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Climate leadership from BC foresters

25 February, 2014

A little more than a week ago (on February 13th), the Association of BC Forest Professionals (ABCFP) awarded its first ever “Climate Change Innovators” Award to Alex Woods, a Forest Pathologist working for the BC Government.  The launch of this award, a clear statement on the importance of addressing climate change in professional forestry, comes just over a month after the ABCFP released a Climate Change Position Paper – Climate Change, Forests and the Practice of Forestry – which also highlights that foresters need to consider climate change in their work. 

We find both of these developments tremendously encouraging, coming, as they do, on the heels of similar initiatives by BC’s Engineers.  We have, of course, challenged Canada’s professional associations to demonstrate their climate leadership.

Climate Change Innovators Award

What a great idea, and why don’t all professional associations offer an award to the folks who have done most to address the changing global climate?  The ABCFP’s Awards Criteria explains:

The Climate Change Innovator Award recognizes a member of the ABCFP, or a team of professionals, for outstanding contributions to innovations in practice and/or policy in response to current or anticipated impacts of climate change in the field of forestry. …The intent of the award is to identify practical innovators and promote excellence in professional practice, in light of a changing climate and the corresponding effects on forest ecosystems.

Alex Woods, MSc, RPF, is the first recipient of the Climate Change Innovator Award. I phoned him and he kindly spoke to me about his work and how he felt about this new award. Woods is a forest pathologist (someone who studies forest diseases) with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, based out of Smithers. 

Woods’ involvement in looking at the ways in which climate change is affecting BC’s forests began in the mid-1990s, when, on an unrelated site-visit, he came across a stand of pine trees that were dying, and he couldn’t work out why.  In 1998 he was called out by forest service staff to look at a similar problem in a “pine plantation.” All the trees were red, but Woods assured them that the problem was a foliar disease and that the trees should recover. 

But in 2002, in preparing for a Timber Supply Review for the Kispiox Forest District, Woods flew over the same plantation.  Woods recalls:

The plantation was dead.  And I remember thinking, boy, was I wrong.  And there were a whole bunch of areas where trees were dying.  It turned out that the trees were dying from Dothistroma – it’s a foliar needle disease; not a new disease, but in the past the trees got better. 

I began digging through Canadian Forest Insect and Disease historic records for the disease, trying to figure out why this time the trees were being killed by Dothistroma.  And I was able to see that a previous, more localized outbreak of the disease had coincided with a spike in summer rains, and warmer rains.  And the recent, mid-1990s outbreak also coincided with a more persistent pattern of warm, summer rains. 

I began to wonder if climate change was involved. 

Woods, in conjunction with Andreas Hamman, at the time a post-doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia school of forestry who had modeled the impacts of climate change on BC’s forests, and David Coates, a silviculturalist in the BC Forest Service, examined this connection further, ultimately publishing their observations and conclusions in the journal, BioScience, in 2005.  Woods explains:

It was one of the first scientific articles to demonstrate a compelling link between climate change and a forest disease – and not just a forest disease.  It’s still one of the best examples of a documented link between climate change and plant diseases, since it’s difficult to establish a base-line for agricultural crops due to human intervention.  By contrast, we had native trees, a native disease and historic records of that disease. 

I asked Woods what he thought of this new award.  In addition to being very pleased to have received it, he felt that the ABCFP was sending an important signal to its members about the role of professionals in fighting climate change: 

It says that the Association takes climate change so seriously that it gives an award related to climate innovation.  Individual foresters, hopefully, will recognize that if the association recognizes climate innovation, maybe we should pay attention to it. 

But Woods also has some personal reasons for wanting to address climate change in his work: 

The IPCC’s 4th report recognizes that sustainable forestry is one of the most important tools in mitigating climate change. With sustainable management we can help take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  … And I remember listening to Quirks and Quarks with my son, who was 8 at the time, which had these experts discussing what Canada would look like in 2050.  Most of the changes were bad.  My son turned to me and said, ‘You’re lucky, Dad.  You’ve only had to live with climate change for half of your life. I’m going to have to live with it for all of mine.’  And so I have to do everything I can to make sure that forests are sustainably managed. 

Congratulations to Alex Woods, the first recipient of the Climate Change Innovators Award, and to the ABCFP for having the foresight to offer this important award. 

The Climate Change Position Paper

An award is great to highlight climate leaders, but it’s also important for professional associations to make broader pronouncements about the need to consider climate change in more everyday work. To this end, we also welcome the ABCFP’s Climate Position Paper, which emphasizes the need for foresters to address climate change: 

Professional forestry is based on the application of science and our understanding of how forest ecosystems respond to change. It is incumbent on practising forest professionals to expand their awareness and develop competencies that enable adequate consideration of the effects of climate change on forests while seeking new approaches to adapt in their practices.

The ABCFP paper provides less direction to the Association’s members than the recent Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists (APEGBC) statement, also released in January.  However, the ABCFP does commit to press government on issues related to the ability of their members to address climate change, which we view as an important role of professional associations:

The ABCFP recognizes that a variety of factors, including policy, standard practice and economic drivers can either enable or limit climate adaptation and mitigation activity. As a profession, we will advocate for policies and procedures that lead to improved climate adaptation and mitigation in the management of BC’s forests.

There are aspects of the position paper that we do not necessarily endorse.  There is no discussion, for example, of the possible tension between climate and shorter-term economic objectives, for example.  However, the ABCFP has taken an important first step in a discussion with their members, with government and with the public about the role that foresters play in addressing climate change. 


Professionals are on the front-lines of addressing climate change.  Professionals who advise their clients on the basis of the best available science on climate change, and are accountable to the public when they do not, are doing us all a service.  We’re excited that BC professional associations – including the ABCFP – seem to be leading the way on this conversation.

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer

Graphic is the ABCFP Logo.