by Megan de Graaf, Forest Ecologist

At Community Forests International, we talk a lot about the importance about managing our forests “sustainably.” But what does “sustainable management” actually mean?

Here in the the Maritime Provinces, the forestry industry has a long history of managing forests for a narrow set of goals, mostly to do with producing timber, which is then processed to make construction lumber and paper products. This narrow suite of goals has led us to manage our forests intensively, with short harvest rotations where trees are harvested, planted and harvested again on a 40-60 year rotation. Bio-diverse forests are replaced with softwood plantations and harmful herbicides are used to kill competing vegetation.

This intensive management has been to the detriment of wildlife habitats, flood protection, water quality and more. That blinkered vision of forests as just a source of fiber commodity is coming back to bite us now, especially as our forests are in a weakened state and no longer the ally they could be in mitigating climate change. Returning to sustainable management could be how we overcome this challenge.

Cutting trees down isn’t inherently bad. By following some basic principles, we can continue to make an income from our forests while respecting the land. It probably needs to be said that a sustainable harvest fundamentally means choosing the future of the forest over the present and that certainly means not cutting everything. A sustainable harvest is one that takes the poor and leaves the good—it improves the stand so that the next time someone harvests, they have a better quality of forest to draw from.

A sustainable harvest is also one that doesn’t degrade wildlife habitats, and minimizes as much as possible any negative effects on the trees, seedlings and soils that are left behind. Protecting those parts of the forest during a harvest is an investment in stronger and healthier trees, and more resilient habitats and ecosystems. A sustainable harvest also ensures permanent retention of some trees, ideally from a range of sizes and species, to make sure that the habitats associated with those trees are secure in perpetuity.

And more and more, sustainable forest management means incorporating climate adaptation. Climate change threatens the long-term health of our forests and their ability to safely store carbon; without some corrective management, we risk losing forests and making climate change immeasurably worse. By making proactive management decisions now, we can make sure that we actually have a diverse and resilient forest long into the future. Now, more than ever, “sustainability” means being intentional and careful stewards of the land.