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Restoring Damaged Forests

Forests provide us with an array of social, economic and environmental benefits, which is why we need to ensure that they stay healthy. Things like natural disasters, pests and resource extractions can pose a problem. On this episode, we talk to a scientist who is working with industry, academia, Indigenous communities and various levels of government to reclaim and restore damaged forest landscapes.

Transcript

Joel Houle

When you think about a typical Canadian landscape, you think majestic mountains, peaceful lakes and lush forests as far as the eye can see. Forests are a part of our Canadian identity, but they’re also tied to our well-being.

Forests provide us with an array of social, economic and environmental benefits, which is why we need to ensure that they stay healthy. Things like natural disasters, pests and resource extractions can pose a problem.

On this episode, we talk to a scientist who is working with industry, academia, Indigenous communities and various levels of government to reclaim and restore damaged forest landscapes.

Music Intro

Welcome to a new episode of Simply Science — the podcast that talks about the amazing scientific work that our experts at Natural Resources Canada are doing.

My name is Joel Houle. And joining me, remotely from a safe distance, is my cohost Barb Ustina. Barb, how are you?

Barbara Ustina

I’m just fine thanks, Joel. Well, how are you doing?

Joel Houle

I’m doing good. How has quarantine life been for you?

Barbara Ustina

Well, it’s been quite an eye opener. And like a lot of people across the country, it all has kind of happened so quickly. And so it took a while to set up my home office. But I’m really impressed with how all the technology is helping us to stay connected. And look, here we are, recording our very first work-from-home podcast.

Joel Houle

Yeah, exactly. Depending on when you’re listening to this, I guess we haven’t really been able to release an episode in four months, since March. And we’re in July now. So that’s been kind of an adjustment as well on our end, getting the technical gear ready, trying to adjust to this new situation that we’re in.

Barb, do you want to provide our audience with a little bit of background on what’s been happening at Natural Resources Canada the past few months?

Barbara Ustina

Oh yeah. It’s been quite an interesting time here, at Natural Resources Canada, like for a lot of people across Canada as well. Our government officials are busy trying to make sense of the COVID pandemic. So we’ve all had to adjust to the situation, our work situation, how to adjust our workplaces, how to adjust our work schedule, how to stay in touch. And all of us are working at home now. There were lots of things to try to figure out at the get-go, and now we found a way to move forward. So here we are.

Joel Houle

Yeah, and it’s hard as well for our scientific community, because a lot of the work that they do is either in labs or doing fieldwork. So they had to adjust as well. So, I mean, this is where we got to where we are now. So I think we’re in a good place to restart the podcast. Maybe we’re not going to be able to do two a month like we were doing before. But you know, we’re going to try to do at least one a month and keep this thing going.

Barbara Ustina

Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting work that continues at NRCan. Our scientists have set up labs at home, they brought seismic monitoring equipment home. So it’s like everything you could do at your office you can now do at home.

Joel Houle

People are being very, very innovative, and — lucky for us — our scientists and our experts are still willing to talk to us about the kind of things that they’re doing. Our guest today is actually going to be talking about restoring forest landscapes. So, Barb, as someone who’s lived on the West Coast, who’s lived in Alberta, have you taken advantage of the natural landscapes of those regions?

Barb Ustina

Oh, yeah. That’s sort of an annual ritual for anybody who lives there, grew up in Alberta, to take a road trip every year, driving out to the west, the far west coast of Vancouver Island. And we did a lot of camping when I was a kid. One year, I think I was around 10 years old and we decided to take a trip to Long Beach, which is a beautiful stretch of sand on the very far west coast of Vancouver Island between Ucluelet and Tofino. So it’s tons of fun for kids. But my mom, bless her heart, decided that instead of playing on the beach one day, took us all to an interpretive tour of a rainforest that had been destroyed by fire the year before. So, I mean, that was my early introduction to landscape restoration. I guess we learned how fire was part of the regeneration of forest life. We saw some of the early signs of the forest coming back to life, you know, small flowers and ground cover. And we also learned a bit about the work it took to keep the forest going. So that was a big highlight of that year to me. Of course, I remember the forest tour, but I don’t remember all the details. So I’m really looking forward to today’s interview.

