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Canada’s forestry programs adapt to changing times

As the forestry industry evolves, professors are feeling hopeful again.

By MARK CARDWELL | DEC 04 2013

When he joined the forestry program in the department of renewable resources at the University of Alberta in 1983, biologist Victor Lieffers says it was easy to spot his students on campus. “Back then the typical forestry student was a young white man from a rural area with a beard, checkered shirt and work boots,” laughs Dr. Lieffers, whose expertise is in forest management. There were lots of them then, too, he adds – as many as 250 undergraduates in the forestry program every year, plus another 50 or so graduate students.

Nowadays, Dr. Lieffers (pronounced leafers) says he’d be hard-pressed to pick out a future forester in the student body. One reason is that there are far fewer: program enrolment at U of A has fallen 80 percent over the past 30 years, hitting a rock-bottom low of 40 undergrads in 2008-09.

The demographics of forestry students have also changed. “We now have more women, city kids and non-whites, particularly Asians,” says Dr. Lieffers. “There are still some checkered shirts out there. But forestry is not a monoculture anymore.”

He credits the diversity in the student body and the slow increase in enrolment – up to 50 students last year – to a new curriculum and the rise of exciting, new non-traditional career opportunities. “We’ve been trying to get across the idea that forestry isn’t just about cutting down trees, that it is a well-rounded, multidisciplinary and versatile degree with excellent job prospects,” says Dr. Lieffers. “It looks like that message is finally being heard: foresters are land stewards, not just lumberjacks.”

Most deans and professors of forestry at the six other Canadian universities that teach and grant accredited bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees in the field would agree. “There’s been a very real change in what we teach, what our students are taking and what careers they can look forward to,” says University of British Columbia’s John Innes, dean of the largest forestry faculty in Canada.

A Scottish-born, Cambridge-educated expert in sustainable forest management, Dr. Innes was working at a forestry research office in Switzerland in the mid-1990s when blockades and arrests over the logging of giant old-growth cedars at Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island made international headlines. The standoff proved to be a watershed event that blackened the image of the Canadian forestry products industry and sparked public debates, policy changes and outright bans on many traditional harvesting rights and practices.

“I’d seen similar bad management practices in other parts of the world,” recalls Dr. Innes. “I figured that if I wanted to help train modern future foresters, UBC was the place to be.”

When he arrived in Vancouver in 1999, however, Dr. Innes was surprised by the traditional scope and narrow focus of both academic standards and Canadian forestry curricula. “People here seemed unaware of what was going on internationally in terms of agreements about sustainable management of forests and protection of the environment,” says Dr. Innes, whose faculty is one of just two in Canada that offers a PhD program in forestry (University of Toronto is the other).

The variety of courses, he adds, “didn’t reflect new perceptions of resource management and the skill sets modern foresters need in order to face the challenges they encounter on the ground.” For example, 40 percent of UBC’s forestry undergrads in 2001 were enrolled in forest management, a program that teaches traditional subjects like harvesting, silviculture and soil sciences. But, by then, the cyclical forest products industry was in the throes of a downturn of epic proportions.

On the West Coast, the strong Canadian dollar, together with a generation-long trade dispute over softwood lumber between Canada and the United States – its biggest export market – led to sawmill closures and massive job cuts. In central and Eastern Canada, the situation was similar. The advent of Internet publishing, combined with competition from countries in temperate regions where trees grow much faster, led to big drops in demand for Canadian newsprint, falling stock prices for Canadian forest products companies and the closure of pulp and paper mills. Many of these mills were in remote communities that were devastated by the loss of so many good-paying jobs.

“People were telling their kids, ‘Don’t go into forestry, it’s a sunset industry,’” says Dr. Innes. “But I like to tell people that sunsets are always followed by sunrises.”

One ray of hope emerged at a national forestry recruitment summit in Ottawa in June 2005 that brought together officials from the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, the Canadian Institute of Forestry and the Association of University Forestry Schools of Canada. The latter represents eight university forestry schools and provides a framework for cooperation and sharing of information, curricula and personnel.

