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Assisted tree migration strategy needs to be more transparent, UTSC expert says

UTSC assistant professor Nicole Klenk is calling for greater transparency in public discussions about the climate-change adaptation strategy of “assisted tree migration.” (Photo by Ken Jones)

A University of Toronto Scarborough science-policy researcher is calling for greater transparency in public discussions about the climate-change adaptation strategy of “assisted tree migration.”

“Most of my work is about the democratization of science,” says Nicole Klenk, an assistant professor in U of T Scarborough’s Department of Physical and Environmental Science. “I’m ambivalent about whether people should move species. My main concern is that when these decisions are made, they’re informed by more robust forms of public engagement”

Animal and plant species are expected to adapt to climate change by moving to new regions as habitats shift. Trees mature over decades even though regional climates change more quickly. One remedy involves introducing southern tree species farther north, anticipating climate-change model predictions.

British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations has recently enacted the first assisted migration policy in Canada, allowing licensees to plant Western Larch in areas hundreds of kilometres north of where it currently grows.

“There was a lot of internal debate during the policy development process on moving Western Larch into these new areas, but the discourse presented to the public was that this is business as usual,” says Klenk. “There was a missed opportunity to engage the public in a conversation about the future composition of BC’s forests.”

Assisted species migration raises many issues. Any time a species is introduced into a new area, it can have unintended, and possibly detrimental consequences to the recipient community. Furthermore, scientists do not have consensus on what, exactly, constitutes the ‘historical range’ of species.

“It’s difficult to say what is the natural range of a species,” says Klenk. “Canadian forest policy is mostly based on how the ecosystem has evolved within the last several centuries. My research indicates that there is a shift towards looking at the distant past – the last glaciation – as the benchmark. This benchmark signals a very important change in Canadian forest policy and forest management practices on the ground.”

The BC assisted migration policy offers an additional twist, in that the policy is aimed not at saving a species from being wiped out because of climate change, but at preserving the province’s forestry industry.  “Western Larch is a species of commercial value,” says Klenk. “The rationale is not simply adaptation, but adaptation and productivity.”

The avoidance of public debate comes from many concerns, says Klenk. Perhaps most critically, policy-makers anticipated public resistance to the movement of species and the introduction of exotic species on public lands—especially if these practices were perceived to be driven by economic interests.

“In the drive to gain a ‘social license’ to move species populations beyond their current ranges, BC has downplayed the novelty of assisted migration, bypassing an important political question: How should our future forests be composed?”

Increased transparency and public engagement, she says, would not only lead to better informed policies, but also to the crafting of future forests that take into consideration the multifaceted relationship Canadians have with their forests.

“It’s about moving away from a technocratic to a participatory approach in shaping the future of forests,” she says. 


© University of Toronto Scarborough