(From left) Darren Sleep, Senior Director of Conservation Strategies at SFI, with his two sons, Elijah and Benjamin, and his friend Jake Ellis, a bush pilot.
Not long ago, I was in northwestern Ontario sailing high above the blanket of boreal forests stretching as far as the eye could see. I brought my two boys, aged 16 and 14, to see this place with me, to feel the forest and its people. We were on our way to Birch Lake, a remote location northeast of Ear Falls, accessible only by foot, snowmobile in the winter, or floatplane in the summer.
At SFI, my job is to help ensure meaningful connections between forest certification and conservation outcomes. SFI operates at an enormous scale throughout Canada and the U.S., and I am passionate about the opportunity that affords to make meaningful connections between conservation, sustainably managed forests and the benefits, like clean water, that flow from these forests.
SFI’s footprint of 150 million hectares (370 million acres) of certified forests means these benefits touch virtually everyone in both countries. My sons have some understanding of my conservation-related work at SFI and our connection to nature, but I wanted them to really see and feel these connections up close.
Flying back to my past
That’s why I was flying with them to a place where I had spent four winters and springs when I was younger, conducting research for my dissertation. I had made some close friends – still friends today – who were so closely tied to these forests that they sometimes seem not born of flesh and blood but hewn from jack pine and black spruce.
Jake Ellis is a locally born and raised bush pilot, chipper operator, trapper, bushman, and in my mind a closer relative to the trees in this area than the Canada Jays that fly through them. And his partner Julie Oaks, who is Ojibwe, might be a sister to the tall and straight trees themselves. I became friends with them almost 20 years ago, and when I visit now, it is like I have never left. They treat my kids as though they are their own grandkids — and me as one of their children who keeps wandering away but always returns.
The black spruce and work call me to this part of the world
I don’t get back to see them as often as I’d like. As a graduate student, I had reason — and a schedule that was a lot more flexible — to spend time in the wilds. As a scientist working with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, I work with companies across Canada and the U.S. as they continually work to manage forests for the future. That management, under the requirements of SFI certification, makes a real difference to species at risk and to all the features of this landscape that I’ve grown to love.
Fortunately, a couple of local companies, EACOM and Domtar, are SFI certified, so that gives me reason to venture again to this part of the world when the black spruce call me back.
Jake has been working and playing in these trees his whole life. It is simply a part of who he is. He has operated every piece of logging equipment deployed in the last 40 years and has harvested more trees than most people will see in a lifetime. He has more stories of plane crashes and unexpected overnights than anyone I know.
The view from the air on the way to Birch Lake in northwestern Ontario — a remote location accessible only by foot, snowmobile in the winter, or floatplane in the summer.
Sustainable forestry and nature working in sync
As we flew in his Cessna 185 on that beautiful morning, he deftly pointed out landmarks and places I once knew. Harvest blocks now swallowed up by the ever-growing forest. Crystal-clear lakes that I have crossed on snowmobile in search of owl nests for my research, or to find the perfect ice fishing spot. The roads and trails I once used on my research commute are barely recognizable, as the ever-changing forests have regrown, playing a new role in maintaining the boreal ecosystem. The landscape where I earned my stripes trying to understand nature has kept on doing what nature does.
When you look at the forest and forest management up close on the ground, it can sometimes be jarring. I will never forget the first hot afternoon when I stood in the middle of a large freshly harvested area, wondering how a forest would recover from such an event.
But on a larger scale — considering both space and time — the forest tells a different story. Even in the space of a relatively short human lifetime, Jake has harvested many an acre that is now indistinguishable from the forest around it. Mature moss-covered forests that once were the home to Brown Creepers and woodland caribou are now seeing use again by these critters, years later, as forests pass from young forests, to brushy mid-stages, to mature closed canopies again. The vigor of this managed forest is one of the reasons why I continue to do what I do at SFI — to ensure that this place will remain for my kids and, perhaps someday, for their children.
Climate change and habitat succession
Through those intervening years, the forests have sucked up carbon and provided homes for a range of species. The first were species that thrive on the harvested areas. Then came those that hide and feed in the raspberry brambles and young trees. Then those that nest and flit through the young forest openings. Finally arrived those that make their home in the venerable and dark mature forests.
And throughout all that time, local communities have continued to go about their business: raising families, schooling their children, getting together at local restaurants and music festivals, welcoming visitors and tourists alike. The people here live, work, and play throughout the forest, and it shows. They are the forest, and the forest is them.
Sustainable forests sustaining local economies
All the while, they have been shipping the products from their local forests to the far-flung corners of the world. Some of those products, such as 2x4s made from sturdy and slow-growing black spruce, are probably still out there in someone’s home or office, holding their strength and the carbon they captured when they were harvested 30 or more years ago.
The SFI label, on products from lumber to cardboard packaging, helps consumers understand the product’s origins and gives them the assurance that all the important attributes of sustainability are carefully considered. Forest management is not a short-term game or a small-scale endeavor. Forest managers, guided by the new and ever-changing science of forest ecology, managing according to local and provincial laws and regulation, and held to the high standards of SFI certification, must manage for the long-term and large scale. It’s at that scale that the values we all take from the forests — clean water, clean air, habitat for wildlife, and carbon capture — will be there as long as we need them.
A shared legacy for future generations
It’s comforting to know that — thanks to the professional foresters who work in forests certified to the SFI Forest Management Standard and the hardworking locals who know these forests so well — years from now my kids can come back here to feel the forest again. Will these forests be the same? No, but a combination of good forest management and sustainable practices means that the ever‑changing boreal forests will still be there, and hopefully someone will still be telling their stories.