Joel Houle

Well, that’s great. I mean, this is the perfect time to bring our expert on so he can explain in his own words what is forest landscape restoration and why it’s so important.

Joel Houle

Joining us today is Nicolas Mansuy from the Canadian Forest Service. Nicolas, how are you?

Nicolas Mansuy

I’m great. What about you?

Joel Houle

Really good. Thank you.

Barbara Ustina

Welcome to Simply Science! Nicolas, I’m just wondering: these are very strange times with COVID-19, and we’re all working from home here. Joel and myself are working from home. We’ve never done a podcast in separate rooms before. So this is different for us.

I’m wondering for you, what is it like for your work right now? Are you able to get any work done? Are you part of Phase One, going back into the office? Where are things at with you?

Nicolas Mansuy

I’m still in my home, working from my office. And I like to say I’m very comfortable working from home, thanks to my wife, because she’s on my maternity leave. So I guess I’m very lucky. She can take care of the kid, and I’m working from home. So, all good for now.

Barbara Ustina

So there’s a silver lining to this.

Nicolas Mansuy

Yeah. That’s one of the positive sides of COVID, I like to say.

Joel Houle

So you’re able to do work from home. Now you work in forest landscape restoration, right? Is that something that you can expand on? Can you explain to us what that means? What is restoration, and what’s the big picture of what you’re trying to do through your work?

Nicolas Mansuy

Restoration is the practice of renewing and restoring. Reclaiming a degraded landscape or a damaged landscape or damage ecosystem or habitat, but by actually doing human action and the activity is on the ground. So it’s really related to how we manage the forest or any landscape.

Joel Houle

So when you say damaged, do you mean by like the extraction of natural resources?

Nicolas Mansuy

Yeah, actually the sources of degradation are multiple. Of course, we are well aware of natural resource extraction like mining, forestry or even agricultural or urban development. But we also have to say some natural disturbances that would be very severe, like fire, for example, or flood or drought or landslide that will happen in mountainous areas. So it’s not just the human disturbances but also the natural disturbances that we need to restore at some point.

Barbara Ustina

I’ve heard it described as the Swiss army knife of ecology. And I’m wondering if you can sort of explain that to me a little bit and what tools you have in your toolbox in terms of restoration, what techniques are you using and that kind of thing.

Nicolas Mansuy

Okay, but before that I’d like to explain more in detail maybe the concept of restoration.

So effective restoration requires to identify the driver of the degradation and to provide the best solution to improve the recovery of the ecosystem. But also we need to monitor the response of the ecosystem. And monitoring is very important in restoration because the landscape is dynamic, and the solution that we provide today may not be relevant tomorrow. So we need to provide adaptability and a long-term solution.

So the techniques for restoration are multiple. And there is no one-size-fits-all approach — it’s really a case by case. But generally, we have different stages. So first, we need to assess the source and the type of disturbances. We need to look at the goal, the objective that we want to reach. We need to look at the people living in the landscape. It’s really, really important. And now we hope that when looking at the big picture, we realize that the well-being of the people living in the landscape — the human dimension of the landscape — is really important. You know, it’s not just the ecology. It’s also the socio-economy aspect of the landscape that we need to restore, that we need to consider in the recovery of the ecosystem.

Going back to your question about the Swiss army knife, restoration is a very multi-disciplinary discipline. And it’s evolving. So because we work with different main users, with different needs and different interests in the landscape, we need to be able to deal with different skill sets. So that’s why we call restoration the Swiss army knife.

In terms of tools, of course we do some modelling. We just did this project looking at how we can restore caribou habitat and, at the same time, making timber harvesting in the caribou range. And we try to find the best trade-off between the conservation of the restoration habitat but also how the timber can still be accessed in the landscape.

But that’s the reality of the discipline of restoration. It’s the big picture, but sometimes we have to focus on something very specific — the need of the client or the people we work with. At some point it’s land use management, land use planning; a lot of maps, a lot of GIS. And it’s one of the tools of restoration.

