Young woman looking up at two ancient trees

Dr Suzanne Simard: The Mother Tree Network & Cortes Island

Dr Suzanne Simard was the feature speaker at the Forest Trust for the Children of Cortes Island Society AGM on Saturday. During the course of her brief talk, Dr Simard discussed some of the innovations she values on Cortes Island and also the Mother Tree Network’s plans here. This is an abridged transcript of her talk, starting with the introduction by Forrest Berman Hatch 

Forrest Berman-Hatch: It’s my honor to introduce Dr. Suzanne Simard, who I’m sure many of you are familiar with.  Simard has been courageous in her outspoken, defence of old growth forests. She was on the front lines at Fairy Creek and she’s inspired many in our generation. For generations, environmentalists have been trying to speak on behalf of the wild places, and now Dr. Simard is showing the world that these places  speak for themselves and perhaps quite literally.

 Her research shows us how to listen.  I believe, I speak for many of the Children’s Forest alumni when I say we are both lucky and honored that she has joined us today to help further a project that  is really close to a lot of our hearts. So thank you for being with us here.

Top image credit: Dr. Suzanne Simard – Photo by Jdoswim (Own Work) via Wikimedia (CC BY SA, 4.0 License)

Suzanne Simard: Thank you Forest. That was beautiful. Thank you,  I don’t often get thanked for bucking the trend and being out on the front lines against other scientists, but it is a road ahoe, that’s for sure.  

I’ll just start by saying that I am in the Kootenays right now. My family is from the Kootenays. I’m in Nelson. I’m on the unseated territory of the Sinixt, the Ktunaxa and the Syilx Nations.  My ancestors were settlers in the Nakusp area, which is in Sinixt territory and in the main lake area, which is also Sylik and(Splatsa?) N ations.  I grew up in these forests, so not unlike you kids that grew up in your forest.

 The forest I grew up in are inland rainforest; you’re in coastal rainforest. They’re not that different from each other except that we have more climatic extremes over here.  We have more fire, we have more droughts,  but we also have beautiful forests  and people have lived in these forests for thousands and thousands of years, and there’s signatures everywhere on the landscape.

 As you learn more about your forest, you learn more and more about how people have been integrated in forests for so long and we’re so entwined and interdependent, and one with the forest. I think you all know that.  When you grow up in the forest, you just become one of the trees, the logs, the plants, the mushrooms, the birds.

I think  what I learned and what I understood as a kid and then went on to research is that the forest is really so much like our societies where we have people of all ages from our elders down to our kids that are all entwined together and learning from each other and sharing and reciprocating and teaching and healing together. We are all in this together, and it’s the same with the forest. 

This kind of knowledge has been around for a long, long time.  I just took  the tools of the scientific trade to try to really measure it, so that I could get scientists and policy makers and governments who are in charge of setting cuts for forests to really see the forest for more than just timber.  That of course, as you all know, has been an uphill battle. 

That battle rages on, but I feel like right now we are at this tipping point. We’re at this place of dramatic change.  I don’t think it’s because you know necessarily that the industry or government wanted to change, but right now we have  no choice but to change. 

The reasons are because one, the people have spoken and they have spoken because of the changes that they’re seeing all around them.  Climate change, of course, is a major motivator for change and I think, hail to climate change. In some ways, it’s our greatest teacher right now. it’s a great motivator and it’s actually motivating people with a lot of power to sit up and listen and do something different. 

I feel a great deal of hope right now. I feel more hopeful now than my entire career. I’m 62 years old. I’ve been studying and working and pushing to change forest practices my entire life. It’s only  in the last couple years that I thought we’re changing, we’re doing it.  People are taking charge and saying, enough is enough. Let’s change. 

 I really think that the Cortes Community Forest is at the forefront of this. What you guys are doing is an example for the world to follow.

So I’ll just talk a little bit about  the first time I came to Cortes. And I just wanted to also say, I actually have a cousin who lives on Cortes Island. she’s a Simard and she grew up in in and around the same forest that I did these inland rainforests.

 We come from a long line of horse loggers. I know that Cortes Island has also been horse logged. I know the dynamics  of that activity and how horse logging can actually be really regenerative in a lot of ways for forests because it has such a light touch. That’s not to say that I think that these forests should be logged. I just think that there is something to learn from what we’ve done in the past. My family were doing that kind of work in the late 1800s  and I think that there’s a lot to learn and apply now as we go forward. 

 It was in that spirit  that we were invited or Bruce Ellingson, Mark Lombard and  the Cortes Community Forest Partnership invited us,  and Sadhu as well, to come over.  The Mother Tree Network came over to Cortes Island last summer and we really started working with the community.  I want to just mention one of our Mother Tree Network people is here, Robin June Hood, who visited the island last summer and she really got things established for us to start working with Bruce and others.

