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Enhanced forest monitoring data to support sustainable forest management

What is a sustainably managed forest?

Managing Canada’s forests responsibly and sustainably means recognizing the close interconnections between the environment, the economy and social well-being so that the needs and expectations of all forest users might be met today and in the future.

Sustainable forest management is a clear priority and central policy focus of Canada’s governments. As the concept of sustainable forest management shifts and adjusts to address changing values, circumstances and needs, so too do the forest policies and other initiatives designed to achieve it.

If you have ever caught a flight in Canada, gone for a drive through the countryside or walked through your local urban park, chances are you’ve noticed that there are a lot of trees in Canada. The numerous forest types and various stages of forest development represent a vast and diverse mosaic of ecosystems that people, animals and other plants rely on for their health and well-being. As the custodian of the third-largest forest area in the world, Canada has a responsibility to ensure it is sustainably managed. To do that, we need to understand the natural composition and dynamics of forest ecosystems, as well as their resilience, which means their ability to regrow and reorganize following different kinds of disturbances. How do we begin to understand forests as large and diverse as Canada’s? We look at them from all angles, collecting and analyzing data on all forest ecosystem types over time.

The National Forest Inventory: A pan-Canadian approach to collecting forest data

For decades, Canada has collected forest information in partnership with the provinces and territories to better understand and manage forest resources. In 2000, the National Forest Inventory (NFI) was created and tasked with collecting standardized sample data for reporting on the state and changes in all Canada’s forests. The NFI was designed to provide pan-Canadian science-based information about forests for strategic analysis and decision making. Today, the NFI continues to be a collaboration between federal, provincial and territorial governments and is complementary to the provincial forest inventory programs that operate to ensure a sustainable wood supply, among other values.

Remeasuring sites over time: The key to understanding our forests

New ground plot data, now being released annually via the NFI, will provide researchers and forest practitioners with the data needed to better understand forest resilience and conservation value at broad scales in Canada.

During the 2000s, “baseline” measurements were collected from the ground, from aircraft and from space and allowed us to understand Canada’s forests in a methodical and comprehensive way that had not been done before. In the 2010s, the same locations were remeasured using enhanced methods compatible with those of the previous measurement. Now, after over a decade of new data collection and analysis, these remeasurement data are available to researchers, policy-makers and the public to better guide sustainable forest management decisions and allow us to investigate questions of forest resilience, adaptation and conservation at broad scales.

How do new NFI data help us start answering questions on progress toward sustainable forest management?

Examples of data measured over time with the National Forest Inventory

On the ground

Data collected: tree condition, shrubs, herbs and mosses

Improvements in methods:

  • Tree condition is now recorded, allowing for assessment of damage and better estimates of tree biomass.
  • Shrubs are now separately identified and measured, which can aid in assessing fuel conditions.
  • Species identification of shrubs, herbs and mosses is now standardized to improve accuracy of species ranges and other ecological attributes.

From aircraft and from orbit

Data collected: species, disturbances, forest structure, development stage, density and height

Improvements in methods:

  • New, highly detailed imagery enables more accurate estimates of forest attributes.
  • Improved techniques are used to estimate forest biomass.

Determining forest conservation value or resilience to different stresses or disturbances can be challenging, and there is no one way to do it. But access to quality, unbiased data is vital. Before beginning to answer “Is a forest resilient to stress?” or “Where should we target forest conservation efforts to preserve biodiversity?” we first need to know the composition and structure of these forests and how they change over time. This is where the NFI data can be of use.

Returning and remeasuring the same forest sites, decade after decade, allows data users to track forest attributes and the natural processes in forests through time. For example, the NFI remeasurement data can allow us to track species distribution and changes in the amount of deadwood and old forest, which can provide valuable information on habitat suitability for specialized species such as those depending on deadwood and old-growth forests to survive. NFI remeasurement data also play a vital role in validating and improving Canadian forest ecosystem and carbon models. All these data inform us, directly or indirectly, about the capacity of our forests to sequester and store carbon and to conserve biodiversity in the long-term.

NFI data are also often collected before a disturbance or stressor occurs and then gathered again during or after a forest has been impacted by a disturbance such as a wildfire, drought, harvest, insect outbreak or disease. Understanding those previous forest conditions and returning to collect new data once a forest begins to recover allows us to investigate how (or if) a forest is able to regrow and return to its previous state, in which case the forest would demonstrate resilience. This can be a slow process spanning decades. Changes in forest growth, species composition and soil nutrients are some of the forest attributes monitored by the NFI that can tell us about its resilience.

New tools, technologies and data to keep pace with ever-changing forests

Forests are constantly adapting to the conditions around them. But climate change has made basic assumptions on forest conditions in Canada more uncertain. Different forest types and tree species will adapt to the effects of climate change at different rates and in different ways. To keep pace, the science and criteria that guide how we sustainably manage our forests have continued to evolve. The NFI time series, constructed from repeated measurements over time, can act as a regularly updated library recording the adaptation needs and changing conditions in Canada’s forests. These data can inform the evolving sustainable forest management practices needed for a rapidly changing climate .

Over 75% of Canada’s forests lie in the boreal zone, covering almost 282 million hectares, or about the size of Argentina. If the Canadian boreal forest were its own country, it would be the eighth largest country in the world. Much of these forests are extremely remote and difficult to access and measure.

By employing new tools, technologies and data sources, the NFI works to continuously improve our ability to accurately estimate forest characteristics in Canada. One of the most profound changes in technology has been the improved quality of satellite imagery. Having new, high-quality satellite imagery better able to distinguish forest types from non-forest areas around them has allowed us to improve our understanding of these remote forest areas, as well as the pressures on these forests.

Images showing improved quality of satellite imagery to accurately estimate forest characteristics in Canada.

Accurately monitoring Canada’s forests is more important than ever

Canada’s forests have the potential to help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, while producing sustainable wood products and conserving biodiversity for future generations. At the same time, these forests and the communities that rely on them will be adapting to some of the fastest rates of warming and change on the planet. Rigorous forest measurements and improvements in the accuracy of those measurements play a crucial role in understanding how forests respond to both human-induced and natural disturbances. Science-based evidence helps us better understand forest trends and how to address them through sustainable forest management in the face of a changing climate.

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