The summit led to a white paper, The Crisis in Post-Secondary Enrollments in Forestry Programs (PDF), that suggested an array of strategies and actions to address the issue of declining enrolment in Canada. It called for a partnership among forestry stakeholders to help share information about career paths and opportunities. It demanded a united recruitment effort within the forestry sector, saying that Canada, “a forest nation,” had made “international commitments to maintain global forest productivity that may be compromised by lack of qualified professional foresters.”

By then, Canadian university forestry departments and programs had already started to diversify, modernize and market themselves in response to the radical restructuring of the industry and the emergence of different career opportunities for professional foresters. While those changes often reflected regional realities, one common theme was that forests play a critical role in the well-being of the environment, the economy and communities – and that the need for professional foresters and natural resource managers was growing.

Don Floyd, dean of the faculty of forestry and environmental management at the University of New Brunswick, says Canada’s 400 million hectares of forests cover 54 percent of the country’s surface area and account for an astounding 10 percent of the world’s forests. The forest industry in Canada generates $23 billion annually in economic activity, including the nearly $9 billion in salaries it pays to the 200,000 people directly employed in the industry.

But, most Canadians are increasingly aware that our forests have an intrinsic value too, says Dr. Floyd. “In New Brunswick, 60 percent of the population gets its drinking water from forested watersheds,” he says. “Whether you’re talking about climate change, protecting wild salmon stocks, reclaiming land from the oil sands or dealing with Native land rights, everything invariably comes back to forests.” He contends that “forests will become more valuable not because of forestry products but as a managed resource.”

This, in turn, will lead to more interesting opportunities and a growing demand for forestry graduates. “Twenty-five years ago there were really only two routes for foresters: working for provincial governments that own the resource … or working for the forest products industry,” says Dr. Floyd. Now the opportunities include “conservation authorities, marketing boards, natural resources consulting firms – you name it.”

That message is delivered to high school students in all four Atlantic provinces by a full-time recruiter and on the faculty’s website. Enrolment in the faculty’s two undergrad programs and its half-dozen graduate programs has almost doubled over the decade, to 160 and 120 students respectively.

Other forestry departments and programs have enjoyed similar bumps in enrolment. At the University of Northern British Columbia in central B.C., the undergraduate forestry degree program has started to climb back up, with about 50 enrolments this year (but still well below a high of 150 students in the mid-1990s).

“Our outreach program has done a good job of getting the message out to students in physics and biology and high schools to consider forestry,” says Kathy Lewis, a professor of ecosystem science and management at UNBC. Like Dr. Floyd, she believes growing public awareness about the economic, social and environmental value of forests is driving up student interest. “Forests are everywhere here, and many people have nice memories of cabins and lakes and walks in the forest, so it’s something they are very comfortable with. I wish we had more students now, but I’m very optimistic about the future.”

Knock on wood

A few hours’ drive south, the forestry program at UBC dwarfs every other such program in the country, with undergrad enrolment at 700 in the 2012-13 academic year, up from its low of 400 eight years ago, plus about 250 graduate students. Notably, four undergraduates out of 10 are enrolled in the natural resources conservation program, with the rest divided equally among the traditional forest resources management program, wood products processing and forest sciences.

Also, one quarter of undergrads are international students, mostly from China, Korea and the U.S. West Coast, which shares an ecosystem with B.C. “That’s been the biggest change,” says UBC’s Dr. Innes. “There was only one international student when I came here.”

Another difference is the faculty makeup: only a handful of the top-rated scientists among the 60 forestry faculty at UBC are registered professional foresters. “If you’re a biologist, there’s no need to be [a forester],” says Dr. Innes.

Growing interest in diverse forestry studies was the impetus for a novel master’s program on sustainable development of forest ecosystems at Université du Québec à Montréal. The program, which began this past September, is the first in forestry in Canada to use a problem-based learning approach and video-conferencing. Up to 15 students of mixed science backgrounds are divided evenly between three affiliated schools in different regions of Quebec.

“Our objective is to train them to understand what forests are and their linkages with people, the economy and environment,” says UQAM biology professor Christian Messier, who created and directs the program. Another motive is to expose students “to different forests and different partners like government, business and non-government organizations.”

Dr. Messier, who holds an industrial research chair in urban forestry and forest management, says the new program responds to public concerns about the future of Quebec’s forests. He credits Erreur boréale, an unscientific but hard-hitting documentary that exposed wasteful practices of Quebec forest products companies, for creating awareness and igniting anger on the issue beginning in 1999. “It was a bombshell,” says Dr. Messier. “It was the Clayoquot Sound of Quebec.”

