Harnessing the power of forests to fight climate change
This story is part of the Forward happens here series.
Dr. Suzanne Simard is leading the Mother Tree Project at UBC, which could transform how we manage forests while capturing more carbon and protecting biodiversity worldwide
Forests have the potential to be “carbon sinks”, absorbing more carbon dioxide (CO2) than they release. That’s great for slowing climate change by reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. But our global forests are sick, struggling under the effects of climatic events such as heat domes, fires and droughts.
Fewer and more stressed forests provide less habitat to support biodiversity and can’t absorb as much carbon. What’s more, emissions associated with forest management and industrial forest practices are putting even more CO2 into the atmosphere.
This has all led to a dire situation. Yet Dr. Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology with the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia, says she is “incredibly optimistic” that we can create a different future.
“As we build better relationships between Western science and Indigenous science, we can co-create treatments that actually absorb more CO2 instead of the opposite, which is what we’re doing now,” she explains. “Once we get on that right track, our forests can be restored, recovered and protected. And scientists say that once we do that, forests will absorb more carbon from the atmosphere and mitigate climate change by one third.”
Getting on the right track involves shifting attitudes related to how we value nature and creating a more regenerative forest economy.
Connecting mother trees to resilient forests
Dr. Simard leads a team of researchers on the Mother Tree Project, which brings together academics, governments, First Nations and forestry companies to test forest renewal practices. The goal is to learn how to create resilient forests and identify sustainable ways to manage them as the climate warms.
The Mother Tree Project is based on Dr. Simard’s decades of research, which has earned her international attention. Mother trees are large trees within a forest that act as centralized hubs, supporting communication and nutrient exchange among trees. Using a vast underground fungal network, called the mycorrhizal network, mother trees supply seedlings and other trees in the community with the resources they need to grow.
The project’s guiding principle is to retain mother trees and their connections to protect biodiversity, carbon storage and forest regeneration as the climate changes. Research shows that leaving these trees in place in forests, along with other logs, seeds and fungi, can help ecosystems become healthier and recover from the effects of climate change more quickly.
Creating a new forest economy
Dr. Simard explains that carbon is released during the forest harvesting process as trees are removed and the forest floor is churned up. The seedlings that tend to be replanted have a much lower capacity to sequester carbon. “It takes decades for those trees to recover to their original capacity to take up CO2, and hundreds of years more to restore soil carbon,” she says.
This makes sustainable forest management practices essential to the future of forestry. “We’re trying to transform the way we value forests,” she explains. “Instead of viewing them only as sources for [products like] toilet paper and two-by-fours, we need to see them as life-support systems for all living things.”
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Part of the solution is to create a more regenerative forest economy. “We’re trying different ways to leave these old trees behind, while still having a regenerating and diverse forest and the ability to harvest some trees for our needs,” she says.
One of the challenges, she acknowledges, is resistance to changing the way things have always been done. “But that can be transformed, too,” she says. “We actually can develop a business model for generating wealth from forests. Restoring carbon stocks and selling carbon credits at a just price could far exceed the amount of money we make from standard forest products.”
Learning from Indigenous knowledge
Indigenous peoples, Dr. Simard notes, have always seen the value in protecting forests and connecting our collective wellbeing to nature. She points out that Indigenous territorial jurisdictions around the world have the highest levels of carbon storage and biodiversity compared to the low levels in industrial forests.
“We need to go back and learn from our Indigenous partners,” she says. That’s why the Mother Tree Project aims to honour the teachings and forest stewardship practices of Indigenous peoples.
Dr. Teresa Ryan, a member of the Tsm’syen Nation, has been working on the project since it started in 2015. A lecturer and researcher in UBC’s Faculty of Forestry, she is liaising with First Nations partners as well as researching how salmon and ancient fishing practices contribute to healthy coastal forests.
Other team members include doctoral student Eva Snyder, who is studying mycorrhizal networks in BC’s Western red cedar forests, and how these trees may recognize their offspring. Master’s student Hanno Southam is looking at how trees in Douglas fir forests signal each other about diseases.
Collaborating for global impact
As a top-tier research university, UBC is well-positioned for the kind of collaboration that drives innovative science. “This is such an interdisciplinary and cross-sector experiment,” says Dr. Simard. “It attracts collaborators, and students are able to network with the broader community outside of UBC.”
To further move research into practice, Dr. Simard is launching the Mother Tree Network of people and partners who will work to protect and restore Pacific Rim rainforests, informed by the scientific findings of the Mother Tree Project. Community-based learning hubs will support education and collaboration with local communities and First Nations.
While research on the Mother Tree Project is taking place locally in BC, its findings can be adapted and applied to similar forest systems around the world. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in an Amazon rainforest or a Congo rainforest, these principles of leaving legacies behind and their role in driving the carbon cycle, water cycle and nutrient cycle are universal,” she says.
In forests, Dr. Simard’s UBC research team has shown, everything is connected. That’s why the future of forestry has such potential to help create a healthier planet.