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Forest restoration is a term gaining currency. But what does it actually mean as a policy and a practice in this post-mountain-pine-beetle time? Which raises the question of what is meant by post-mountain-pine-beetle? Is the beetle and its impacts actually over? And what might all this mean for the silviculture industry? These are just some of the topics the WSCA restoration panel of senior policy-makers and politicians will be asked to discuss at the WSCA annual conference.

Forest restoration is a term likely to get more use here in B.C. as we head into the uncertainties of life after the mountain pine beetle plague. It makes sense, given that whatever tactical opportunities we had to mitigate the extent of the attack are mostly over. We are now in what we might call a post-mountain pine beetle phase of forestry. It would seem provident then to think about putting things back in order.

Of course, it’s not that simple. The term itself is problematic. To restore means to return to some previous state. Not only is that a doubtful possibility, there is good reason to not want to put things back where they were on the landscape previous to the plague. After all, some of those conditions contributed to the present catastrophe. Nevertheless, if we are going to use the word restore the question becomes, Restore to what?

But before we answer that we need to look at the assumption that is driving the idea of now restoring our forests. The beetles may have eaten themselves out of house and home. But does the collapse of their population signal the all-clear when it comes to future disturbances and consequences of the plague? We already know the answer to that. It doesn’t. The plague has created different opportunities for fire, floods, and other bugs and blight that we are just beginning to contend with. Things are far from over with ecologically. And this is to say nothing about the social and economic effects.

There is another dimension to this as well. What if the beetle plague is actually a deeper problem announcing itself? The remarkable damage we’ve seen may really be an effect, not a cause. If that is the case then, that cause may not have gone away, and will seek other ways to express itself on the landscape. If we are planning on restoring our forests it will do us little good in the long run to be fixing the wrong problems.

Which brings us back to just what state we want to restore our forests to. There is a whiff of hubris here, of course, in the assumption that this is something we could actually do. The beetle plague is a stunning example of the kinds of forces that can be let loose on the landscape. And our success in managing that was minimal. Nevertheless, any forest restoration strategy needs to imagine a future landscape that is at least more resistant to the kinds of catastrophic disturbance we have just been through. And, although it is far from ideal, any forest restoration strategy towards ecological resilience will likely have to use the limited resources we have available today to make a different future. Those are two very large challenges.

How we attempt to manage our provincial forests has always been dependent on public policy. At this point it is critical then to see what vantage point our political and public planners occupy on forest restoration by asking them what they think restoring our forests means in policy and practice. We intend to do that at the WSCA conference in February 2013 in a panel comprising leading politicians on forestry and members of the senior echelons of the ministry responsible for forestry. From that discussion we should be able to infer the scale and depth of the thinking today on what we might be meant by restoring forests for the future.