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Re-evaluating the Boreal Forest Ecosystem Resource Paradigm through Agroforestry, Carbon Market Mechanisms and Traditional Ecological Knowledge; Creating a Framework for Sustainable Renewable Resource Use in Canada.

Nicolas Mory

Keywords: Highbush blueberry, black spruce, Boreal forest, agroforestry, Atikamekw, Anishnabe, forest ecology, carbon pools, global and local markets

Introduction & Background

    Eeyou Istchee is the Cree title given to an ancestral hunting ground passed down from generation to generation through extended family ties (1). Partitioned into traplines managed by "Tallymen" (i.e.: individuals indirectly responsible for the maintenance of ecosystem processes) the Eeyou Istchee offers a space for families to gather wild edibles, cultivate cultural identity, teach the youth, regain physical and mental well-being, engage in spiritual healing, and generate capitalist-based market income (e.g.: Fur, berries, wild pharmaceuticals, merchantable timber, etc.) (ibidem).

    In 1997, seeking to deepen their political weight in regards to resource management within the Eeyou Istchee, members of the Waswanipi Cree community gathered to create the Ndoho Istchee, also called the Waswanipi Cree Model Forest  (WCMF). It is the only aboriginal-led project in the 11-member Canadian Model Forest Network (CMFN) (2). Spanning 3.7 million hectares of boreal forest composed mostly of black spruce, jack pine, white pine, tamarack and white spruce, the WCMF was established to unite western science and Cree traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) through a mapping framework involving forestry companies and Tallymen. This approach allowed for the development of co-management stratagems. Furthermore, she signing of the "Paix des Braves" arrangement in 2002 led to the Cree retracting from non-respect lawsuits they had filed in the wake of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBQNA) signed in 1975 (3).Building from these social contracts, stakeholders of the WCMF decided to make the fundamental premise of the Paix des Braves (i.e.: the right of the Cree to protect the Cree way of life) the centerpiece of their resource management paradigm (5).
    Trees represent sacred entities in Cree cosmology and as such families on the Eeyou Istchee must: ensure that each child is assigned to take care of a tree and that firewood is plentiful as this allows for a good hunt, always give back to the land when taking medicine from a tree, and finally acknowledge trees as protectors of life” (2). Permaculture, a movement initiated by ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgreen in the mid-70's expounds very similar ethical formulations through the encouragement of: action-based learning, social ecology, home schooling, wild harvesting/hunting, and complementary/holistic medicine (4). Knowing that such powerful parallels exist among these culturally isolated cosmologies does it not seem probable to assume the existence of a sympatric relationship between the two? 

The Boreal Paradigm

    The WCMF is a prime example of this communicative dialogue and demonstrates that when values are aligned, cohesion is not too far behind. It does do by merging GIS technology with Cree TEK in the scope of understanding significant ecological processes (i.e.: bodies of water, wildlife, carbon cycling, water purification) while fostering a unilateral dialogue between the two knowledge systems (ibid).

    Abiding by the same maxims as the WCMF project, the following research study seeks to explore an innovative alternative to conventional forest management practices built on the synergetic blend of cutting-edge agroforestry, TEK and GIS analysis.

Study Area

The Boreal Paradigm: Study Area

                                                        Figure 1. Boreal Forest Paradigm: research study area.

Project Objectives and Question


The fundamental premise of this study is to design a management framework that blends equally agroforestry, TEK and GIS in order to generate income for communities living within the Boreal Bioregion while conserving biodiveristy and ecological resilience (see figure 1). Furthermore, by targeting Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) (e.g.: Canadian yew, Highbush blueberry, Highbush cranberry, Utah sweetvetch, etc.) and minimizing habitat degradation for Eastern moose (Alces alces) populations while increasing food supplies (i.e.: blueberries), local TEK will be allowed to perpetuate itself due to its hunting-dependent nature. The loss of the latter is occurring as a result of the degradation of the Boreal ecosystem resulting from conventional timber oriented management operations. Linking carbon stored in standing biomass to carbon offset markets may address the fiscal imbalance incurred by a drop in timber harvesting rates in the short-term. In the scope of this project special interest will be given to the Highbush blueberry because of it’s high NTFP profitability, indigenous distribution and ecosystem functions (see table 1). Timber will still be collected from the forest ecosystem however it will be based on long-term evaluative harvesting methods that may fall within the highbush blueberry areas.