  The Cortes Forestry Partnership,  as well as the Forest Trust for the Children’s Forest, have embraced us and embraced,  what we have to offer and what we have to bring. So I’ll just describe a little bit  of what we’ve done and where we’re going. 

 Last summer, then  we came to the island, we met with a whole bunch of people.  We visited the forest , which was lovely. We met some of the kids.  We met elders. We met  foresters. We met people, authors. We met famous people that some of you are here.  It was so enlightening  and inspiring to talk to everybody.  The level of knowledge and caring on Cortes Island is, I would say it’s right up there with all the communities I’ve met in my journeys and with just such enthusiasm to invite us over and look at your forest and try to envision what can be what, how they can be managed and conserved and protected.

 So it was in that spirit of collaboration and enthusiasm that we came over visited and saw the forest and we made a little plan  to just establish  a research and learning center, or a research and learning hub with the mother tree network on Cortes Island.  We’re moving forward with that.

 One of the first things we did was try to get to know the forest better. Some of the mother tree network students. I know Alyssa is here somewhere. There you are, Alyssa, Alyssa Robinson, Joey Timmermans, and Liam Jones and myself and Robin came over and Bruce was there and we went and started sampling the forest. Alyssa could talk to this in a lot more detail. We  went over the island in different places  and just started looking at historic forestry practices,  what the impact of those practices were and what they could teach us. With  the plan of  if forestry practices in the community forest are going to be changing, how could  what’s been done in the past inform what we can do in the future?

Alyssa  and group have written a nice little report, but I’ll just summarize some of  the key things.  One is you have some beautiful old growth forests and the Children’s Forest is one of those amazing places. These old growth forests are disappearing quickly in this part of the world and it’s absolutely imperative that you protect those forests. Children’s forests needs to be protected not only for the children, but for itself and its ecosystem integrity and the role it plays in mitigating climate change for the rest of the world.  It’s absolutely so important what you’re doing and protecting that forest in whatever way you can.

I understand, from Kiera, that there’s some really good things on the table for at least purchasing the forest from Mosaic.  My hat’s off to you for all the effort you’re putting into that and  whatever I can do to help you succeed in that, I’m here for you.

  Amongst those old growth forests, of course, are these regenerating forests that have been logged in different ways. One of the things that Alyssa and group found is you do have  a lot of really unique plant communities there and also some pretty common plant communities, and they are very strongly affected by the logging practices.

There is a quite a shift in plants  when you open up the canopy. Another thing though is to remember that the force is highly regenerative. So even when the canopy is disturbed with logging, as long as you’ve got old trees left behind and old mother trees, which are the big old trees in the forest,  they provide the seeds for the next generations.

 Alyssa could attest to that. When those old trees are left behind- the Cedars, the Hemlocks, the Douglas Firs. They seed in the next generations. Just like you kids, you were seeded  in by your parents. You’re the product of your mom, Zeporah. And it’s true for all of us. Like we’re the same, right? Our societies, our families. We regenerate from our grandparents and our parents. We make a huge difference in the lives of the next generations, and so  we definitely need to leave these old trees behind in our forest too.

 I I know you probably have a lot of questions about carbon, but in these unique ecosystems that you’re in, which honestly in the Discovery Islands and where Cortes Island is situated, it truly is a unique ecosystem. You’ve got dryer forest grading into  wetter forests and those transition areas are hugely important and rich, not only in species, but carbon stocks as well. 

what we know from our sampling along the coast, including near you,  not exactly on Cortes Island, but we’ve done some sampling and these ecosystems are among the most carbon rich in the world.

Pacific Rim forests, of which you’re right in the heart of, are known by scientists to be some of the most carbon rich temperate rainforest in the world.  They’re sequestering and storing carbon on par  with tropical rainforests in South America.  They’re extremely precious.

 We also know that when we cut these forests, especially clear cutting these forests that a lot of that carbon  vaporizes into the atmosphere. So when you take off the trees, that above ground portion of the carbon pool is turned into some forest products, but 60 to 70% of it ends up in the atmosphere within one year. That’s a huge impact. There’s also a huge impact on the forest floor. What we found out is that  mechanized logging we’re losing about 60 to 70% of forest for carbon through the act of logging alone. Logging, especially industrial logging  is devastating to  the carbon pools in these forests. Protecting them by protecting the forest is absolutely imperative. 

At the same time,  you can also do some kind of management, some kind of tending and stewardship to shape the forest, to help it be adaptable as climate changes.  Those practices are where we really need to put our heads together and observe from the past and figure out what is possible and what is the most productive and results in the most resilient forest.

We know that  we can do this and that the forest is incredibly regenerative. The forest on Cortes show us  that they’re regenerative. But when you start taking out too much of a canopy, it does have a big impact on biodiversity and carbon stocks. There’s no doubt about it. 

