A new environment for forestry
By Michael Brown
This exclusion of “Forestry” from the University of Alberta Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences’ nameplate was rectified recently when John Spence was named the first director of the newly sprouted Alberta School of Forest Science & Management.
“I think we’re better off now than we ever were before,” said a gratified Spence, who will make room for his new role along with his previous duties as professor and chair of the Department of Renewable Resources.
Spence explained that although the faculty’s name change in late 2007 had been long overdue, the new handle left the forestry program without the presence it once enjoyed under the old Faculty of Agriculture, Forestry and Home Economics flag.
“After the name change, forestry fell under the Department of Renewable Resources, and it is fair to say we do a lot more in this department than just the forestry and forest science aspect of environmental management,” said Spence. “We have several other dimensions that are quite important. Forestry is one of our undergraduate programs and one in which we think we have some strength nationally and even internationally.”
Having suspicions that the name change was hurting the profile of forestry as a heavyweight program at the U of A, Spence began scanning the web about what opportunities there were for a student to study forestry in Canada and found the U of A wouldn’t come up anymore.
“We needed a title, a web connection that would alert the best students in Canada and around the world that we were alive, well and doing business still,” he said. “Not only were we concerned; our main clientele and partners—industry and government—were also quite concerned because they’re anxious to promote the reality that what most people perceive as forestry these days is poorly grounded in reality.”
The opening of the school isn’t the first time the U of A’s forestry program has undergone a major shuffle. In 1971, the then–Faculty of Agriculture was expanded to include forestry, which gave the faculty an external environmental presence. This marriage between forestry and the beginnings of the conservation movement fell on rocky times a short time later when the federal government allocated most of the crown forest in the province to industrial forest harvest. Spence says controversy began to swirl, breeding hard feelings and misimpressions in the public about what academic forest science is all about.
“We’ve never been about saws, axes or checkered shirts,” said Spence. “Our strength is in forest ecology, modern silviculture (the science of growing trees), as well as other aspects of legitimate forest science like conservation of biological resources, modern and effective approaches to pest management, management of wildfire and wildfire risk.
“Our work is good. Our reputation, as always, lags behind, but we’re coming. To be fair, this is a lag, albeit a completely understandable lag.”
In the early ‘90s, the Department of Forest Science was merged with the Department of Soil Science, and has since been spread across the departments of rural economy, renewable resources, and, to a lesser extent, agricultural, food and nutritional science.
“It used to be that the faculty was like a store front where people walking down the street looking for forestry knew where to go,” said Spence. “When we changed the sign, somebody interested in forestry wouldn’t know where to go.
“What we’ve done with the school is—in the same building configured in the same way with people in the same offices, and budgets managed in the same way— hung out a sign from a second-floor window that says, ‘we still do forestry, too.’”
One change that Spence does foresee is a better degree of interaction between people interested in forestry across all the different departments that help deliver the program.
“While all the departments have always interacted well at the undergraduate level, there has been no clear mandate to interact at the level of research and advanced education now there is,” said Spence. “What I hope the school will do is provide a campus-wide focus for forestry and forest management.”