Joel Houle

Nicholas, can you provide us with some examples of restoration projects that have occurred recently just to help us visualize, exactly, real-life scenarios where those exercises need to be done?

Nicolas Mansuy

Yes. Let me give you this example. Here at the Northern Forestry Centre, where I work, we have these three projects. So we are restoring a working landscape. It’s a very good example of how it’s complex to manage a multi-functional landscape: so you have different activities, you have forestry, you have mining, you have tourism as well, with very beautiful parks and national parks. But you have also critical habitat for wildlife like caribou and grizzlies. And in addition to that, you have Indigenous communities that have a very special relationship with the land. And in addition to that, you have climate change, which has a considerable impact on the landscape.

So we will try to address that — looking at restoring the landscape and see what are the different needs for the different land users. So some people are focusing on working in seismic lines in Alberta. It’s linear disturbances that the oil and gas need to do to check the resources in the soil. Some people want to restore that. Some people look at caribou habitats. Other people like me, for example, look at socio-economic benefits of restoration. That means, What’s the trade-off between the impact on the extraction activities and the potential jobs that can be created by restoring the landscape? Other people will look at the soil. So it’s a team effort, and we need different fields to do that.

Barbara Ustina

So it’s really a customized sort of plan for each system you might be looking at. It’s very fluid, what you might use in a restoration project. But you bring up a very good point, and that is about climate change. And I’m wondering how, you know, climate change has impacted your work or you might see it impacting your work in the future.

Nicolas Mansuy

Climate change is a big driver of the landscape dynamic here in Alberta and almost everywhere in Canada. So just to give you an example, if you decide to plant trees somewhere in your landscape, you have to make sure that these trees are adapted to the new conditions, to the potential conditions, not now but in the future. So we are looking at the impacts of climate change in that sense. So what’s the best tree, not for tomorrow but for 50 years, for example. And we need to anticipate the impacts of climate change in land use management right now.

So that’s the challenge dealing with climate change. And we know that in Alberta we have the prairies, for example, that the grasslands in the south that are therefore moving northward. So that’s the challenge when — for example, when the interest in the landscape is timber, we need to evaluate how the landscape is dynamic, how the landscape is changing.

Joel Houle

So right now, you’re working from home. Do you normally work from an office? Do you mostly do fieldwork? What are you working on right now from home compared to what you would do in a non-quarantine environment?

Nicolas Mansuy

Well, so now what I’m doing — and I mentioned that already — I’m working on this project looking at the restoration economy. So what we did in the wintertime, we consulted with different stakeholders and practitioners and private companies and small businesses that are involved in the restoration and reclamation to quantify the potential to scaling up restoration. What I mean by that is, if we have a better idea of this supply chain of restoration — who is doing what along the supply chain — then we can use that as a leverage to do more restoration, to do more reclamation.

So we want to fortify that to bring that to the equation of restoration. And for that, it is very important because all the restoration and economy, all the reclamation and the economy is really under-documented in Canada. So we need to value these for the job and especially now with the post-COVID situation. This is part of the green economy. So we have here a huge potential to value all these jobs and really to boost the economy.

Barbara Ustina

I see. Now I’m curious, Nicholas, whether you know at all, sort of in a general sense, how much land is damaged across Canada in total. Any idea of that?

Nicolas Mansuy

No, I don’t have any numbers to provide. But the situation in Canada is very special compared to what happens in other countries, because, thanks to our good practices in forest management, we have a very, very low deforestation rate. So I think it’s less than 0.01 percent. So that means that the forest cover doesn’t change much across the year.

That’s what we have, and it’s special to Canada because our economy is really related to resource extraction. So we have what we call the cumulative effect. But at the very same place, there is some overlap between forestry, between mining, but also from natural disturbances. So that’s a very specific challenge here in Canada. In terms of restoration, that’s a big challenge because we need to deal with a lot of interaction between all these.

