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Managing for diversity: How sustainable forest management conserves and protects Canada’s diverse forest values


Canada’s forests are much more than just trees. Forests are complex ecosystems that also include soil, air, water and all the living organisms that depend on them for survival. Canada manages its forests for diverse values through the principles of sustainable forest management (SFM), taking not only today’s needs, but future needs into consideration.

  • The many forest types across the country hold an array of environmental, economic, social and cultural values that are important to diverse groups and individuals.
  • SFM aims to protect and conserve the integrity of forest ecosystems and their inherent values.
  • SFM is based on sound forest science, resource monitoring and reporting, as well as consultations with stakeholders, the public and Indigenous communities.

The sustainable forest management planning process

Values and objectives can go above and beyond what is required by legislation. To minimize conflicting values, forest managers can use an Integrated Resource Management (IRM) approach, whereby many values and interests are considered in the management process. Those values could include:

  • ensuring sufficient habitat is available for locally important wildlife
  • working to reduce the wildfire risk around communities
  • addressing the impacts of climate change
  • ensuring enough timber is harvested to provide local forestry jobs

Most public land in Canada is regulated by provincial and territorial governments who have the primary authority to create and enforce laws related to natural resource management. Forest harvesting on public lands is enabled through forest management agreements with forest companies, often referred to as tenures or licences. Under these agreements, companies are permitted to operate on public lands for a substantial period (usually 20–25 years) and must adhere to SFM principles. Forest management plans are required for these public lands and must be approved by the province or territory before any harvesting occurs. Forest management plans are very complex and require input from a variety of subject area experts. The planning team for such is led by a registered professional forester who is licenced under provincial legislation (an “ingénieur forestier” in Québec) and subject to high ethical standards and continuing education.

Typically, forest management plans are 5–10 years in length. They outline forest management objectives for diverse values that support a long term forest management strategy. A key component of the forest management planning process is public and stakeholder engagement to ensure locally and regionally important values and objectives are identified and captured. Public and stakeholder engagement occurs multiple times throughout the development of the management plan. In addition to formal meetings, local citizen committees are encouraged to have frequent communication with the forest planning team throughout the process. Public consultation is also extremely important in the forest management planning process to consider the diverse societal values and perspectives.

Indigenous participation is another extremely important part in the management planning process and is increasing in many jurisdictions, especially where traditional uses and treaty rights may be impacted. Formal agreements featuring Indigenous-led forest management zones are in place in certain regions of Canada, as are agreements pertaining to the management and conservation of old-growth forests. Forest management planning, in most provinces and territories, has begun to formally incorporate local and Traditional Knowledge. Indigenous communities are progressively acquiring more forest management rights within their traditional territories.


Overview of the adaptive forest management cycle used to sustainably manage Canada’s public forests.

A large circle with the words: “Long-term sustainable forest management” in the middle. There are 5 smaller circles around the outside edge of the larger circle that demonstrate a cycle connected by arrows. Each smaller circle has one word in the middle:  Plan Implement Monitor Evaluate Adapt
Text version

Graphical Depiction of the adaptative forest management cycle used to sustainably manage Canada’s public forests. The cycle has five stages: plan, implement, monitor, evaluate and adapt. Planning is based on forest management objectives that reflect the values of indigenous populations and other public stakeholders and take into account advice from experts in different fields. The implementation of harvest strategies is developed notably using scientific modelling tools that create various decision-making scenarios based on several variables. Monitoring and incorporating scientific and technological advances into forest management processes helps improve the efficiency of operations. Operations are the evaluated to verify their compliance with forest management certification systems. Sustainable forest management practices and policies adapt and change accordingly to new scientific data and the evolution of societal values. Then the cycle continues with a new planning phase and so on.


Sustainable forest management: A careful balancing of diverse values

One SFM pillar is economic values. Forest harvesting and wood product manufacturing are critical sources of jobs for many communities in Canada, particularly rural and Indigenous communities. These jobs depend on a long-term, stable supply of wood. Sustainable harvesting of trees is determined through an annual allowable cut (AAC), which the province or territory establishes to maintain a wood supply in perpetuity.

