Listen to the Forest

A forest is more than just an abundance of trees in a specific site. A forest holds life beyond what our eyes can see, it holds a story, and history behind every tree, every stump, and every root. Ever wondered how the decisions for sustainable forest management comes forth? Darren Sleep from SFI helps walk Greta through some of the approaches to how these decisions are made for a healthier forests all around.

Greta Vaivadaite for A\J: What are the major challenges our forests face in North America that your organization is finding solutions to?

DS: This is an interesting question because while forests face challenges, they can also be critical to providing solutions as well. The work we do at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is directly focused on helping to find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges. In fact, SFI’s mission is to advance sustainability through forest-focused collaboration.   

Without a doubt the biggest challenge facing our forests is climate change. The overall magnitude of change we are experiencing, primarily in terms of increasing global temperatures year over year, is worrisome. However, the speed at which change is happening is the most concerning. Natural systems are incredibly robust and able to adapt to changing circumstances. But, adaptation takes time, and at the current rate of change—over the last century much of North America has warmed almost 0.07 degrees Celsius per decade—forests will have trouble adapting fast enough. This doesn’t only affect temperature, but water cycles, fire intensities and return rates, and nutrient cycling, just to name a few. These changes can affect land cover—shifting forests into grasslands and wreaking havoc on pests and disease—and affect wildlife and biodiversity.

Fortunately, forests help us fight climate change—particularly when they are sustainably managed. At their core, forests are atmospheric carbon sucking machines, helping to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, which is exactly what is needed to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Managed forests take these benefits to another level. In addition to capturing carbon, we know that well-managed forests have lower incidence of wildfire, helping to prevent massive carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Beyond that, managed forests produce long-lived harvested wood products that further sequester carbon, locking it into homes, furniture, and tall wood buildings.

SFI helps realize those benefits because our certification ensures that forests are well managed. We are working with our conservation partners, scientists, and SFI-certified organizations to ensure the practices on the ground and the long-term planning that takes place are designed to maximize the benefits of forests for the environment and communities where we live and work. The SFI Forest Management Standard and SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard are designed to ensure that SFI-certified forests are managed with an eye to protecting the health and vigour of our forests today and into the future.

We have recently launched new standards, which will help grow our ability to provide solutions to sustainability challenges like climate change. In fact, our new standards have some specific new objectives to ensure certified organizations are planning for climate risks and vulnerabilities; are taking concrete steps to mitigate those risks and where possible, enhance their capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere; and are better tackling the risks of increased wildfire. Our new SFI Climate Smart Forestry Objective requires SFI-certified organizations to ensure forest management activities address climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. Our new SFI Fire Resilience and Awareness Objective requires SFI-certified organizations to limit susceptibility of forests to undesirable impacts of wildfire and to raise community awareness of fire benefits, risks, and minimization measures.

GV: In the forestry sector, how are different approaches working more effectively than the conventional top-down approach?

DS: At SFI, we focus on an “outcomes-based” approach, and there is currently 170+ million hectares of certified area in North America, covering forest types from western coastal rainforests to southern pine forests, to lake states aspen forests, to northern boreal forests. This massive and diverse landscape means that we have the scale to make a difference, but it requires regional and sometimes site-specific management. A traditional “top-down” prescriptive approach does not work as well. By collaborating with our strong, committed network including so many professionals who know their forests, we set achievable and focused forest management goals. This allows our SFI-certified organizations to use their expertise and knowledge, working both individually and collectively, to ensure their forests are well managed, and helping us collectively benefit from the forests around us.

GV: Do you find that blanket approaches often work for most forest management practices?

DS: In my experience, when you are dealing with forests that are as dynamic and diverse as those across North America, a one-size-fits-all approach very rarely works. Approaches used in the northern boreal of Canada look almost nothing like those used in the U.S. South. From both an ecological and forest management perspective, we ignore those differences at our peril. 

Occasionally you will find a general “rule of thumb” or best management practice that is broadly applicable, but even then, those approaches often differ in the details of their application. SFI’s Conservation Impact Project is all about using research to better understand how practices generate conservation benefits in our sustainably managed forests, and then communicating those benefits and practices across our network to realize them at a massive scale.

GV: Through the work that you have done, where do you see the most opportunity for improvement? And why is this important in the long run?

DS: We have many climate change models and reasonably well-informed guesses as to the dynamics our forests will experience over the next decade or two, but the uncertainty remains high. From an ecological perspective, the biggest area for improvement across the forest sector is to develop our adaptive capacity, and to be ready and willing to change the way we approach forest management at a large scale. Forest management has traditionally used many tried and true tools like growth and yield curves and sustained yield models. These tools are still useful, but many of them need updating and revision to adjust to the new reality of a changing climate. This is what is so valuable about the new SFI standards and particularly new elements like the SFI Climate Smart Forestry Objective. We are applying our expertise to pressing global challenges in innovative ways that will assess the risk and vulnerabilities to our forests and adapt our plans and practices to meet them head on. This is how we ensure the long-term values, benefits, and overall sustainability of our forests. 

GV: What is the change you wish to see for the future of this sector?

DS: I love the forest sector. It is not without its challenges, but fundamentally the people that work in this sector are dedicated professionals who care deeply about the forests they work in and who are dedicated to doing what they do and doing it better every single day. The biggest change I would like to see for the future of this sector is truly a world that values and benefits from sustainably managed forests. That is actually SFI’s vision and something we strive for everyday. I have said for years that many of the biggest challenges we face today—from climate change, to safe and healthy communities, to social inequality, to youth education—can all benefit from well-managed forests. For the future of the forest sector, I wish to see people from all places—including both urban and rural people—really come to appreciate and value that. There is one thing I think we all need to understand: when our forests win, we all win.

Senior Director, Conservation Science & Strategies Darren helps manage SFI’s growing conservation science credentials through increasing our capacity to develop and manage conservation projects in Canada and the United States. Darren has a background in ecological research fieldwork where he has designed and implemented forest-related studies including bird banding, small-mammal trapping, and radio-telemetry tracking of bats and owls. Darren sits on a number of government and ENGO advisory bodies, including the Government of Quebec Caribou Advisory Committee and the Government of Canada’s Species at Risk Advisory Committee. He is also part of the Primary Forest Task Team and the Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Prior to joining SFI, Darren worked as Project Leader in forest ecology at the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, where he drew on his knowledge of forest ecology and endangered species and his strong connections with the scientific and conservation biology community. Darren holds a doctorate in zoology from the University of Guelph.  

Greta Vaivadaite is a Journalist, Online Editorial and Social Media Coordinator at Alternatives Media. Greta has completed her undergraduate studies at York University in Environmental Management, and completed her Masters of Environment and Sustainability at Western University in 2020. Her professional interests lay in advocating for environmental education, sustainable fashion, and a greener travel industry.