[Editor’s note: This is the latest in a year-long occasional series of articles produced by InvestigateWest in partnership with The Tyee and other news organizations exploring what it will take to shift the Cascadia region to a zero-carbon economy, and is supported in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.]
For Natasha Kuperman, the seed was planted at a young age. “Everyone has an issue that they think is the most important thing,” she says. “My entire life, it was clear to me without a doubt that climate change is the issue that trumps all other issues.”
On this northern B.C. plot, that seed is taking root. Located 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver, on the traditional territory of the Gitxsan Nation, the site is ground zero for launching Seed the North, a project that aims to regenerate large swaths of land in an effort to sequester carbon and fight the climate crisis.
It’s a long way from Kuperman’s urban Ontario upbringing. Born and raised in Toronto, she studied architecture at Cornell University followed by a master’s degree in real estate development at York University. After time spent working in Canada’s north, she settled here a year ago.
Her experience in large-scale infrastructure development may feel far removed from forest ecology, but there’s a connection, she says: “You could say this is the single largest infrastructure there is, which is our forests.”
Kuperman’s long-term vision is massive in scale.
Seed the North will collect seeds, combine them in biodiverse seedpods and drop them using drone technology over thousands of hectares. The project will target areas disturbed by both natural events, like wildfires, floods and landslides, as well as those impacted by industry. It is grounded in three pillars: traditional Indigenous knowledge, the scientific community and what Kuperman describes as the “brawn” of technological ingenuity. She is the facilitator — the thread that brings them all together.
It’s a big endeavour. But don’t call it a solution, Kuperman warns.
“There are no foolproof solutions,” she says. “This is harm reduction. This is mitigation. And that is the best thing that we can do with our lives.”
The effects of climate change can be seen here in northern B.C. where forests have in recent decades suffered drought, wildfires and pest outbreaks, such as the mountain pine beetle infestation.
The region is sparsely populated. Its largest city, Prince George, has a population of less than 75,000. The entire northern two-thirds of the province is home to only six per cent of B.C.’s total population. To paraphrase renowned ethnobotanist Wade Davis, it’s a place where you could hide England and the English would never find it.
It’s also a place where you could store a lot of carbon.
But rather than seeing this vast region as a carbon bank, governments have long viewed it as a source for withdrawals. The north is heavily relied upon for its resources — traditionally forestry and mining, and increasingly oil and gas extraction and transportation.
In addition to increasing carbon emissions, the impacts to the landscape reduce its ability to act as mass holding tanks that pull carbon from the atmosphere and slow the warming climate.
That’s where Seed the North comes in. It represents an entire rethink of how we approach forest regeneration. The concept is huge — but it all boils down to one small thing.
“At a certain point, let’s just focus on each seed, and how we can get it to germinate,” Kuperman says.
It’s early spring. The days are warming, and freeze-thaw cycles have encased the Kispiox Valley in a crust of ice and snow. Kuperman sits on a log that will form the foundation for a cabin to house workers from remote Indigenous communities employed by the project.
Squinting against the sun’s glare, she reaches into a white sack and produces a fist full of seeds, placing them gently in piles on the log between us: birch, alder and rocky mountain maple — species not considered valuable to the forest industry but an important part of the local ecosystem.
With thousands of seedlings planted every year by B.C.’s forest industry, her project deliberately targets remote and hard-to-reach areas that wouldn’t otherwise be replanted. In the beginning, she says, it needs to establish itself independent of industry, rooting itself in an entirely different set of values.
“I put ecological diversity first,” Kuperman says. “Industry objectives are not ecology first. They’re economy first.”
That begins with enlisting remote Indigenous communities for both their knowledge of the land and their workforce. This summer will focus on training and seed collection at two sites in the area — one here on Gitxsan territory and the other on the traditional territory of the Kitselas First Nation.
Long-term, she plans to outsource seed collection, drying and processing to remote areas like Tahltan territory in B.C.’s northwest and West Moberly First Nation in the northeast, where Twin Sisters Native Plants Nursery is already working to repair damaged landscapes through Indigenous-led regeneration programs.
