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Seeing the forest and the trees

A look at forest-related research at Dal

- August 12, 2014

(MmeEmil photo, Gettyimages)
(MmeEmil photo, Gettyimages)

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Dalhousie magazine.

From urban trees to boreal forests, Dalhousie researchers are exploring our many connections to and uses for green space, from feeding our souls to fuelling our economies.

For urbanites, trees are a rare sensory joy, a boon to health, and something they can’t get enough of in places of work and play. Peter Duinker of the School for Resource and Environmental Studies hopes to improve access to green in cities everywhere. His team is conducting sidewalk surveys and focus groups to better understand how values, knowledge and policies place trees within urban environments.

Forests have always influenced where we live, but how they do so may change with the climate. Eric Rapaport is an associate professor in the School of Planning. In the long term, Dr. Rapaport says, increased precipitation will reduce forest fires in Atlantic Canada. But for now, rising temperatures and urban sprawl are “potentially putting communities in harm’s way.” To prevent the worst, studies of natural and social systems are helping communities develop more safely as climate change intensifies.

Robert France, in the Faculty of Agriculture’s Department of Environmental Science, is finishing a 10-year multidisciplinary project on the boreal forest, the world’s largest intact forest ecosystem which spans 10 countries. Dr. France hopes to better understand the impacts of clear cuts on lakes. “Forestry is often the biggest industry [in these regions],” he says. “Trout fishing is second.” That adds an economic impetus to conserving both. To do that, France is unraveling the mystery of how these two systems interact.

More than just wood

A history of extraction
“Atlantic Canada has centuries of commitment to forests as lumber,” says Claire Campbell, history professor and co-editor (with Robert Summerby-Murray) of Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada. That’s left us worse off economically and ecologically. “But since the end of the twentieth century, we have generations growing up with environmental rhetoric,” she adds. The region’s commitment to natural beauty might keep our forests intact, she believes.

Celebrating trees
Beauty is celebrated in literature for good reason, says creative writing instructor and poet Sue Goyette. “[Forests’] wildness and otherness are necessary guides to our own wildness and otherness,” she says. As forests disappear, these reminders become essential, with much at stake. “That trees have become such a commodity is worth artistic attention… As a citizen, I’m deeply concerned.”

Culture change
Daniel Rainham, Elizabeth May Chair of Sustainability and Environmental Health, says children spend less time outdoors over subsequent generations. But his research on their perceptions of nature so far confirms that humans have an instinctive bond to other living systems. The future of forests relies on humans becoming more deeply connected to the natural world, he says. “We need to remake economic models to accommodate natural land.”


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