EMEND: A leading experiment in sustainable forest management
When Canada wants to show the world its progress toward sustainable forestry, it often turns to EMEND. This research project, based in the boreal mixedwood forest of Alberta some 90 kilometres northwest of Peace River, has been showcased at Canada’s High Commission in London and in embassies around the world. Besides illustrating Canada’s commitment to sustainable forest management, the project underlines how strongly that commitment is tied to science.
EMEND (Ecosystem Management Emulating Natural Disturbance) was conceived in 1997 by a group of forest experts from industry, government and the academic world. Together, they shared a desire to know more about the complex interplay of harvesting, silviculture and natural disturbances in the boreal forest. They also wanted to investigate the economic and social effects of different approaches to forest management.
“At the time, many operators in Canada’s boreal forest were moving away from clearcutting, opting instead for harvest methods based on the natural disturbance model,” explains Dr. Jan Volney, research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service part of Natural Resources Canada. “These methods involve leaving behind unharvested or ‘residual’ trees—just as natural disturbances such as fire would do—which helps conserve biodiversity, regrow the forest and maintain the look of the landscape.”
Before EMEND, natural disturbance-based methods of harvesting had been studied, but some key questions went unaddressed. For example, just how much residual is needed to protect ecosystem functions? And how can forests be managed economically, to stay globally competitive, without sacrificing their environmental integrity?
Researchers knew that to answer these questions, EMEND needed to be big and long-lasting. Says Dr. John Spence, a cooperating scientist and director of the University of Alberta’s School of Forest Science and Management, “The real action in forest ecology is in the interactions of processes and players usually studied more singularly. EMEND provides spectacular experimental infrastructure to define these relationships and promote application of this knowledge in forest management.”
Today, with an area of 1,000 hectares, EMEND is the largest experiment of its kind in the world. The project site is made up of separate forest compartments, each covering at least 10 hectares, the size of a real forest operation. All major forest types of the boreal mixedwood forest are represented. Because forests take decades to develop, EMEND will span one forest rotation, lasting up to 120 years.
The beauty of such a huge, long-term project is that researchers can experiment with many different treatments, from burning selected stands using different types of wildfire, to harvesting at various intensities and leaving behind varying amounts of residual, to testing different silviculture approaches. Then they can repeat the experiments to make sure the results are valid.
Given its scale, EMEND is ideal for both extensive long-term studies that can be monitored over a single forest rotation and more intensive short-term studies. This range has attracted a variety of scientists intrigued by the possibilities of such a broad project coordinated on a single land base. The project covers numerous research areas:
- biodiversity monitoring
- primary forest productivity
- silviculture systems
- forest fire ecology
- soil and nutrient cycling
- forest hydrology and microclimates
- tree genetics
- socioeconomics and cost analysis of harvesting
“EMEND’s applied science benefits will extend beyond the local and regional levels,” notes Dr. Volney. “Knowledge gathered through the project will help forest managers and policy makers throughout the Canadian boreal mixedwood region as they weigh the trade-offs that are part of resource management decisions.”
Jim Witiw of DMI (Daishowa-Marubeni International), a forest products company that has contributed to EMEND since the beginning, also touts the project’s scope. “The suite of EMEND research projects now holds a 12-year history as a credible and internationally recognized effort to understand the effectiveness of the variable retention approach for preserving biodiversity.”
EMEND will also produce science-based tools to help forest managers evaluate harvesting and regeneration practices based on a number of factors, including emulation of natural disturbances, environmental soundness, economic viability, sustainability and social acceptability.
It’s this balanced and scientific approach to forest management that has earned EMEND the international acclaim it enjoys today.
EMEND has 18 contributing partners:
- 4 forest companies
- 6 Canadian and U.S. universities
- 3 industrial research agencies
- 2 provincial forest management and research agencies
- 2 federal government departments
- the national Sustainable Forest Management Network
To date the EMEND site has produced:
- 78 studies
- 35 datasets on various themes
- 70 publications available in the project database
Results from EMEND have shown companies how to change their practices by:
- shifting from clearcutting to retaining 15% in harvested blocks (at little added cost)
- designing harvests that accommodate biodiversity conservation
Overall EMEND has benefited from:
- 263 participants
- $14 million+ in investments and in-kind contributions