In addition to working closely with the nations, she also works with the B.C. government and, specifically, the B.C. Tree Seed Centre, which provides seeds to the province’s forest industry.
But it all starts here, on this property north of Hazelton that Kuperman bought last year as a base. The land has been stewarded for millennia by the Luutkudziiwus Wilp, a house group of the Gitxsan, and she consults closely with them. Within about 65 hectares, it has everything from interior cedar-hemlock forests to wetlands and sub-alpine to alpine ecosystems. “That’s why I moved here,” Kuperman says. “This is the spot where you have the most biogeoclimatic zones in a small radius.”
The property was heavily logged by the previous owner. That, too, provides case study material — a test site of human-impacted land ripe for regeneration.
In B.C., records don’t go back far enough to know exactly how much of the province’s land base has been harvested since the timber industry began, but the ministry estimates about 200,000 hectares are logged each year, almost one per cent of harvestable forests in the province.
Of that, 80 per cent has been replanted, according to the province.
But that replanting focuses on economic values over ecological ones. In an effort to speed up the harvest cycle, fast-growing, high-yield varieties are favoured — pine, spruce and cedar —prioritizing short-term profits over long-term payoffs like carbon reduction, biodiversity and wildfire prevention.
Anything that competes — such as deciduous trees, like aspen and alder — is beat back with herbicides and machinery.
What is left is a monoculture, a narrow slice of what’s needed to form a healthy ecosystem. Lost are the firebreaks provided by deciduous forest, the silvery leaves that reflect the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere, and the nutrients derived from decomposing leaves.
Seed the North aims to bring back a more natural and diverse forest, on a shorter timeline.
While forests will regenerate naturally, seeding gives a head start, says Jim Pojar, a 25-year veteran of B.C.’s Forest Service and co-author of Alpine Plants of the Northwest, an ecological field guide to the region. So does adding a variety of species into the mix — nitrogen-fixing plants like lupins, shrubs like alder and soopolallie.
Pojar recalls the first time he heard about Kuperman’s project. The pair went for hikes. Kuperman talked. Pojar researched.
“I concluded it was a great idea,” says Pojar, now an advisor on the project. “Nobody else is doing what she has in mind, as far as I know.”
The project also aims to use as much local and salvaged material as possible. Waste wood left on the property is being salvaged and the worker cabin will be constructed from a single cottonwood tree felled nearby.
Not far from where the worker cabin is under construction, three 40-foot-long shipping containers sit in a U-shape on concrete pads. “We’re going to turn something that was integral to globalization into a very local solution,” Kuperman says about the containers.
They are currently being used to store thousands of seed trays. But once a roof is added over top, it will create a 3,000-square-foot workspace with an enclosed lab. The rooftop will provide a mesocosm — space for testing seed germination, Kuperman explains.
Also stored within the compound are several large bags of biochar. Kuperman reaches in and produces hands smeared black with charcoal. “Black, shiny gold,” she says about the forest industry byproduct that holds the key to expediting reforestation.
Made from piles of waste wood left behind by logging, biochar seed casings will assist the seeds in their transition from drone drop to germination. They offer all the required nutrients while protecting the bundles from scavenging animals and drought.
While the seed pods contain a suggestion of what should grow, they are not prescriptive, Kuperman says. What takes root will depend on local conditions.
“Where a meadow will form, a meadow will form. Where conifers thrive, conifers will grow,” Kuperman says. “We don’t predetermine exactly, especially over vast areas.”
It’s opposite to what Herb Hammond describes as “the dogma of forestry,” which has forced conifer stands on large areas of the province to be valued for their timber supply.
The professional forester and forest ecologist based in southeastern B.C.’s Slocan Valley points to mycorrhizal networks — the interdependency of forest ecosystems and the fine balance that exists naturally beneath the earth — as a solution both for broadening biodiversity that could also assist the forest industry.
“Through back-and-forth conversations, they increase the resilience of the whole community,” University of British Columbia forest ecologist Suzanne Simard explains in this 2016 TED Talk. Seemingly unrelated species like Douglas fir and birch help each other grow through underground fungi networks.
