A tree trial is taking place near Smithers that aims to improve the future timber supply while looking at how different species are adapting to climate change.
Approximately 275 million seedlings are planted in the province every year and when those trees are harvested 60 to 80 years after they are planted, the climate could be 3 or 4 degrees warmer than when the seedlings were planted, exposing the trees to maladaptation and health risks.
Government researchers have started a large, long-term climate change research study called the Assisted Migration Adaptation Trial. The project will help forest managers understand tree species’ climate tolerances so they can select seed lots best adapted to current and future climates.
One of the chosen test sites is east of Smithers, just south of Fort Babine on some areas that were burned last year to reduce fuel loading and wildfire impacts.
Researchers in the forest sector are currently looking into climate adaptation and trying to mitigate unfavourable climate impacts — such as 2021’s heat dome.
Pamela Dykstra, research lead, forest ecology interpretations, said the standard of thinking that whatever was taken off a lot, had to return and had to be planted with seeds from local trees is changing.
“If we took pine off the site, we put pine back on it. If we took fir off, maybe we could put fir and pine back on that site. And we’ve run on these assumptions in forestry that we know what will do well on the site, and we’ve had a confidence in our forest management, where we’ve been able to do quite an effective job,” she said.
“At this point in time, reforestation licensees are obligated to enforce it with very tight rules around that. If a fire disturbance comes in and burns the forest down, even if it’s a young forest, we still go back and we replant a lot of that land. And so, reforestation is the crux of an ongoing supplier of goods and services from our managed forests.”
She said the science is now pointing toward the fact that seeds are actually adapted to their climate more so than to their site environment.
They are hoping the study will help predict what experts think will do well on the sites in the future.
Project manager Larry McCulloch of LM Forest Resource Solutions said there are risks to the trials, such as the trees not surviving.
“We’re trying to mitigate climate impacts by looking forward to what’s going to be most suited. But some people might say, well, you are kind of messing around with nature here. And it’s risky business,” he said. “But the status quo is also risky. There’s risks on every side. So we’re trying to navigate through that and understand what factors drive the outcomes.”
Before the prescribed burn, the lots near Smithers used to have pine and spruce on them. For the trial, 10 different species of trees will be planted there now including pine and spruce from different locations in the province; Douglas fir; ponderosa pine; western larch; cedar and birch.
The project will also look at what time is best to plant the trees, with some research, in some parts of the province, pointing to fall planting for some species instead of spring.
There are other lots with other species being tested across the province.
The growth and health of the seedlings will be monitored and related to the climate of the plantations, enabling researchers to identify the seed sources most likely to be best adapted to current and future climates.
Dykstra said this information will be used to revise B.C.’s species and seed source selection guidelines, helping to ensure maximum health and productivity of planted forests well into the future.
“We’re in the early stages here of putting these trials in,” said Dykstra.
“And what we hope to do is, as time goes on, to create a more widespread network of trials in other areas of the province as well. And so we’re just slowly building our collaborations, and kind of working out the kinks of putting these trials in the ground.
She expects they will become part of a formalized experimental project, which is a designation government has for essentially protecting the trials and ensuring they have longevity.
“And so these will become permanently acknowledged sites that we can continue to measure through time, on the one hand, and then around the province, we will be developing other trials, based on information needs in those areas.”
She said it is all about envisioning what future forests are going to be.
“This is representative of the kind of innovation that we’re seeing now in the ministry of forests in response to climate change.”
Students from Smithers Secondary will be helping to plant on Friday (June 16.)