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Indigenous knowledge: Backbone of Saskatchewan’s forestry industry

Saskatchewan has a robust forest industry strengthened by strong relationships with Indigenous communities throughout the north. Approximately 27 per cent of the forest industry is led by Indigenous owned business and partnerships. With approximately half of Saskatchewan considered forested and the deep cultural, social and economic ties between Indigenous communities and forestry, understanding the various dynamics in this major provincial industrial sector is key to both future engagement and long-term renewable strategies.

About forestry in Saskatchewan

There are more than 34.3 million hectares of forest in our province. The commercial forest zone is comprised of 11.7 million hectares of boreal forest. Five million hectares of the commercial forest zone are for commercial harvest. Province-wide, Saskatchewan’s Annual Allowable Cut (AAC)–the volume of timber that can be harvested sustainably each year–is nine million cubic metres.

In recent years, the forestry industry generated $1.8 billion in sales (2021). And with more than 8,000 jobs dependent on the forestry industry, it is the single largest sector in northern Saskatchewan. More than 75 per cent of the province’s primary forest products are exported–67 per cent of lumber and Oriented Strand Board (OSB) are shipped to the United States, and 67 per cent of pulp heads to Asia.

Sustainable harvesting mitigates destruction

Carl Neggers, CEO of Forest Saskatchewan points out, “Forestry is not only good economically, but it’s good for the environment.” Saskatchewan’s forests help mitigate the effects of climate change, and forestry practices such as sustainable harvesting contribute to the management of fire, insects and disease. Sustainable harvesting is essential to the forestry economy.

The 1995 fires season burned approximately 1.5 million hectares in the province and affected around 50 million cubic metres of merchantable timber. Not only was merchantable timber lost but large plantations and naturally regenerated stands were lost as well.  Both the government and industry invested money and time into renewal and monitoring to ensure sufficient regeneration.

At that time, the province appointed a Provincial Salvage Co-ordinator with an additional eight field staff to manage the disturbance events. The direction was for all companies that produced a product that could use burnt timber to stop the harvest of green timber and switch to salvaging what they could.

These careful considerations are always on the radar of forestry professionals and are managed through provincial regulations designed to govern economic, social and environmental matters, such as land-use planning, Indigenous community consultation and engagement, wildlife and habitat protection measures, harvesting regulations, and forest re-growth strategies.

The forestry business model centers on long-term planning

Harvesting is allocated to licensed companies in accordance with The Forest Resources Management Act and to those that have a well-defined forest management plan for one of three timber supply areas–Meadow Lake, Prince Albert and Hudson Bay. A forest management plan can be equated with an environmental impact assessment. These plans are required for companies to explain how they are managing the forest in their area in terms of harvesting, renewal, roads and community consultation. These plans typically cover a twenty-year period and offer assurance of sustainability. Lesko points out, “We integrate so much more than cutting down trees. We look at biodiversity, and cultural, social and economic values.”

James Fischer, general manager of Sakaw Askiy Management Inc., which oversees the Forest Management Agreement for the Prince Albert Timber Supply Area, echoes the depth of a forest management plan. “We have a forest management plan that is higher level–it typically takes 200-year snapshot into account, where we consider, ‘What do we want the forest to look like in 20 years?’”

These forest management plans include detailed harvesting plans. Many people think “clear-cutting” when they think of forestry, but Fischer explains how contemporary harvesting is taking more traditional approaches, “Traditional harvesting involves a bunch of smaller blocks spread out over the place. Today we’re consolidating harvesting areas into contained areas to reduce the number of roads and have fewer disturbances on wildlife.”

Environmental and economic longevity

Michael LeBlanc with Weyerhauser says, “The forestry industry is one of the most renewable resource sector industries out there. We’re cutting down trees that are mature, but we’re reforesting with natural seedlings.”

One hundred per cent of forested land in Saskatchewan is renewed. This renewal process is essential to the overall forest health and environmental factors such as managing greenhouse gas emissions and biological diversity of plants and animals. It also ensures longevity of northern and First Nation communities.

Indigenous knowledge is the backbone to Saskatchewan’s forestry sector and sets the stage for forest management plans. Lesko explains how capacity building is a priority of expanding economic opportunities to northern and Indigenous communities. “We currently have 70 per cent Indigenous employment on our land base,” says Lesko. “We manage the forest through co-management meetings with Indigenous communities, from which we talk about their traditional knowledge and experiences and integrate them with ours to come up with the best forest management plan.”