Can agroforestry in the Boreal Bioregion potentially substitute income generated by conventional timber harvesting practices while perpetuating local TEK? 


  • From the USDA plant database (6) and the Evergreen project’s “Indigenous plant database” (7)

Table 1. Highbush blueberry biophysical demands

Plant species Soil texture Soil moisture pH Shade tolerance Elevation profile Fauna associations Floral associations
Vaccinium corymbosum (Highbush blueberry) Sandy-loam, Clay content below 20%,
OM between 3-20%
Water table 20cm below soil surface
4.5 to 5 Low (below 60% canopy closure for appreciable growth) Deciduous,
Better suited for higher elevations (increased air flow) to avoid frost damage,
Low areas or ''frost pockets'' lead to vascular damage during prolonged cold periods
Source of food for many wildlife species, Commercially attractive to humans, 
Fairs well alongside Vibernum, Picea and Pinus spp.,
Soil builder

  • From the Géobase initiative’s GIS database:Hydrology, Land cover, Topography (Digital Elevation Model)
  • From the McGill University's geodatabase: Soil surveys
  • Forest survey plot data: Tree diameter at breast height (DBH), basal area (BA), stand density (i.e.: Open = <60% canopy closure and Closed = >61% canopy closure), tree height, and species composition.
  • Average highbush blueberry yield per unit surface area under optimal growing conditions
  • Carbon Storage & Sequestration, Managed Timber Harvest and Terrestrial Biodiversity Data Requirements


Forest survey plots

    A 10m diameter survey plot will be thrown for each forest land cover type (i.e.: coniferous, broadleaf, and mixedwood forests) in the study area. Sampling will be randomized but will follow the route plotted out by the First Nation group over the course of one week. Canopy closure will be evaluated through simple qualitative observation of canopy compared to a set of reference images (see figure 2). DBH will be collected with a flexible measuring tape and BA will be calculated from DBH. Tree height will be calculated with the use of an inclinometer and biomass per tree will be calculated using the DBH, tree height and biomass index for each Boreal tree species. These indexes have already been calculated by Lambert et al. (8).

Figure 2. Hemispherical photography of forest canopy. The image is showing a canopy closure of 50%.


Part 1: Which forested LC types have high above-ground C-stock and exhibit an open canopy?

Carbon stock valuation of land cover types will be achieved by using InVEST's Carbon Storage and Sequestration Model. Forest survey plot information will be processed through this model so as to generate above-ground carbon stocks for the forested land cover types (i.e.: coniferous, broadleaf, and mixedwood).

As for the below-ground carbon stock, soil organic carbon (SOC) and forest litter, these will be automatically equated to 0. Although much of the carbon in the Boreal forest is found within the soil this carbon pool is not going to be altered in the short-term. This is because the current study is observing the forest ecosystem through a net present value (NPV) analysis and the only major physical alteration will be the clearing of trees to allow for the growth of the highbush blueberry and consequentially, the extraction of merchantable timber. As a result carbon pool alterations from compaction, erosion and species distribution will not be taken into account in the scope of this study.

The most up-to-date carbon stock prices taken from global carbon trading markets will then be applied to this standing biomass. As a result, forested areas will be assigned a market price per land cover type (i.e.: open or dense: mixedwood, conifer, and broadleaf).

Furthermore, forested land cover types representing small and large carbon stocks will be discovered and linked to canopy closure. For example, a dense conifer forest may have less carbon stored in the standing biomass than its open counterpart due to ecological succession. This will have ramifications on the suitable areas analysis for highbush blueberry populations as they fair much better under high solar exposition.
(Carbon value map for forested areas) + canopy closure and biomass relationship

Part 2: What is the NPV of the timber present in the forest?

The forest survey plots and current bulk sale prices for timber in accordance to tree species will be inputted into the Managed Timber Production M
odel of the InVEST suite. The result of this operation will be the per ha net present market value of merchantable timber in each forested land cover type (i.e.: open conifer, dense conifer, open broadleaf, dense broadleaf, open mixedwood and dense mixedwood).
(Merchantable timber value map)

Part 3: Where are the most suitable locations for highbush blueberries?

