Importance of Forest Genetic Diversity to our Future Well-being

Biodiversity is a simple concept, yet it is not easily understood.  It is the variety of life in all of its forms.  We can speak of biodiversity as the variety of ecosystems, the variety of species, and the variety among individuals within a species.  The variety among individuals is genetic diversity and it is this genetic diversity that allows species to adapt to changes in their environment.  So, although it is intangible, and is often overlooked, genetic diversity is vital for the present and future well-being of Canada’s forest ecosystems, the forest industry, and forest-based communities.  In short, it is vital for the future of Canada.

Forest Genetic Diversity is the pool of inherent differences among individuals of forest species.  We are all familiar with such differences among human beings; differences in eye, hair and skin tone, height, and facial features, for example.  The same degree of differences exist among trees within a species (e.g. among sugar maple trees).

Genetic diversity is the basic unit of biodiversity.  Collectively known as genetic resources, it constitutes the source of adaptation in all species.  Characteristics of forest tree species vary over the species’ range, because of adaptation to specific environmental conditions.  So, each population with its local adaptations constitutes a unique genetic resource.  Loss of populations is sometimes called silent extinctions, unnoticed because the species does not become extinct, but valuable genetic resources are lost and cannot be easily or quickly reconstituted.

Forest Genetic Resources are important to the well-being of Canadians.  They are essential for adaptation to changing environmental conditions.  This means adapting to climate change, invasive alien species, such as newly introduced insect pests, and changes in air quality.  Thus ecosystem health and stability depend on forest genetic resources, and sustainable forest management depends on healthy gene pools of forest species.

Forest genetic resources have important economic values, both presently existing and potential. For example, genes are the source of tree improvement and breeding material for improving growth rate for commercial forest tree species, and for developing resistance to pests, drought, heat or cold.  So, genetic resources are vital for maintaining a viable forest industry.

They represent potential economic value because of new products that will come from the forest in the future, including medicinal and other non-timber forest products.  Development and sale of such products will bolster rural economies and will contribute to the health of Canadians.

There are significant threats to Canada’s Forest Genetic Resources.  One such threat is climate change.  Without a proactive response, populations near the southern limit of species’ ranges likely will be lost along with their valuable genetic resources.

Another important threat is invasive alien species, such as: Emerald Ash Borer, Brown Spruce Longhorn Beetle, and Butternut Canker.  We risk losing entire tree species, such as butternut, if we do not act quickly and appropriately.  For introduced pests and diseases that are established now, development of genetic resistance may be the only long-term mechanism for survival of tree species.

Forestry practices have improved greatly over the past few decades, but still inappropriate forestry practices can threaten genetic resources. Selectively harvesting only the best and leaving the poorer trees to regenerate the stand, is a well-known example of a poor genetic practice.  Genetic diversity may be influenced in less obvious ways as well, for example, harvesting practices for a commercial species of interest may be harmful to other associated species.

Urban and cottage development affects species associated with specific habitats, often including the richest soils along river or lakefront.  Uncommon species, such as bur oak, which are displaced by this development, are affected because entire populations may disappear with the loss of habitat.

Finally, development of mineral or petroleum resources dramatically alters habitat and without proactive conservation measures, populations may be lost in some areas. 

It is time to rise to these challenges with a coordinated response; provinces have gene conservation programmes for some species within their own boundaries, but forest genetic resources transcend provincial boundaries and planning horizons. The Canadian Forest Service of Natural Resources Canada has a role in working with provinces to identify the issues, do the science to understand the threats and to develop and promote conservation methods.  Research and gene conservation activities are carried out by universities and environmental NGOs as well as by provincial and federal government departments, but such efforts could be more effective with coordination across provincial boundaries.