Greg O'Neill

Climate change spurring new forestry practices: researcher

Greg O'Neill from the BC Forest Service will be giving a talk about the impact of climate change on forests Wednesday evening at the community centre.

When it comes to battling climate change, trees are at a distinct disadvantage from nature.

“The problem is that climate change is happening faster than evolution and evolution cannot keep pace with the rate of climate change,” said Greg O’Neill, a forester with the B.C. Ministry of Forests Kalamalka Research Station near Vernon.

O’Neill, who holds a PhD in forest genetics from Oregon State University, will be at the community centre in Revelstoke on Wednesday, Aug. 17, to give a talk called Pining For Home: Managing Forests in Flux. The talk will deal with the impact of climate change on forest productivity and wood quality as well as tactics to combat those impacts.

“I will be focusing on one of the strategies called assisted migration,” he said in a phone interview with the Times Review. “That strategy seeks to ensure that when we re-forest the land we select species and seed sources that are going to be adapted not just to the current climate but future climates as well.”

According to O’Neill, climate change can impact forests by disrupting the natural growth cycle of trees. The genetically programmed cues that determines its growth cycle cause it grow or stop growing at the wrong time.

As well, trees can be impacted by cold injury or health issues such as fungal disease and insect infestations. They can also grow crooked or forked so the wood is of less quality, he said.

“From our long-term provenance trials we have seen that when trees are moved into climates that are warmer than the climates in which the trees originate, then trees are often stunted,” he said. “Basically they’re just very unhappy trees.”

O’Neill gave three examples potential climate change impacts on forests.

First was the mountain pine beetle that ravaged forests throughout much of the province.

The second was a fungal infection in the Bulkley Valley near Smithers, B.C., that evidence suggest is linked to climate change.

The final one is the decline in yellow cedar in the Alaskan Panhandle.

However, he added, “one cannot say definitely that climate is linked to these problems.”

No impacts have been detected in the Revelstoke area as of yet.

So far the B.C. Forest Service has made two policy changes to address the issue – both of which O’Neill said the province pioneered in North America.

First was a minor change in seed transfer guidelines that dictate what seeds can be planted where. The change meant seeds could be planted 100 to 200 metres higher in elevation than previously allowed,” he said. “Effectively the seeds are being moved into colder climates.”

The second change is that the western larch tree can now be planted in the Bulkly Valley, outside its natural habitat in the Kootenays. O’Neill said it’s the “first example where change in policy involves moving a species outside of its current range.”

Currently a committee is working on a comprehensive revision of the province’s seed transfer guidelines for all species, said O’Neill.

The changes will be widespread but most unnoticeable to people on the ground. Essentially what will happen is that when a cut-block is being re-planted, seeds from a lower elevation or a more southerly location will be used.

“Seed will be procured from locations that are slightly warmer than the plantation,” he said. There will likely be no wholesale transfer of species from far-off areas, rather “we’re talking about very incremental changes.”

Greg O’Neill will be giving his talk, Pining for Home: Managing Forests in Flux, at the community centre on Wednesday, Aug. 17, from 7-8:30 p.m. It is being presented by the BC Interior Forestry Museum and the Columbia Basin Trust.

The talk is the first in a series of tours and lectures celebrating the United Nations International Year of Forests 2011.