Peter Kuitenbrouwer is a journalist and registered professional forester who holds a Master of Forest Conservation from the University of Toronto.
Before Christmas I became a registered professional forester, which grants me authority to write prescriptions to care for forests, as dentists are licensed to look after teeth. The Ontario Professional Foresters Association, which governs the profession, asked me to speak this month at its annual conference. Given my two skill sets, journalist and now, forester, they wanted me to talk about how foresters can better communicate with the public.
A forester on the conference organizing committee who works near Sudbury noted that, when a new highway opens, you don’t see a bunch of motorists parked at the side of the road by a new bridge, wondering whether it is safe to continue. The drivers cross the bridge, because they trust the engineers who designed it.
Why, he asks, does the public not feel the same trust in foresters? Why don’t Canadians believe that those who write prescriptions for forest harvest act in the best interest of the forest? Why, from Fairy Creek in British Columbia to Temagami, Catchacoma and Algonquin in Ontario, to James Bay in Quebec, to Annapolis County in Nova Scotia, does the public always second-guess the foresters?
There’s long been an image of our forests as a wild place of mystery and adventure, with towering pines, rapids and grottos, where the battle for survival plays out among wolves, coyotes, beavers, bears, moose, caribou and deer. This mythical picture of the untrammeled deep woods repeats everywhere from Group of Seven paintings to Disney films to TV ads for pickup trucks and beer. Unless a forester works to protect that type of forest, the forester is evil.
Loggers, in fact, have cut much of Canada’s forest, and it has grown back, though photos of forest cut blocks normally accompany stories of protests, not celebrations of the source of our lumber and paper. (It’s tough to make logging look pretty.) Complicating matters in Canada, in contrast to Europe and the United States, is that most forest here is in public hands. An American might worry less about how a private landowner manages a forest they own; in Canada scrutiny is more onerous, since most foresters manage a public resource. Forests are contentious – the setting of conflicts with First Nations or environmentalists or both. All these challenges make foresters a defensive bunch, who rev their chainsaws to scare away critics, an unproductive position that deepens the problem.
Dentists get a bad rap because they charge a lot and it hurts when they drill your teeth. Foresters take a pounding because, well, if we cut all the trees, we all die. In a perfect world, the public will grant foresters the social licence to guide forest harvests for the benefit of Canada, and people will trust that, just as dentists want your teeth to endure and engineers want bridges to last, foresters want the bush to thrive in perpetuity.
When I was a kid, my parents moved us to a big farm in Quebec, mostly woods. It was cold. We developed a utilitarian relationship with the forest, similar to that of the First Peoples and early settlers: We felled trees and split them for firewood, to keep warm. As early as I could, age 16, I got out of there and became a journalist, a profession that afforded me central heating.
Still, the forest came calling.
A few years ago I earned a Southam Journalism Fellowship to Massey College at the University of Toronto: an opportunity to audit any course at the school. I chose forestry. The late Stephen Clarkson, one of Canada’s pre-eminent political scientists, served as the fellows’ academic adviser; he scrawled a map of campus, to show the route from Massey to the Faculty of Forestry. His map did not help; forestry had moved about 25 years earlier. Even as graduate students at Massey College burn wood in fireplaces in their rooms, this story for me illustrates the gulf that separates the intellectual class from contemplating anything so pedestrian as the forest.
A few years later, I quit my job as a journalist and enrolled in the Master of Forest Conservation program at U of T – and got my butt kicked. Forestry combines chemistry, biology and botany with economics, computer modelling, geographic information systems, statistics, ethics and Classics. For one exam, students walk across campus; the professor stops at each of 25 unmarked trees, out of a possible 50 species. Students must identify each tree and spell its Latin and common name. I cleared that hurdle and others; even so my skills at handling a canoe did not make up for having never used Excel.
My studies in forestry opened my eyes to the rigours that researchers in forestry, as in other disciplines, lend to academic publications; the citation of every morsel of fact in a scientific paper is an attention to detail unfamiliar to deadline-driven daily journalists. More fundamentally, I learned what foresters actually do: In the words of Dr. Sandy Smith, director of forestry programs at U of T, “Nobody imagines that what foresters are planning is to make sure forests grow.”
Dr. Sean Thomas showed his students reforestation in the Durham Regional Forest. In the 19th century, settlers cleared Southern Ontario for farms, which proved disastrous in areas with sandy soils. With the trees gone the soil blew away, creating deserts; sand dunes engulfed roads. Farmers abandoned the land. Early foresters at U of T prescribed reforestation. Planting began in the early 1900s. Crews planted millions of red pine saplings, for example. These plantations have thrived; through management, foresters have transformed these monocultures into healthy mature mixed forests.
You don’t read about this in the news, because “trees grow” makes a lousy headline.
Instead, what we get is the framing of the issue as us-versus-them when it comes to reporting on forest topics. For instance, last month the newspaper Le Droit, which covers the national capital region, reported on the Quebec government’s target to increase, by 39 per cent, the forest harvest in Quebec’s Outaouais region, where I grew up. Two of three articles the paper published supported the decision to log more trees. And yet the newspaper’s front page headline called the logging plan “a slap in the face,” quoting one biologist.
As a journalist, I get it: “Like a slap in the face” makes a more exciting front page than the related story on Page 6, “Change the model of forest management.” In that story, forest researcher Christian Messier suggests that we set aside one section of the Outaouais to grow intensive mixed forests. This heavily managed forest could produce five times the biomass of the current forests, Dr. Messier said, and allow loggers to leave more other forest intact. Dr. Messier’s prescription (which the newspaper published, to its credit) echoes Europe’s strategy: grow trees in intensively managed forests to cut them, a lot like farm crops.
Centuries ago, having cut down most of their woods, Europeans realized they had a problem, so they invented forestry. In France, loggers right now are felling about 1,000 oak trees, each more than a century old, to rebuild the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral that burned in 2019. A petition against the cut gathered 40,000 signatures, but local foresters offer a simple justification: They’ve cut oaks for church spires (not to mention wine barrels) for centuries; cutting these older oaks will give light to smaller oaks around them, allowing those to grow heavenward.
Perhaps our challenge in Canada is that we lack similar cultural touchstones made of wood. “Canada is a forest nation but not a forest culture,” says Fred Pinto, executive director of the foresters’ association. “It’s easier when people are not connected to something, they can romanticize it or fear it.” That’s starting to change; grand buildings that celebrate wood include Vancouver’s airport, a hospital in Thunder Bay and a new mass timber building rising on Toronto’s waterfront as part of George Brown College. Wood buildings store carbon for decades or centuries; in the meantime forests grow back and store more carbon.
Forestry is so much more than just cutting the bush. The fastest-growing sector of membership in the Ontario Professional Foresters Association is urban forestry. “Cities have become aware that trees are an important component of their landscape,” Mr. Pinto says. “They want to make sure their budget on trees is spent well.”
When activists block logging roads at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, their beef is not with foresters but with provincial governments, who approve any logging on Crown land. I empathize with some protests; certainly I want those 1,000-year-old yellow cedars to live another day. But can we please agree that some forest harvest is okay? The National Observer wrote last year that Ontario, by permitting logging in Algonquin Provincial Park, was “failing to protect nature.” But the forest industry has cut trees in Algonquin since 1830 – nearly two centuries. And yet when I go there, I meet moose, turtles, beavers and loons. Recently a bear broke into our cooler and drank our beer. Thanks to forest management, wilderness endures – not a good headline, but good news.
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