 So leaving more of a continuous canopy cover, or maybe with some gaps to encourage earlier successional species in between, is really, really imperative. 

 We know enough now that we can actually shape these things and do  a much better job than industrial practices. 

 The Children’s Forest is a jewel and needs to be left alone to evolve, succeed as it is  to be a place for children and people to go and learn from the forest, like I learned from my forest. To really understand and connect with the forest because connecting with the forest will shape your lives. It shapes you into a human being that cares for society and we need people like you to do that.  It’s absolutely essential that kids have a place to go and learn these basic attributes of being a human being, of caring for our planet.  Anyway, I’m so supportive of the Children’s Forest. Honestly, all forests of the world should be called children’s forests and they should be protected for all the next generations. What you signal to the world  is really like a touchstone for other people in their forests around the world.  

Okay, so some of the other things that the Mother Tree Network is doing, and we really are a network. 

 Robin and I call ourselves the old ponies. We’re just  trudging along, trying to  help communities to protect what they have of their forest.  If they have damaged forests  to restore the forest to the people,  to help people understand and learn from the forest,  to connect and protect. 

We have this little society now called the Mother Tree Network Society, and there’s a group of about 10 of us,  who all have different skills. Some in community-based research, some in social sciences. Some of us are ecologists, some are policy people. Some have more legal expertise and we’ve set up this society  to do the work of helping communities like yours, or at least to work with you,  to achieve goals that you might not be able to do on your own, that we might be able to bring some support for you, not to solve the problems necessarily, but to support you in finding your own solutions.

We’ve just really gotten our traction down. We have different, Parts to our network one is to come in and help communities  scope out their problems. Another one is to create transition pathways to find new economies if it’s more of a timber based economy to transition over to more of a wellbeing economy. Another is to set up educational hubs, of which Cortes Island is going to be  our very first pilot project because of the strong invitation we received. So people can come and do research and learn.  We’re here together to do all this and learn from each other. 

Another part of our network is to encourage art and communication of what you feel in your heart about forests because not everybody gets to live in an old growth forest like you do.  But everybody wants  to know that they’re protected and here for society, for all of us.  So we really encourage people to express this in art and poetry and music and people are all over the world coming together to do this.

So we have a place for this and we call it Mother Tree Creative. 

Robin is leading that creative effort.  I’m gonna come back to our work on Cortes Island then with our network.  We’ve done this little survey of the historical logging practices and from this survey we are proposing to do some more research on Cortes Island.

 One of the things is just to look at the forest and try to account for the biodiversity and carbon pools that you have there so that you have  good, solid data on which to make decisions. So decisions about, for example, if there’s any kind of transaction happening about purchasing lands or putting them in trusts that you know the value in terms of carbon pools that you have there, and how biodiversity is entwined or contributes to that, those carbon pools. 

we want to be able to help you to do that, and we’ll show you how to do that yourselves so that you can collect your own data.  We can help you model it and account for it and report it out. So we have our proposal in to do that,  as well as to try out different kinds of harvesting practices based on what’s been done on the past.

 In the community forest, of course,  there isn’t an allowable annual cut. we want to be able to do those things while preserving the integrity of the forest. So we have a proposal to try to look at that and then we have a proposal. Part of our proposal too is to go into some of the old plantations, which some of them frankly aren’t doing all that well because they’re based on these past industrial practices, how to restore those so they’re diverse again,  and sequestering carbon again.

 Honestly, if we can get this work off the ground, I invite anyone and all of you to come and participate in this research. This really is  participatory citizen science research, and anybody can come and join us. It’s inclusive.  It’s about learning and teaching for all of us.

 We’re in the process of developing a plan to collaborate with the Cortes Island Academy to come and help deliver and , help teach with the students and with you,  some forest ecology in the fall, in the children’s forest. We’re super excited to do that. Already I’m talking to some of the students and they’re excited to come up  and help students understand what is a humas form, what is a soil profile? How do you measure a tree? How do you figure out what the fungi are in the forest? I know Paul is here and  I’m sure that we’ll be able to collaborate with Paul in doing that too.  I see Andy’s here as well.

We’re super excited to do this work with you and, I’m just super grateful that we’ve been invited to come that you’ve welcomed us with such open arms. 

we want to bring our best to you and we think that Cortes Island is really at the forefront of conservation in forests,  not just in British Columbia, but really in the whole Pacific rim. There’s no other places that are really doing at this level, doing this kind of work in the community has come together in this way. So my hats off to you and we’re here to help and support you. And I think with that I’ll just stop  and thank you and open it up for questions.

Other Articles from the 2023 Children’s Forest AGM:

Top image credit: Looking up at old growth in the Children’s Forest – screenshot from The Carrington Bay Children’s Forest

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