Various geoprocessing operations will be applied to the DEM, hydrology and land cover data sets in accordance to the blueberry’s preferred growing conditions (i.e.: sandy soils, high solar exposure, low humidity levels, good wind protection and high acidity)
(6,7). This information will be inferred by meta-analysis of peer-reviewed research work. The soils of the region These following geoprocessing steps will be required to designate suitable areas for the blueberry ''plantations'' while maintaining the most carbon-dense forest zones:
  1. Erase land cover types that are already under unalterable use (e.g.: agricultural land) then convert to raster (from land cover map)
  2. Create Euclidean distance from water bodies and reclassify as distance according to suitability (e.g.: 5=best (driest) and 1= worst (wettest)) (from hydrology map)
  3. Reclassify elevation in accordance to distance from the regional water table (e.g.: 5=best (furthest) and 1=worst (closest)) (from DEM)
  4. Apply a weighted sum to all the above layers and convert to shapefile
  5. Calculate the surface areas of each resulting suitability polygon
  6. The optimal yield per unit of surface area of V. corymbosum will then be gathered from peer-reviewed literature and applied to each suitability polygon after being multiplied by a percentage representing the suitability ranking of the latter. This will mimic the yield of the highbush blueberries in relation to the observed growing conditions. Then current market prices in price per units of mass for wild organic blueberries will be applied to the previous yield/surface calculations so as to produce the total raw market value of the blueberry plantations. 
(Highbush blueberry plantation value map)

Part 4: Comparative analysis

Finally, after making sure all the layers are in vector format, observations of the 3 resulting value maps (i.e.: carbon sequestration and storage, highbush blueberry plantation, and merchantable timber) under various management scenarios will be achieved through balance sheet analysis.

For example, an open forest land cover type polygon is found to generate a higher income through carbon markets than timber markets. Furthermore, the same land cover polygon coordinates with a V. corrymbosum suitable growth area. Knowing that an open canopy allows for enough solar exposition to reach potential blueberry plants, the decision therefore will be to link the trees to a carbon trading stream and plant blueberries for local production. Eastern moose food stocks will also increase along with adequate shelter space enabled by an easier movement through widely spaced old growth standing biomass. Local aboriginal communities will then be able to practice hunting within these spaces. A pattern may be produced if more of these areas are found by joining them to form bio-corridors thereby increasing habitat quality and promoting biodiversity while perpetuating TEK.

The resulting management regimes will then be compared to the merchantable timber value map which will be used as a basemap for comparison. On its own the latter represents the ancestral grounds treated by conventional timber management. The comparative results thus obtained will answer the aforementioned research question and may prove that agroforestry in the Boreal Bioregion can potentially substitute income generated by conventional timber harvesting practices while perpetuating local TEK. 

NOTE: Adding Utah sweetvetch can bring in a source of N (N-fixing) while reducing the competitiveness of weeds by offering a full soil cover. This could be a future study route.

Possible problems

  1. Inadequate survey data collection
  2. Too much approximation
  3. Oversimplification of ecosystem internal and external mechanisms such as pathogens, over-grazing, human malpractices in agrology, etc.
  4. Outdated map datum


    The results of this study could potentially set the stage for further research in the development of agroforestry systems as complex alternatives to conventional forest management practices. Ultimately this paradigm shift could open up stable employment opportunities, protect old growth forest ecosystems, increase available food stocks for indigenous fauna and habitat quality for local and migratory wildlife. Local communities dependent on intact forests to perpetuate their cultural identity may choose to opt for such a management approach as an alternative to conventional timber harvesting which has done nothing but taint our relationship with these life-given ecosystems. Cultivating our forests to reflect both the market-heavy reality we are living today and their life-giving force nested in such a fragile state of equilibrium is a bold task to tackle in such a time of change and uncertainty. Yet this type of agroforestry system may be the first in a long line of steps allowing humanity to reconnect with the oldest of friends: forests.


(2) Ndoho Istchee, mcgill biblio, SD145 Q3 N39 2007
(8) Canadian national tree aboveground biomass equations. Can. J. For. Res. 35:1996-2018. 2005. Lambert, M.-C.; Ung, C.-H.; Raulier, F. 35: 1996-2018.

External links (market timber and lumber conversion software) (soil maps of the world) (Cartes pédologiques détaillées du Canada) (Forest plots) (Regression analysis) (Allometric biomass and carbon factor database)