It’s the sort of moment that makes a professor stop and take stock. During a recent class on forest management, Professor Tat Smith’s students asked whether the northern communities decimated by a recent downturn in Canada’s forest industry should have a future. “Some students said, ‘Maybe we have to tell those communities that we can’t sustain the traditional logging activity that feeds the pulp-and-paper and wood-products industries.’ There are big questions being asked,” recalls Smith.
Students are not the only ones asking the big questions. As the Faculty of Forestry enters its second century, its scientists are investigating a range of pressing issues – from climate change and habitat loss to the economic sustainability of one of Canada’s bedrock industries. “These are exciting times,” says Smith, who was appointed dean in 2005 after academic postings at the University of New Hampshire and Texas A&M University. “It’s no less exciting than when the faculty’s founders in 1907 asked,‘How are we going to make a living out of the bush?’”
These days, the answer would surprise those who think foresters merely manage timber. Smith cites the research of Professor Mohini Sain, director of U of T’s Centre for Biocomposites and Biomaterials Processing, who is developing ways to use wood microfibres and nanofibres in moulded plastic products. Sain claims that within five years, processed plant fibres could be used to make up 25 per cent of a car.
Several other faculty members are developing sustainable urban forests. Properly planted street trees can help cool cities and offset greenhouse gas emissions associated with the use of air conditioning. Professor Jay Malcolm is examining the impact of global warming on Ontario forests. And John Caspersen, an assistant professor of forest ecology and silviculture, has been studying the effects of forest management on the structure and composition of forest ecosystems.
Smith is interested in the potential of forests as a source of renewable energy. The plant material cast off in traditional pulp-and paper processing, for example, is rich in chemical compounds that have high energy content. Smith is involved with a team trying to develop a bio-refinery in eastern Ontario that could increase the use of primary wood products while reducing the energy needed in pulp-and-paper processing. The area has endured the closure of a Domtar plant and is eager for new opportunities. “The pulp-and-paper industry could go from relying heavily on fossil fuels to depending more on renewable sources of energy and weaning itself from the electrical grid,” says Smith. “The question is: Where will the capital come from to build these new types of refineries?”
He points out that the founding of the Faculty of Forestry a century ago helped bring greater scientific rigour to the management of one of Canada’s most abundant resources. Today, foresters study everything from bird migration to greenhouse gases and the standard of living in remote Aboriginal communities. “A hundred years ago, it was a question of how to get the wood out,” says Smith. “Now, our work affects everybody from downtown neighbourhoods to rural communities.”