Exploring Canada’s forests

June 30, 2011

Canada stretches across five time zones and numerous climate regions. The Arctic Circle is covered in permafrost, yet Point Pelee in southern Ontario is further south than northern California. Forestry is synonymous with Canada, with the conditions that sustain the nation's forests varying greatly across geographic expanse. As a result, Canada features 12 forest regions and sub-regions, each supporting characteristic tree species and forest types.

by Michal Brink, Forestry Solutions

Canada's frozen forests Canada's frozen Niagra Falls
Michal Brink on the trail again ... this time in a frozen Canadian forest landscape. The Canadian side of a frozen Niagra Falls.


There are about 180 tree species in Canada, as opposed to over 11 000 in the Amazon basin and 600 in the Congo basin. Canada, the second largest country in the world, has 402 million hectares (53% of the country) of forest or wooded land. This makes up 10% of the world's forest area and 30% of the boreal forest biome.

An interesting aspect of Canadian wildlife is that most animals inhabiting Canada's forests have adapted well to the regular return of wild fires. Fires do not completely destroy wildlife populations since most animals are able to avoid fires by burrowing, running, flying away, or escaping into water. A positive after-effect of fire is that nutrients are then more abundant and accessible, thus favouring plant growth. In addition, within a few days, burnt timber attracts beetles that in turn attract birds. For example, the black-backed woodpecker is very abundant in recently burnt stands, but quite rare in older stands. Insects also attract omnivorous animals, such as the bear, fox, badger, skunk and other species. New plant growth will attract grazers, such as deer and moose, which feed on the tender young shoots.

About 80% of Aboriginal communities have made the forests their home for many millennia, with 80% of such communities living in forest areas. Due to the association of such communities with the forests, Canada has an ongoing process of land claims. Currently, there are 1 400 land claims from first nations in Canada, many in forestry land.

Under Canada's constitution, the federal government and the provincial/territorial governments have specific roles in the governance of public forest areas, as well as sharing responsibility on matters such as environmental regulation, science and technology. Each province and territory has strict rules governing forest practices on its public land.

Most of Canada's forest land (93%) is publicly owned – 77% under provincial or territorial jurisdiction and 16% under federal jurisdiction. The provincial governments, which have legislative authority over the enhancement, conservation and management of their forest resources, develop and enforce policies, legislation and regulations, allocate timber licences, collect forest management fees and gather data. While these laws may differ between provinces, the outcome is quite similar, namely responsible management of forests in respect of economic, environmental and social values. The various governments also involve ordinary Canadian citizens in decisions related to how their forests are managed through a process of continuous stakeholder engagement.

Harvesting systems employed in Canada vary significantly, due to tree size and terrain conditions. A significant portion of the annual cut is fully mechanised, while chainsaw and cable skidder systems, often run by an owner-operator, are still used in many parts of the country. Steeper areas also require cable yarding systems to extract timber. About 72% of harvested areas on Crown land are regenerated through tree planting and direct seeding, while the remainder is regenerated naturally.

Canada is the world's largest exporter of forest products. The predominant tree species on forest land are spruce (53.2%), poplar (11.6%) and pine (9.3%). About 8% of Canada's forest area is protected for conservation by legislation. In 2007, Canada harvested 162.8 million m3 of round wood annually (compared to about 18 million m3 in South Africa). This volume is produced off less that 1% of Canada's forests that are harvested in any one year. Bioenergy now constitutes more than 60% of the total energy used by the forest industry.

The forests occurring on private property constitute a small percentage of the total forest area, but nevertheless make a significant economic contribution to the forest industry. These forests are in the hands of more than 450 000 landowners. Almost one fifth of Canada's logs and pulpwood come from private forests and woodlots, as do most maple products, fuel wood and Christmas trees.

Both FSC and PEFC certification has grown tremendously in Canadian forestry over the last five years. Today, the country has more land certified to these two schemes than any other country in the world.

Published in June 2011

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