Victor Lieffers: Protecting forests under fire

“The issue is not unsustainable logging. The problem is climate change.”

By Jenna Bell | January 7, 2020

It’s all across the news — Australia is being consumed by the worst wildfires seen in decades. Over a billion animals have now lost their lives, as well as 25 people — and these fires show no signs of stopping. Climate experts predict that natural disasters just like this one are only expected to increase in duration and frequency if change is not made.

Climate change is creating a warmer world. High temperatures plus drier conditions are the perfect recipe for raging wildfires — particularly in forested environments.

And Canada has a lot of forests — just about 10 hectares of forest land per person — which is 17 times greater than the world average! Our country represents 10 per cent of the world’s forest cover and 30 per cent of the world’s boreal forest. What are we doing to protect it?

Dr. Victor Lieffers, University of Alberta

Canada’s forests are sustainably managed — but a U of A senior silviculturist says our current framework does not account for the menacing threats of climate change.

Victor Lieffers is professor at the University of Alberta who is focused on the dangers of climate change on forests. Growing up on a farm, he has always been drawn to the natural world. He started doing research related to growing trees at a young age, and now he has been a forestry professor for 37 years.

The problem with forestry isn’t what you think it is

Many people assume that it’s simply unsustainable to harvest trees. However, the forestry industry is not to blame for deforestation in Canada. In fact, Canada has the most extensively regulated forest management system in the world.

“Canada has the highest rates of forest certification of any country in the world. More than 40 per cent of the land area is certified as sustainably managed,” said Lieffers.

Additionally, we plant a lot of new trees. Within Alberta, 2 billion trees have been planted in the last 20 years. But despite strict regulations, Lieffers thinks Canadian forests are at great risk. “Everything seems peachy keen — but the whole BC forest industry is shrinking this year. There is a major crisis.”

The problem is this: climate change is kicking in.

How many different threats will Canadian forests face in a warmer climate? Exotic insects burrowing into tree trunks. Drought sucking the water out of the air. Fire engulfing the landscape at record speeds.

And if that’s what climate change predicts, then we have to conclude that climate change is already here.

“In the last ten years, fire has burnt about 2.5 to 3 times the area which has been logged. The mountain pine beetle has destroyed 10 times the area which would normally be logged,” said Lieffers.

And the effects are only expected to get worse. By end of century, Alberta’s forests will be unrecognizable. “We predict Alberta will have a massive shift in forest composition — grassland development will take over the boreal forest,” said Lieffers.

Currently, over 61 per cent of Alberta is covered in forest. Forests hold massive amounts of diversity, provide shelter for wildlife, help prevent soil erosion, and generate the very air we breathe. But biologists at the University of Alberta predict that at least half of Alberta’s upland boreal forest is expected to disappear over the next century due to climate change.

Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute

Canadian foresters are not prepared for climate change

If Canadian forestry is to survive the century, Lieffers thinks big changes will need to be made to our modeling and management practices.

“We’re creating forests that are probably too simple, too likely to be burned and too likely to be attacked and killed all at once by insects.”

This means foresters need to pay more attention to planting the right kinds of stands in the right places. Selecting appropriate types of trees for a site minimizes the risk of disturbance, giving trees the best chance for growth and survival.

Lieffers suggests we should also create policies that are more flexible and less restrictive.

“Sometimes our forest policies are too restrictive because they can actually stop innovation and prevent the implementation of good ideas on big issues like climate change, or fire prevention.”

Lieffers is currently writing a paper with a group of colleagues discussing this issue, and suggesting changes which can be made in our forest renewal policies to promote sustainability.

Come hear Victor Lieffers speak more about sustainable forestry on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 at Noon in SAB 1–36.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.



University of Alberta — Sustainability

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.