we’ll need the best possible tools to fight them. Special funding is helping us combat this.

But wildfires aren’t the only problem – they’re just the most visible one. Although our forests look peaceful, they’re fighting battles every day – with diseases, the mountain pine beetle, and other invasive species. And lately, we’re seeing more – and new – outbreaks, linked to warming temperatures.

Photo of damage caused by the mountain pine beetle.

Mountain pine beetle is just one of many insects that target our trees.

If we’re going to help our forests be sustainable, we need to harness their natural potential through genetic conservation, so they can thrive in difficult conditions. Luckily, we have a team of folks who are equipped to do exactly that: Alberta’s Tree Improvement and Seed Centre (ATISC).

The centre works to protect the genetic health of our forest tree species. A big part of this is conserving the resources you can’t see with the naked eye: genes. By studying and conserving the genetics of our forest trees, we can determine which ones have the best internal resources (genetic make-up) to adapt to new weather conditions and attacks from insects and disease.

Nature or nurture? Both! Phenotype = genes x environment 

Genes can help trees adapt because they are one of the factors that helps determine a tree’s phenotype – its physical characteristics (such as height and disease resistance). But it’s not the only one – phenotype is determined by genotype and the environment in which a tree grows (in other words, the soil, moisture, temperature, light, and other factors).

Genetic trials allow us to see how the genetic differences between trees can help them adapt to different environments. Seed is collected from many trees across Alberta and planted in trials across the province – from Castle Mountain to north of High Level – under various environmental conditions. Some of these trials are attacked by insects or become infected with diseases. By observing how each type of tree grows in different soil, weather, and light conditions, we can see which ones can best adapt to certain environments and challenges.

We can use this knowledge to select and breed hardier trees that are better at weathering changing conditions. The end result: it’s the natural adaptability of our forest trees that will help them – and us – adjust to climate change.

Photo of trees.

Planting trees in different ‘trial’ groups allows us to see how different genes react to different conditions.

The coolest news you won’t see anywhere else: over 70 million trees were planted last year in Alberta

Do you know what week it is? Guess! No, seriously, guess.

It’s National Forestry Week – but we’ll forgive you if it hasn’t occurred to you to celebrate. Like the forests it celebrates, this holiday is important – but it’s also a bit unsung.

Although we all know how important our forests are – for ecosystem health and for the health of Albertans – we often don’t give them as much attention as they deserve. If our trees were to suddenly disappear, our ingratitude would likely change in a hurry – but fortunately, Alberta has a system in place to ensure that never happens.

Photo of a coniferous forest in Alberta.

60% of Alberta is forested – and we plan to keep it that way.

In previous posts, we’ve told you about Alberta’s reforestation program and our cement-walled seed bunker. Although our extensive seed collection program has many uses – some research-related and some practical – one of its biggest jobs is to supply the trees needed to re-plant harvested areas after logging operations.

Although it’s at times overshadowed by our biggest export – oil – trees are big business for Alberta. About 60 per cent (!) of the province is forested, and each year, approximately 75 000 hectares are harvested – making us the fourth largest forestry province in Canada.

With thousands of hectares harvested each year, you might wonder why how Alberta’s forests continue to thrive. The answer is simple: the province requires reforestation of all harvested areas within two years. The practical result of this? Anywhere from 70 – 80 million trees are planted each year – and the result is a landscape that stays green and healthy.

So how do you conjure a lush green oasis from nothing in just two years – magic? Although these trees might appear to spring up overnight, they are actually the end product of a lot of meticulous work and planning.

Prior to harvest, companies survey and collect the seed that will be required to re-plant the area. That seed is stored in Alberta’s very own reforestation seed bunker in a stable, climate controlled environment until they are needed to be sown and then planted. And, since about 15% of planting is done with genetically improved seeds (more on that in our next post), we can help the next generation of trees grow up stronger, taller, and more resistant to disease – helping ensure that our mighty forests remain for generations to come.

The seeds of something great: inside Alberta’s Reforestation Seed Bunker

Photo of the Alberta Reforestation Seed Bunker

Concrete bunkers: not just for criminal masterminds anymore.

This is the second post in our four-post series about how we work to support re-forestation in Alberta. Take a look at the first post here.

