Before going to school for Integrated Resource Management, my work experience was in parks and tourism. At the time, my view of forests was strongly informed by my personal experience and connection to them: a place to spend time with friends and family, for education, recreation or personal enjoyment. To me, parks were the best way to manage forests, and tourism made sense as a compromise between the often dueling interests of conservation versus commerce. Forestry, however, was to be regarded with ambivalence and suspicion. It was an industry veiled by its own mystique — decisions made in dark, cavernous rooms away from the public eye, where someone was petting a white cat, probably.
Since then I have learned much more about forest dynamics, industry and the network of interests that influence management decisions. There were many other perspectives, wildly different from my own, that I felt I needed to hear if I wanted to better understand our relationships with forests and make a career out of resource management.
While I still value forests in many of the ways I used to, I wanted to better understand other perspectives so that I could improve my own. I expressed my interest in learning more about stakeholder engagement during my internship with Weyerhaeuser, and in August I was asked to attend my first meeting — a tour with the Sturgis Métis Local, who Weyerhaeuser began working with a few years ago and has remained in touch ever since.
The purpose of the tour was to visit previously harvested sites and field questions about the operations and regeneration, and to show some of the work being done to maintain riverbeds and control erosion on a new road construction. This was a follow-up to a previous tour to a block that had been freshly cut and had not yet regenerated, so it was a chance to discuss the long-term processes and techniques that go into harvesting and silvics. It would be my first time attending a meeting where forest management was up for discussion and I was slightly apprehensive on how it would turn out.
Stakeholder meetings have a reputation for tense discussion, but in this case both parties had a desire to co-operate which no doubt makes for a successful meeting. The tour seemed more social - a means to check in with each other and share concerns - but it was still a first for me to observe.
Far away from a stuffy town hall, our meeting started at the Little Swan Road on the south end of the Pasquia-Porcupine Forest Management Area, about an hour northeast of Sturgis, Saskatchewan. It was still early morning, clear and warm with a gusty southern breeze coming off the nearby farmland. There was a casualness to introductions I didn't expect but appreciated — just people catching up, cracking jokes and enjoying the fresh air.
The first stop of our tour was a nearby cutblock harvested in 2017 where we could see the progress of aspen regeneration and compare to other stands nearby: from the same spot you could see a regenerated cut from 1995-96, and another of mature retention likely started in the 1930s showing different stages of succession.
While no one seemed surprised regrowth was occurring, being able to compare different-aged stands gave perspective and opened the field for questions about how aspen regenerate compared to spruce, how stand type and age affect biodiversity, and why and when to leave retention. Viola Bell, President of the Sturgis Métis Local, spoke about the value of being able to see for themselves the work that was done and how the site was responding. "Seeing is believing" seemed to be an adage everyone could agree on.
At the following stops, Mike LeBlanc, General Manager of the Hudson Bay timberlands office, explained the work that was done, where things went well and what could have been done better. This was a refreshing bit of candidness and reminder that successful stakeholder meetings did not depend on how closely one keeps their cards to their chest. Transparency was key and being genuine meant a fluid, natural dialogue could take place: no questions were out of bounds. While I knew things were more cordial than some stakeholder meetings go, I was glad to have had this experience as my first impression.
I connected with Viola after the tour to learn more about her perspective on forest management and how she saw the Sturgis Métis Local's relationship with forestry. She was quick to provide a caveat that she could speak only for herself and her group, that some Indigenous and Métis groups would rather see no cutting at all. But in her view, forestry provided a fair solution to wildfire management, the accumulation of fuel and increased severity of burns. It also, ultimately, was in her interest to see a growth in job opportunities for her members and community.
When asked on how to maintain relationships between Aboriginal groups and industry, she said "the act of reaching out and having an open dialogue." Being able to put differences aside was important, but so was being able to voice concerns. There was also educational value in touring the forest management area, a common place where we could meet in person and field questions in the presence of what was being discussed.
Getting to know Viola, I got the sense that the stakes were very real, no matter how breezy the tour was. In between short talks about her garden, her family and hometown, she talked about her desire to see the people around her succeed and live happy, healthy lives. She cared deeply about the community and being a responsible steward of the forest, which posed an opportunity to earn a livelihood while maintaining a traditional way of life.
My takeaway from our conversations was that, for real engagement to take place, both parties needed to be willing to actively listen to each other. Being able to accept someone else's views, regardless if they conflict with your own, was key to fostering a constructive dialogue. I also thought that a casual tour outdoors was a far better backdrop than any town hall or office, but in the end it was getting to know someone personally that helped me see the forest through their eyes and grow my own perspective.