But, as with so many things, the success of these innovative ideas comes down to political will.
Though Canada has the land resources to promote biodiversity, it’s also hobbled by a powerful forest lobby, something Hammond says has gotten worse over the years, not better. “It’s all done under this Orwellian concept of professional reliance. It’s a scary thing, what’s happened to forestry.”
“Today, we have very, very poor laws, or one could say no laws, to hold timber companies accountable,” he says about Canada. B.C.’s tenure systems meant that public lands were handed over to private timber companies with “token payment,” he says. It’s left governments with far less control over industry, he says.
As a result, attempts to legislate biodiversity — like Nova Scotia’s recent Biodiversity Act — are reduced to toothless gestures.
That’s different from the U.S., Hammond says, where the government has retained control over much of its land base, particularly in the northwest where the majority is publicly owned. That means better transparency and more accountability from the US Forest Service, he says.
Last year, Oregon signed an executive order directing state agencies, including the Department of Forestry, to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A proposal from the agencies, which is due in June, is expected to include recommendations for improving carbon sequestration on state lands.
Funding a transition to low-carbon economies has proved tricky. In the U.S., President Joe Biden announced a plan to tackle climate change, including establishing a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative to create employment from conservation and land restoration.
Here in Canada, B.C.’s failed Pacific Carbon Trust is just one example of the challenges with monetizing the carbon market.
The trust was established by the province in 2008 to buy carbon offsets, often from private industry, in an effort to gain carbon-neutral status — something B.C. has claimed every year since 2010. But the program wrapped up amidst controversy five years later.
The offsets weren’t credible, B.C.’s auditor general said in a 2013 review of the program, because they didn’t provide the tipping point for moving projects forward.
Today, the program continues under B.C.’s Ministry of Environment. In 2019 more than three-quarters of $7 million spent by the province went to forest protection in the Great Bear Rainforest, a stretch of B.C. coastline where 3.1 million hectares are protected from logging by a multi-stakeholder agreement signed in 2016.
The remaining 20 per cent went to the fossil fuel and forest industries for emission reductions, such as switching from fossil fuels to electric or biomass energy sources. A very small portion went to carbon-reducing initiatives in waste management, agriculture and public transportation.
Though imperfect, Kuperman says carbon offsets offer initial steps to reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change.
“In the first couple iterations, it didn’t go as planned. But anything new doesn’t go quite right at first,” she says. “The carbon offsets programs of today are much more nuanced and really account for things more accurately.”
Once these seeds are young forests sequestering carbon, Seed the North will qualify for offsets, Kuperman says. For now, funding is pulled together piecemeal. The project has seen one grant from the federal government’s Investment Readiness Program.
“Though government grants are helpful, the reality is that the best long-term success is being supported by people who want to invest in a better future than we’re currently heading,” she says. That means working with private industries looking to reclaim disturbed landscape with a view to incorporating Indigenous perspectives, increasing biodiversity and contributing to long-term carbon sequestration.
“Ecological restoration is wonderful at a small scale, and it teaches great lessons to us, but unless we scale it up, it’s fundamentally not going to make a statistical difference,” Kuperman says.
And Seed the North is all about scaling up.
From several sites in northern B.C., Kuperman would eventually like to be seeding areas tens of thousands of hectares in size, she says. Beyond the three regions in northern B.C. that have been mapped in detail by a local contractor, Kuperman has also looked at specific areas nationwide which she says would be ideal for reseeding by drone.
“We need to take a fundamentally different approach if we are to make a statistically significant difference for the sequestration of carbon,” she says. “We need to change everything. We need to change the fundamentals of our society, because without that we are just kowtowing, slapping each other on the back, saying that things are OK, that we can go on with things as they are.”
From large-scale paradigm shift, she returns to the here and now.
Collecting seeds. Listening to people who know the land. Finding value in healthy, functioning ecosystems.
“And then, with all of those components, we’re going to get somewhere,” she says.
It just starts with a seed.
Read more: Environment