The result was a Quebec parliamentary commission and a sweeping new law that came into effect on April 1, 2013, when all leases held by forestry companies in Quebec reverted to the provincial government. “It’s a big change,” says Dr. Messier, “an important one that reflects the more holistic view that people now have of forests as being more than just a ready supply of wood.”

That notion also informed the decision by Lakehead University’s faculty of forestry and the forest environment to change its name to the faculty of natural resources management and restructure its two undergrad honours programs in 2010.

Université Laval’s dean of forestry, Robert Beauregard, says the trend towards non-traditional programs like natural resources management and wildlife conservation is “North American-wide and will continue.” He expects to see student cohorts at Laval “back to around 120 within a few years” – four times today’s level and close to the all-time high in the 1970s.

Scientific advances in processing techniques are also leading to the development of new wood products. “Thirty years ago, engineered wood basically meant pulp and paper,” says Dr. Innes at UBC. “But now we’ve got a whole variety of products being made from materials like cross-laminated lumber and veneered lumber that used to be considered waste.” Some of these materials are stronger than regular wood, more sustainable, and allow wider spans for building materials. Some were used, for example, to build the all-wood roof in the Olympic Oval in Richmond, B.C.

Another example of innovation is Quebec forest products company Domtar, which has partnered with the not-for-profit research labs of FP Innovations to develop new high-tech products using nanocrystalline cellulose derived from wood fibres. This new material has exceptional strength similar to Kevlar and could have a wide variety of applications in bioplastics, high-strength composite materials, protective films and polymers, even cosmetics.

“It’s been a tough ride for the forest products industry of late, but there is some pain with all transformations. And [the industry] is still part of the solution,” says Dr. Beauregard at Laval. “We tell our students, yes, many mills have closed, but many are still open. And there will be 60,000 positions to fill in forestry over the next 10 years in Canada, since the median age of the 120,000 forest industry workers is 50.”

For their part, professors at the venerable but still hurting faculty of forestry at the University of Toronto are hoping renewed interest in forestry will help to save them from a merger into the arts and science faculty. “We see ourselves as a faculty of the environment – in fact, we even proposed that name change in the early 1990s,” says professor and former dean Sandy Smith.

Since then, however, U of T’s forestry faculty has struggled to maintain its professional identity. It enrols about 100 graduate students, many of them working on innovative research into wood fibres and nanotechnology, but its undergrad conservation program closed 15 years ago. In 2009, only six Ontario high school students out of 65,000 surveyed said they would choose forestry as their program of study. That has led to calls for the faculty’s merger.

“It’s not surprising when you consider the fact that people in southern Ontario see cities and agriculture, not forests,” says Dr. Smith. “But urban forestry, which is a concept U of T created, is now a big thing. So hopefully we’ll find a way to survive and continue to produce top-notch researchers.”

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  1. Nancy luckai / December 4, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    This is an informative article that identifies many of the challenges and opportunities facing the evolving discipline of forest and natural resources management. I was surprised to note that Lakehead’s program, home of the ONLY nationally accredited undergraduate forestry program in Ontario, was mentioned only in passing with respect to a faculty name change. In contrast to many schools and faculties, the program at Lakehead has maintained steady enrollment over the past two decades and is seeing increasing student numbers in recent years due to a variety of reasons. Growth in the graduate programs has also increased reflecting strong partnerships with First Nations, large and small industry and all levels of government both in Canada and abroad.

    One critical element the author missed was the high demand for graduates from this discipline. Many fourth year students in Lakehead’s Faculty of Natural Resources Management are already considering multiple job offers upon graduation in spring 2014. This is no doubt due to the specific course material but also because they have developed valuable, marketable skills in consistent, well-paying summer employment from their first year forward.

    Thank you for highlighting the growth in this sector along with the innovations in the various programs across the country. Yours truly,

    Dr. Nancy Luckai, Registered Professional Forester (Ontario)

    Chair – Honours Bachelor of Environmental Management,

    Associate Professor, Lakehead University

  2. Brian Harvey, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue / January 15, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    Great article! One glaring error though: Université Laval and UofA also have PhD programs in forestry

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