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Forest management and natural disturbances research

EMEND: The world’s largest forest science research project is changing sustainable forest management

Natural disturbances such as forest fires, insects and disease outbreaks are a part of the normal life cycle of a healthy forest, stimulating regeneration and growth. Once forest managers and researchers realized this, they began to wonder whether forests could be harvested in ways that mimic the effect of natural disturbances. Could something be learned about how better to achieve the sustainable management of forest ecosystems? And what lessons might natural disturbances offer about keeping forests healthy while still providing timber that support Canada’s forest industry in competitive global markets?

To answer these questions, a new and innovative approach was needed: a large-scale, long-term, landscape-level project that would allow researchers to conduct studies in a working industrial forest. In 1998, that project was launched. Named EMEND – for Ecosystem-based Management Emulating Natural Disturbances – this century-long experiment is underway in northwest Alberta’s boreal forest.

Already, EMEND is improving our understanding of how the western boreal forest ecosystem responds to disturbances, natural ones (such as fire or pest infestation) and human ones (such as harvesting). This scientific knowledge is helping the forest sector improve and adapt operational practices, make informed management decisions, and maintain market access. It is also teaching us about the best approaches to maintain healthy, sustainable forest ecosystems in Canada’s boreal regions.

Take a virtual tour of the EMEND research site

Visit the site of the world’s largest forest science research project, located in the boreal forest of Alberta, Canada.

EMEND research site

EMEND: a large-scale, long-term experiment leading to better forest management practices

Forests are complex and take decades to develop. The EMEND site therefore covers over 7,000 hectares of land and is designed to span one forest rotation, a period of up to 120 years.

The advantage of such a large and long-term project is that researchers can experiment with many forest management techniques – from harvesting varying numbers of trees and studying the effects on biodiversity, to testing different silviculture approaches. The experiments are then repeated to make sure the results are valid.

The investment in EMEND research benefits the environment and the economy

The lessons being learned from EMEND are proving invaluable for sustainable forest management. Applying the information gained is already creating direct benefits for the environment, for Canada’s economy, and for Canada’s forest industry. For example, EMEND’s science-based findings are enabling forest companies to adapt their harvesting operations to ensure forest harvesting practices are sustainable.

What kinds of things are we learning from EMEND? Here’s a sample:

Economic findings:

  • Retention harvesting is not necessarily or significantly more costly than clearcut harvesting. However, retention harvesting can incur greater costs for the planning and layout of cutblocks and in terms of the economic value of the wood left behind for ecological purposes.
  • Any increased costs associated with retention harvesting must be evaluated against the potential gains it offers in protecting social and ecological values.

Biodiversity findings:

  • Managing for a range of forest retention levels is more important than focusing on retaining a specific threshold level of retention.
  • Single-tree retention enables stands to colonize faster, while patches of trees provide habitat “life boats” for wildlife species.
  • Species recovery on clearcut sites takes at least five years longer than on sites with green-tree retention.

Silviculture findings:

  • Mounding is the most effective site preparation technique. Mounds result in warmer microsites and produce the best sites for nutrient release.
  • Machine operation corridors with soil disturbance from skidders have six times the regeneration that undisturbed retention strips do.

Answering other forest management questions

In addition to the main harvesting and fire treatment research going on at the EMEND site, several other experiments are in progress. They focus on:

  • biodiversity
  • primary forest productivity
  • silviculture systems
  • forest fire ecology
  • soil and nutrient cycling
  • forest hydrology and microclimates
  • tree genetics
  • the socioeconomics and costs of harvesting

For example, soils are being monitored to understand how harvesting and fire affect this critical resource. As well, the role of deadwood in preserving biodiversity and fostering forest productivity is being studied. Understanding how forests contribute to the global carbon cycle is another topic of investigation.

More than 1,600 different species have been studied at EMEND (including plants, beetles, spiders, moths, birds, amphibians, and mammals) and eight new species have been discovered.

Collaboration with many partners

The EMEND project currently has 15 contributing partners:

  • 4 industry
  • 5 Canadian universities
  • 3 government departments
  • 3 industrial research agencies
  • the Sustainable Forest Management Network

Thanks to this support, EMEND has become internationally recognized for the work underway and the knowledge being gained in sustainable forest management. EMEND is attracting interest from researchers and forest products customers around the world.

Learn more about how natural disturbances help boreal and other types of forests stay healthy

Disturbances are particularly important to the cycle of regeneration and regrowth in boreal forests. Find out why forests need fires, insects and diseases.


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