The environmental values pillar of SFM can be represented by numerous values, but usually includes the protection of biodiversity, soils and water, and the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere. Forest managers strive to emulate natural disturbances in the management plan. Forest management practices supporting environmental values can involve:

  • maintaining various stages of forest development, including old-growth forests, for providing diverse habitats
  • managing the presence of a range of tree species of various ages over time
  • leaving forest corridors to improve landscape connectivity
  • varying the size and shape of harvested areas to represent natural disturbance patterns
  • keeping a variable number of live and old trees, often called “veteran trees,” and cavity trees for birds and other wildlife within harvest areas
  • providing buffers around nesting trees and streams to preserve wildlife habitats and water quality

The third SFM pillar is social or cultural values. Cultural heritage and spiritual values are significant to many individuals and groups, including Indigenous Peoples. These values, along with the locations of particularly important sites, are identified during the planning process and should be included in scenario modeling activities. Indigenous rights are considered throughout the management planning process and any historically significant locations are identified for preservation.

Sustainable forest management: A driver of change

Canada’s forests are protected through strong laws and regulations at the federal, provincial/territorial and even municipal levels. SFM is a concerted effort among all levels of government, industry, and the public. There are several overarching federal acts that support SFM objectives, including the:

  • Forestry Act
  • Species at Risk Act
  • Migratory Birds Convention Act
  • Fisheries Act
  • Impact Assessment Act
  • Canadian Environmental Protection Act
  • Pest Control Products Act
  • Fertilizers Act

The Species at Risk Act is a fundamental part of Canada’s strategy to preserve biodiversity. It was created to meet Canada’s commitment under the United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Biodiversity.

It is important to recognize that the balance of economic, environmental and cultural values changes over time. For instance, sustainable timber harvest used to be the primary focus of SFM. More recently, environmental values have been growing as the top priority for SFM. Forest management and conservation laws, policies, regulations and management guides are also shifting toward more emphasis on the ecological well-being of the forest.

  • There is an increased commitment to preserving biodiversity, which includes the adoption and implementation of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
    • To support the global goals and targets set out in the framework, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) is supporting Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to develop Canada’s 2030 National Biodiversity Strategy.
    • At the provincial level, Nova Scotia has introduced a stand-alone Biodiversity Act, which provides for conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the province.
  • Alternative silviculture options are used to reduce clearcutting. For example, Nova Scotia is adopting ecological forestry where public land is divided into three zones that work together to balance a range of interests (conservation, high production forest and mixed forest or matrix).
  • Old-growth forests are increasingly being protected and conserved.
    • For example, the Province of British Columbia has introduced a plan to establish new Forest Landscape Planning tables to improve old-growth management, including the incorporation of Traditional Knowledge.
    • The Government of Canada, through ECCC and supported by NRCan, has also committed to the establishment of the Old Growth Nature Fund in collaboration with the Province of British Columbia, non-governmental organizations, and Indigenous and local communities.
  • Conservation areas are increasing. As a Party to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the new GBF, Canada has committed to conserving 30% of Canada’s lands and water by 2030.
    • To achieve this goal, the Government of Canada has committed to establishing ten new national parks in the next five years, including the proposed national park reserve in the South Okanagan-Similkameen in British Columbia.
    • The Government of Canada also continues to designate many of its federally managed lands as other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs), which are specific areas that have conservation and biodiversity objectives in addition to other primary objectives. OECMs, such as Boishébert and Beaubears Island Shipbuilding National Historic Sites in Miramichi, New Brunswick and the Acadia Research Forest (ARF) near Fredericton, New Brunswick contribute to achieving Canada’s conservation target by protecting old-growth forest ecosystems and representative natural forest conditions common to the Acadian Forest Region.
  • Forests play a key role in our nature-based climate solutions.
    • The Government of Canada’s 2 Billion Trees Program (2BT) provides funding over 10 years to support provinces and territories, municipalities, Indigenous organizations and governments, and for-profit and not-for-profit organizations in planting an incremental two billion trees across Canada that will support climate change mitigation and adaptation, while increasing biodiversity and human well-being.
    • Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy (NAS) sets out a blueprint to reduce the risk of climate-related disasters, improve health outcomes, protect nature and biodiversity, build and maintain resilient infrastructure while supporting a strong economy and workforce.
    • NRCan’s Climate Change Adaptation Program (2022–2027) provides funding for projects to help position Canada’s regions and sectors to adapt to climate change.

Sustainable forest management is the driver of practices and policies to balance a complex diversity of values in forest ecosystems, communities, and economies. Managing forests for societal values that are increasing in number and often changing is an immense challenge. However, it is a challenge that Canada’s forest managers are addressing through ongoing engagement with the public and stakeholders and through adaptive sustainable forest management.

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