Joel Houle

You bring up a good point here about our practices, given how, you know, the government doesn’t — especially at the federal level — doesn‘t operate in a silo. We normally have to work with industry, academia, provincial, local governments. Do you yourself work with a lot of partners or other government departments?

Nicolas Mansuy

Yes, exactly. You already mentioned fieldwork. Most of my fieldwork consists of working with different land users or different stakeholders, and what I mean by that — that could be one day an oil and gas company, another day that will be a forestry company. After that, it can me, an NGO [non-government organization] or people from the province or Indigenous communities. Each day is very different.

And it’s very challenging because every stakeholder has got different interests and different values regarding the landscape. So it‘s very challenging. But also, it‘s very interesting to be part of this discussion. This is real-life discussion because you need to bring your expertise as a researcher. You need to bring how you understand the forest dynamics to find solutions. It‘s a very collaborative work because it‘s not just the ecology — it’s all the people living and sharing the landscape.

Barbara Ustina

Definitely. So you have to be a bit of a sort of a diplomat, a bit of an organizer, a bit of a leader — you know, keeping everything going. I’m wondering if there have been any surprises in your work along the way, like when you’ve gone out into the field and you’ve met somebody and what you’ve seen and the reaction that you get from people when you’re working with them, has come as a big surprise to you or a revelation?

Nicolas Mansuy

I suppose I was lucky to be involved with these decision tables with different Indigenous community. And the first thing I realized is that every Indigenous community is different. Sometimes we tend to put them in the same basket until we’re going to provide a solution and this solution will make every community happy. But it’s really not the case. And at some point working with an Indigenous community to realize that they have very valuable information to share how the landscape is changing, because they have their eyes on the ground and they’re able to share that at some point.

So it’s a very different working from your houses doing some modelling, playing with data and trying to find solutions that when you go to this meeting and you see that people are experiencing the change, the rapid change in the landscape, and that’s something that’s brought to your attention. So if you really want to be a part of this discussion and at same time you really want to do your best, to be part of the answer.

Barbara Ustina

It really adds a sense of urgency to what you do. It’s very fascinating, it’s extremely fascinating.

Nicolas Mansuy

Yes, and just to give you an example, we have some projects with communities in the Northwest Territories, and they comment a lot on how the access to the community is changing because of the climate change. And if you’re looking at the temperature in March, sometimes you have already 20 degrees. So most of these communities are really dependent on ice roads.

But at some point, the ice will starts to melt very fast. So this community is even more insulated because of that. So we need to work, the restoration is also part of the solution. So we have a better idea of what to read, what to concentrate on in the landscapes that affect the community, not just looking at the trees, but looking at everything inside the landscape.

Joel Houle

Nicholas, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today about forest landscape restoration. And I hope that you take this quarantine time to, you know, enjoy your newborn baby. Thank you so much.

Nicolas Mansuy

Thank you. Thanks for your invitation.

Barbara Ustina

Thank you!

Joel Houle

It was nice speaking with Nicolas!

Barbara Ustina

For sure! I thought it was really interesting to hear about how they have to look years down the road and anticipate how climate change happening right now might affect a growing forest years down the road — right down to making sure they have the right kind of trees and vegetation in place. Also, it shows there’s a lot to learn!

Joel Houle

And you know, speaking of learning: if you, our audience, would like to learn more about forest reclamation or forestry in general — specifically, the type of work that Nicholas and his colleagues are doing — make sure to check out the links available in the episode description.

Land reclamation and forest science
Simply Science content on forestry and insects

You can also leave a review or share this episode. And if you share over Twitter, make sure to tag us. I’m at @JoelScience…

Barbara Ustina

And I’m @SimplyScienceB, that’s the letter B. I might remind everyone that Simply Science also has a website and a YouTube channel, which you should check out. We have in-depth articles of interest and videos that showcase the fascinating scientific work that we do at Natural Resources Canada. And you can find those links in the episode description as well.

Joel Houle

Thank you Barb! And thank you so much, everyone. for listening! We’ll see you at the next episode!

Barbara Ustina

Goodbye!

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