Trees: A Part of our Heritage

Trees and forests are big parts of the Canadian landscape and economy. But deciding what to plant, and where, isn't as simple as it once was.

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Trees and forests are an important part of the Canadian natural landscape. They represent more than a favourite place to escape from the city – they also clean our air and water, provide a habitat for many animals and plants, and create a wide variety of jobs related to wood and fibre.

In fact, Canadians plant over half a billion trees each year. Deciding which trees to plant will shape and protect our future natural landscape, and this is something that Sally Aitken, professor of forestry and conservation at the University of British Columbia, spends a lot of time thinking about.

In the past, when our climate was relatively stable, planted trees were simply based on what already grew locally. Seedlings grown from local populations would already have all the adaptations needed to thrive.

However, environmental conditions are now changing so quickly that this strategy can fail. Aitken is studying the genetic traits of trees that are well adapted to different conditions to improve the success of new seedlings in our planted forests.

“The goal in our research is to improve forest management, to improve reforestation in a rapidly changing world, in a rapidly warming world. We are fortunate to be directly connected with the people who make the policy decisions around what can be planted where on our public lands, on our crown lands in Canada, so we have a direct way to influence policy to improve the outcomes from forests,” says Aitken.

Beyond reforestation, this research also extends to old forests, filled with trees that have survived over long periods of time and handled a wide range of conditions. Their evolution and genetics are another important part of the picture. By better understanding their potential, we can also monitor and predict the health of these forests over time, and help keep them around for future generations.

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Prof. Sally Aitken is a Professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences the University of British Columbia. Her work is focussed on the capacity of tree populations to adapt to or tolerate a range of climatic conditions, and implications of climate change for forest management. Prof. Aitken completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley and was a faculty member at Oregon State University prior to UBC. She received the Canadian Forestry Scientific Achievement Award in 2009 and the International Union of Forest Research Organization’s Scientific Achievement Award in 2014. She is Project Leader of AdapTree, a large-scale project investigating the genomic basis of adaptation of tree populations to climate, evaluating their capacity to adapt to new climates, and developing reforestation policy recommendations.