UBC Reports
November 14, 1996

Living laboratory

What looks like a park is a valuable research resource

by Stephen Forgacs
Staff writer

Picture It's a scorching mid-August afternoon and Peter Sanders is standing inside the gate at the entrance to the 5,157-hectare Malcolm Knapp Research Forest facing down a group of surly teens who want to take their dogs with them into the forest.

"Sorry folks, no dogs," Sanders tells them.

"Oh, and why is that?"

"Because this is a research forest. No dogs, no horses, no mountain bikes."

The group, obviously hoping Sanders will go away, mills around the gate for a while before two of them take the dogs and leave.

"We welcome visitors on foot," says Sanders, director of UBC's University Research Forests. "Unfortunately there always seem to be people who feel the need to violate our rules and impede our ability to do research undisturbed, even though we're located right beside a large provincial park that permits horses, dogs and mountain bikes."

More than one million people live within an 80-kilometre radius of the forest. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 40,000 people visit annually to hike on the 140 kilometres of road and 30 kilometres of trails, and to participate in the range of educational and research programs that take place in the forest.

And, although the increased interest fits well with its goals of providing research and educational opportunities, the flow of visitors can sometimes jeopardize a wide range of carefully controlled research projects or cause damage to sensitive areas.

While he works to improve visitor facilities and generate revenue for maintenance of trails, Sanders must at the same time ensure the forest can fulfill its mandate by providing a protected area.

On a given day he might play the role of logging or research supervisor, forest ranger, and administrator before lunch, then help a film crew--who have paid to be there--find the right spot to film, and check on some unattended research projects in the afternoon, before driving to UBC to attend a late afternoon meeting. Evening might find him keeping a finger on the pulse of local politics at a Maple Ridge municipal meeting.

The Malcolm Knapp Research Forest, located in Maple Ridge and bordered by Golden Ears Provincial Park and Pitt Lake , covers an area nearly 13 times the size of Vancouver's Stanley Park.

The forest is managed and operated by Sanders and a full-time staff of four including professional forester Cheryl Power, who screens new research projects, plans educational activities and oversees the forest's silviculture program; technicians Rick St. Jean and Dave Tuokko; and secretary Gerd Strangeland. Temporary staff members include Kirsty Gartshore, a recent UBC forestry graduate who works with visiting international students, and technical assistant Alexandru Madularu, a Romanian forester who's working with Power to gain Canadian forestry experience.

Although UBC has controlled the land since 1943, it acquired the forest gradually in the form of Crown grants starting with 3,600 hectares in 1949, and another 1,200 in 1968. A Crown woodlot license was acquired on the western boundary in 1986. The university logged its first section in 1956.

At any one time there are as many as 120 research projects being carried out in the Malcolm Knapp Forest, Sanders says. And, since 1949, more than 700 research projects have been initiated there by UBC, Simon Fraser University, private groups and the federal and provincial governments. The research, which ranges from the study of amphibians and timber harvesting techniques to star gazing, is what sets the forest apart from most other forest or wilderness preserves in North America.

Within minutes of entering the forest it becomes apparent that just about everything that goes on here is either a research project or a potential research project.

"The Malcolm Knapp forest is a repository of not just information, but research science," Sanders says, as he drives his four-wheel-drive truck past tree after tree tagged with colorful plastic ribbons. They identify the locations of the dozens of research projects underway in the forest.

"This bridge is an old ferry ramp we bought," says Sanders, guiding his truck across the metal span. "I've got a capital program that allows us to build a new bridge every year, and every bridge will be different. By experimenting with different bridge structures we create research opportunities into road construction as well as new bridges."

During a brief tour of the forest, Sanders points out project after project.

In a shaded ravine, UBC master's student Leanne McKinnon, and research assistant Simon Vari, have set up equipment on a small suspended platform to measure "sun fleck use efficiency" in Western red cedar.

At another site, Wood Science PhD candidate Stephanne Fabris is taking core samples from cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir, an act that often involves strapping on logger's gear and climbing metres above the ground for a sample. The samples will be analysed for density in an attempt to measure the effect of competition --related to tree spacing--on the variability of wood properties.

The forest is particularly well suited for research purposes, Sanders says, thanks to a high degree of variation in the terrain, which ranges from swampy lakeside areas to steep, densely forested slopes. Trees range in age from 450-year-old trees to second and third growth. Sanders recently harvested for the second time in an area that was originally logged and reforested by UBC in the 1950s. The forest is also home to a large wildlife population including bobcats, cougar, deer, coyotes, wild goats and between 20 and 25 bears. Animal habitat includes 17 lakes. Marion Lake, located in the central eastern part of the forest, has been the subject of more than 240 research studies.

Few areas have been so well studied and controlled for such a long pe riod of time, making it a particularly valuable resource. The Malcolm Knapp forest has 50 years of climatic data and 30 years of stream chemistry and flow data on certain creeks.

Research projects are carefully screened before being given the go ahead. Strict procedural rules ensure that anything that is added to the environment as part of a project is later removed, Sanders says.

But it is also a working forest in which logging operations are carried out at different locations year round. The practice of harvesting timber is vital to its operation and serves a number of purposes, Sanders says.

Timber sales generate about 85 per cent of the research forest's operating budget allowing it to rebuild roads and bridges that were neglected and fell into disrepair in earlier years, as well as to support educational and research programs, and to maintain the forest trails and resources for recreational use.

Unlike neighbouring Golden Ears Park, the Malcolm Knapp forest doesn't receive government support for maintenance of its recreational facilities.

Logging in the forest also provides opportunities for researchers to study the effects of timber harvesting methods on a multitude of related systems, from deer populations to vegetation. And the ability to carefully control the harvest allows for experimentation in logging techniques.

Finally, the logging activity is a reminder to the community that the area is a working forest.

Despite the importance of active logging, a visitor would have to know where to go to find it in progress at a given time. The research and educational component of the forest dominates the landscape and is the forest administration's highest priority.

Among the educational initiatives that take place is a successful national program run by Science World and supported in part by an endowment created by UBC Nobel laureate Michael Smith. Each summer two groups of 60 elementary school teachers spend a week at the Loon Lake camp in the Malcolm Knapp forest. The camp was built in 1949 to house visiting students and researchers and, because of its importance in allowing large groups to visit for extended periods, Sanders has made finding the money to upgrade it a priority.

David Vogt, Science World's director of science, works with Sanders and scientists from UBC and SFU as well as researchers involved in projects in the forest, to give the teachers a unique immersion in science.

"We take elementary school teachers from across Canada with little or no background in science and give them an intensive wilderness experience following in the footsteps of scientists and science communicators," Vogt, an astrophysicist, says.

"The aim is to give them a chance to feel, experience and do some science and have them take it back to the classroom."

Thanks to the relaxed setting at the Loon Lake camp and a program that includes canoeing and hiking with learning, Vogt says the program is well-received by teachers and scientists alike.

"Almost universally they say this is the best professional development experience they've had," Vogt says.

In addition, hundreds of students visit the forest each year for educational purposes. UBC forestry students attend a three-week field course on forest management. Courses are also held for a wide range of audiences from elementary school students to forest workers. Students from around the globe visit to conduct graduate research or to fulfill a course requirement of their home university. Sanders maintains a list of research ideas for those who arrive without direction.

While the benefits derived by teachers, students, researchers and hikers are obvious, Sanders points out that the forest contributes many less tangible benefits.

"By maintaining this land as a working research forest, we open doors to a better understanding of our natural environment and, in so doing, gain insight into the way we must interact with our forests to secure a sustainable future."