Rethinking how we plan forests and green spaces
Canada has long been a global leader in conserving and restoring forests. Now, a collaborative team that includes scientists from the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) continues the tradition by taking the lead in adapting new technology to help plan forests and optimize their many benefits to our quality of life. Meet PlantR, an online platform designed for a diverse future.
Canada’s forest management principles are built on more than a century of research. We’ve gathered a wealth of knowledge on how to grow trees based on generations of practising silviculture — that is, managing the growth, composition and quality of forests — to advance timber production. But the world is changing, and it may be time for a closer look at new ways of doing things.
“When it comes to selecting species to plant, are we asking the right questions to come up with the right plans?” asks Isabelle Aubin, a CFS research scientist.
The power of observation
That thought came to Isabelle during one of her daily walks along the beautiful riverside nature trails in Sault Ste. Marie. Forestry is a major industry in this part of Northern Ontario. As she was listening to the migrating songbirds and appreciating the trees lining the path, she was struck by the contrast between the two different types of forests right in her backyard — those focused on timber production and others used primarily for recreational purposes.
She went to work on how to encourage the parties involved — forest managers, landowners and municipalities — to consider these differences when deciding which species to plant to meet their restoration goals. To help guide them through the process, Isabelle and a team of collaborators began developing a creative planning tool called PlantR. It’s an interactive platform with a data-rich algorithm that generates fresh, inventive and often unexpected solutions. Although the platform is still in its early stages, initial response to its potential as a modelling tool has been promising.
Forests are not one-size-fits-all
Canada has nearly 3.5 million square kilometres of forests, and they serve diverse purposes. Today, more people live in cities, but several factors — the climate crisis, reductions in forest cover, the search for green space during the pandemic, among others — have made it clear exactly how even urban dwellers depend on different forests to meet different needs in a changing world. Certainly, the immediate public health benefits of having an urban woodland to mitigate the heat island effect — in which urban centres are warmer than nearby rural areas — are vastly different from the general ecological benefits provided by a distant boreal forest.
These differences suggest that it’s time to take a fresh look at how we view our forests and manage them. “Maybe it’s time to rethink how we plan our forests,” says Isabelle. “Trees provide us much more than wood fibre. More and more, we have the knowledge and awareness to design plantations, so they better fulfil the multitude of ecosystem services we benefit from while also mitigating the impact of climate change.”
Looking at things through a different lens
Using the PlantR platform, people can explore different virtual species mixes by selecting from a list of their ecosystem benefits while taking into account operational constraints, like the number of species the mix should contain, the available budget and other considerations. The algorithm then does the rest and comes up with several suggestions. Each solution offers an individualized mix of different species and presents various options — more of this, less of that — to meet the project’s specific needs.
The results are only suggestions, but they serve a highly useful purpose, as Isabelle is careful to point out. “What’s important is, PlantR can help people think of alternatives,” she says. “It helps to go beyond the usual short list of go-to species, since there are many different options. And as people learn about these options, they increase their awareness and knowledge.”
This wider range of choices can strengthen our forests. Most large-scale tree plantations contain a very limited number of species. But as people discover the value of other species, they may be more likely to explore these new possibilities and, in turn, increase the diversity of our forests.
The Sudbury test
PlantR attracted many committed collaborators and was developed for a pilot project in Sudbury, Ontario. The forests in this area have been severely affected by logging as well as by mining and smelting emissions. Massive restoration efforts on several fronts — not just planting trees but also applying fertilizer, increasing the soil’s alkalinity with limestone and seeding the forest floor with grass–legume mixtures typically used in agriculture — have enhanced recovery. Yet despite these strides in ecological recovery, the area continued to struggle with elevated levels of soil metals, poor water quality and a lack of organic soil matter.
Isabelle and her collaborators developed PlantR in collaboration with the City of Sudbury to address this specific restoration context. The tool suggested a particular mix of tree and forest floor plant species that would provide good canopy cover and promote soil building and biological health — functions that are critical to restoring Sudbury’s forests. The PlantR platform also considered the related questions of ecosystem resilience and resistance to invasion by exotic plants, which are important concerns for Sudbury’s stakeholders.
In its initial application, PlantR was successful in demonstrating its practical usefulness by generating a unique set of species mixes to address Sudbury’s specific needs. Like healthy forests themselves, the tool is also growing, with further functional refinements to accommodate the massive amounts of data it must process as new information is generated every day.
Isabelle and the team continue to develop the platform. Now, when she takes her daily walk, she evaluates things with a more strategic eye: “What if we planted more of this here instead of that?” she asks, and “What if the trees were planted in a more organic formation, instead of in stick-straight rows?” And just like restoring a forest from the ground up, bringing PlantR to its full potential — while encouraging a careful rethinking of restoration practices in general — will take time, effort and imaginative planning.
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