Sept/Oct 2007

Foothills Model Forest – Research for a sustainable tomorrow

By C. Hersey

What’s green, covers 2.75 million hectares of the province of Alberta, and is recognized by only 30 per cent of the surrounding population? It’s the Foothills Model Forest of course! In 1992, through the Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada initiated Canada’s Model Forest Program in an effort to establish our country as a leader in the area of sustainable forest management. The Canadian Model Forest Network aims at successfully building partnerships and continuously coming up with new ideas and tools to advance sustainable land management. The Foothills Model Forest land base includes the whole of Jasper National Park, West Fraser Mills Ltd., Hinton Wood Product’s working forest, Willmore Wilderness Park, William A. Switzer Provincial Park, and other public areas.

The research partnership

It all began when Natural Resources Canada was looking to fund projects from one end of the country to the other. They initially started with 10 model forests. After reviewing all 54 of the submitted proposals (many of which were from Alberta), they finally decided upon one that best met their required criteria. Hence, the Foothills Model Forest was added as number 11 on the list. Most of the models are self-sustainable by now, but some never will be. Foothills is not one of them. General Manager Don Podlubny said step one in setting up was to write up the proposal and get partners to buy in. The proposal required matching dollars, which luckily they were able to do, after which they brought in the partnership. The Foothills Model Forest was then established as a private, non-profit company. From there, the company established a board of directors and they started looking at what could be done to reach their main objective of sustainable land management.

The partnership is broad; it includes both the federal and provincial governments of Alberta, forest and oil and gas industries, even the coal mining industry.

Now in its sixteenth year, Foothills was self-sustainable within its first 60 months of life. Since 1992, over $40 million has been invested in research to better our understanding of the ecological, economic, and social values of the landscape. Yet despite being in existence for over 15 years, only about 30 per cent of the surrounding population is even aware of the presence of this model forest. This is most likely due to the fact that Foothills is a research firm - non-profit, not sales focused, and with no major advertising campaign.

Podlubny stated that anyone who wants to access information on the model forest can easily do so. They have a website that is updated on a continual basis, they hold presentations to the general public, and also run articles in local newspapers. He also noted that “even though we have a defined area to do our research in, the research has gone well beyond those boundaries, extending all the way down to the U.S. border near Montana, and even into British Columbia. Yes, the research is being done in Alberta, but the information gathered can be and is being applied throughout Canada, throughout all of North America.”

The Foothills Model Forest also has a program called the ‘Aboriginal Involvement’ program, enabling consultation negotiations with industry and governments. It started over five years ago and there are presently agreements with five different aboriginal communities, both inside and outside the model forest land base. The model forest says that they are taking everything they’ve learned thus far and showing a wide range of stakeholders how these lessons can be applied in the forest.

Wildlife and wildfire: a balance

But what about wildlife? How is it affected by all this research and what’s being done to protect the animals? Where does everyone stand when it comes to natural disasters, such as wildfire, which are vital to a forests’ survival and re-growth?

Since the early 1930s, wildfires have been strictly and aggressively suppressed, over time, creating a forest which is unnaturally too-even aged. Wildfires create an assortment of young, mature, and old forests, each of which serves its own purpose in providing a habitat for a diversity of plants and animals. So, if this natural occurrence is disrupted, things just don’t function as the planet intended them to. With all this suppression since the ‘30s, unnaturally old forests have been on the rise. Based on research, in 1930 old forests (100 years and older) covered about 20 per cent of the Foothills Model Forest land base. In 2000, they covered at least 60 per cent of West Fraser Mills Ltd.’s forest management area and 77 per cent of Jasper National Park. In an effort to restore stability, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Jasper National Park, and West Fraser Mills Ltd. are working to restore the forests they manage to the range of age classes that would naturally occur.

Podlubny said that although the provincial government, along with Jasper National Park, make most of the management decisions when it comes to wildfire suppression in the Foothills Model Forest area, they’ve done research of their own. After establishing a program called ‘Natural Disturbance,’ they have accumulated data covering the last 200 years of fire and disturbance events. From that, the program has models that emulate natural disturbances on the landscape—the program has been quite successful.

Companies are beginning to change their harvesting regimes to mimic fire patterns as closely as possible; instead of clear cutting with square boundaries, the natural pattern is mimicked by leaving small islands of vegetation and individual trees standing. These strategies will help maintain biodiversity while at the same time protecting people, communities, and natural resources from catastrophic wildfire.

As far as wildlife goes, it hasn’t really been directly affected by the research. In 1999, no one was entirely sure how much or how little animals were being influenced by human activities. The Foothills Model Forest Grizzly Bear Research Program was started and is now one of North America’s most comprehensive wildlife studies. In the past eight years, research has shown that it is not so much the resource activities that have had much of an effect, but more the individual human interactions. The area is still used publicly for activities such as hiking, fishing, or camping, but even this doesn’t seem to be the problem. Things like illegal hunting and poaching are what seem to be taking a toll on the grizzlies. In 2002, a research grizzly and one of her two cubs were victims of a poaching incident. A total of seven bears have been found shot and two have been killed by vehicle accidents. Studies show that one of the greatest threats to the animals is fatalities along roads caused by humans. The Foothills Model Forest and its partners are now starting to use maps and computer models to better position and utilize roads, so as to minimize interaction and diminish the threat to their survival.

Not stopping now

The Canadian Model Forest Program, through Natural Resources Canada, was completed at the end of March 2007, but Podlubny said “we’ll still be around,” as will the Canadian Model Forest Network. So, what does the future hold for the Foothills Model Forest? They’ve already secured financial commitment from their partners, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Jasper National Park, and West Fraser Mills Ltd., plus five energy companies (Petro-Canada, Encana, ConocoPhillips, CNRL, and Talisman) to continue for another five years, from April 1, 2007, to March 31, 2012.

The Model Forest does plan to regroup all of its activities into the following program themes: landscape dynamics; wildlife; water; forest communities program; and data, information, and knowledge management. Podlubny said “the organization will build upon its goals of sustainable land management, knowledge, and technology transfer, communications and outreach, and policy support influence.”

Hundreds of partners across the country are doing their best to uphold healthy, thriving communities, economies, and lands both for this generation and for those to come. The purpose of the Foothills Model Forest is not to preserve the landscape, but to find ways to continue utilizing the land, while at the same time keeping it sustainable. Animals and humans alike, I’m sure we can all live harmoniously.

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