Deep in a nest of trees about 15 minutes outside the town of Smoky Lake sits a large concrete bunker, built into the hillside. With 16-inch walls and no windows, it looks foreboding – passerby would be forgiven for assuming that it housed high-tech weapons or state secrets. But in fact, something less tantalizing lurks behind those walls – unless you’re a squirrel, in which case the bunker might as well be Fort Knox.

Housed inside the bunker, in freezer compartments held at -18°C, is 53,000 kilograms of tree, shrub, and grass seed. Like any  bunker, it is locked down tight and has a top-notch security system – monitored 24/7 by the Alberta Government Protection Services for temperature changes, mechanical failure, fire, intruders, and anything else that might disturb the safety of the precious cargo stored within.

Photo of lodgepole pinecones on the tree.

Protecting little seeds and cones is a surprisingly big job. These are from a lodgepole pine. Photo credit: Walter Siegmund.

This might seem like overkill – but in fact, this high-tech security is protecting a serious asset. Almost 32,000 kilograms of the seed housed in the bunker belongs to logging, oil sands, and mining companies – and will ultimately be used to turn public land impacted by industry back into lush, green forest.

Little seeds with a big purpose

By law, public land that is clear-cut for logging must be reclaimed – replanted with native vegetation – within two years, and many other industrial operations are required to reclaim disturbed areas with native vegetation as well. Successful reforestation and reclamation requires that companies properly harvest and store enough tree, shrub, and grass seeds to meet their land’s reforestation needs, and that those seeds are native to the region and ecosystem being reclaimed.

To make things even more challenging, the process also requires genetic diversity – meaning that companies can’t just harvest hundreds of seeds from a single tree before it’s cut down and use them to re-plant an entire forest. Re-planting requires a representative sample of seeds, from a diverse number of plants, to ensure forest health.

The Alberta Tree Improvement and Seed Centre (ATISC) – which operates the bunker – doesn’t do this work themselves; that’s the responsibility of industry. But they do enforce standards that ensure seed used for reforestation is harvested appropriately, stored properly, and – finally – planted successfully. Few of us are aware of the work they do – but we’ve probably all seen the results. In just a couple of years, reclamation can turn a completely clear-cut area into an oasis – stay tuned to see exactly what this looks like.

Clones, bunkers, and banks: the complex science behind preserving Alberta’s forests

This is the first post in a four-post series about how we work to support re-forestation in Alberta. Take a look at the second post, about the Alberta’s Reforestation Seed Bunker, here

 If a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? We’ve all been asked this little hypothetical gem before. But let me ask you another question: if no one is around to plant a new tree, does one still grow?

The answer isn’t surprising: of course it does. But it might surprise you to know that since the 1970s, Alberta’s forests have been regenerating with a little help from their friends – specifically, the staff of the Alberta Tree Improvement & Seed Centre (ATISC).

To understand the benefits of ATISC’s work, consider the forest lifecycle. Although these majestic green canopies might seem unchanging and eternal, they’re actually changing constantly – from human activity, but also from the effects of competition, fire, insects, and disease.

Photo of a forest and wetland near Fort McMurray, Alberta

Alberta’s forests may look eternal – but really, they’re eternally changing

This process might seem destructive – and sometimes it is. But it can also actually be a positive opportunity for the forest to grow back healthier than before – and the stronger, taller, and more disease-resistant the trees, the greater the long-term benefit to both people and ecosystems.

While natural re-growth provides an opportunity for stronger, healthier trees to grow, there’s no guarantee that this will happen. That’s where ATISC comes in – developing tools and resources to help strengthen new forests while ensuring they remain region and ecosystem appropriate. While some of these tools are pretty conventional, others might surprise you. Did you know, for example…

  • …that there’s a bunker with 16-inch deep concrete walls in the county of Smoky Lake storing over 53,000 kilograms of
    Photo of the Alberta Reforestation Seed Bunker

    Concrete bunkers: not just for criminal masterminds anymore

    tree, shrub and grass seed native to Alberta?

  • …that if you’ve traveled across Alberta, there’s a good chance you’ve driven by fields of clones and not even realized it?
  • …that ATISC staff must not only harvest the seeds of certain trees by helicopter, but must also install temporary ‘cages’ around the seeds to win a war with wildlife?

Over the next two weeks, we’ll take you inside Alberta’s Reforestation Seed Bunker, to lush forests now growing in areas leveled by logging and forest fires – and many other places. Stay tuned.