The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: The stewarding part of stewardship

Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystems are purposefully shaped cultural landscapes. Stewardship on these lands is not a “fix it and forget it” practice, rather it is a relational, long-term commitment.

In instalment 8 of our Story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests interview series, we interviewed Dr. Jennifer Grenz who has a BSc in Agroecology and a PhD in Integrated Studies in Land and Food Systems from the University of British Columbia. She has nearly two decades of experience providing consulting services and on-the-ground management of invasive species for all levels of government. She has recently been appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Forest Resources Management jointly appointed between the Faculty of Forestry and Faculty of Land & Food Systems at UBC.

As an expert in Land and Food Systems, how would you describe Coastal Douglas-fir forests and associated habitats? 

As an Indigenous ecologist, I see what is referred to as the Coastal Douglas-fir Biogeoclimatic Zone as a window into pre-contact time when the hands of the Coast Salish and Kwakwaka’wakw purposefully shaped their lands and waters to set their tables and sustain their communities. An Indigenous ecology sees us as part of the ecosystem, placed in a leadership role with the great responsibility of making the difficult decisions to ensure the provision for all relations (human and wildlife). I think that colonized perspectives on these lands too often place us outside of these systems as protectors, not recognizing that their very existence is reliant upon active human relationship. Garry Oak ecosystems are an example of this. Without human intervention, these places for growing sources of starch (bulb plants such as Camus), would be lost to closing forest canopy. I look upon CDF forests and associated habitats not so much with admiration for the “things” within them, but with deep respect for the diverse, sophisticated food and technological systems they are. While the tangible legacy of these systems has faded, I feel grateful to have been taught to see what many no longer can. It is exciting to be part of reclaiming stewardship practices and reimagining our relationships with these lands to fulfill the reciprocity they require once more.

People standing in a camas meadow.
Photo by Alex Harris.

How have invasive species impacted the CDF zone? Can these impacts be reversed?

The hospitable conditions of the CDF zone for plant life have made them vulnerable to invasion by plants from other parts of the world. While I do not practice a dichotomously guided ecological restoration (native plants good, non-native plants bad), there are species that have arrived on our shores that have significantly disrupted ecological function. Species such as scotch broom have swept through the CDF zone. Plant knowledge keepers have described the disappearance of important plant medicines from coastal areas where they have been traditionally harvested because of scotch broom. Countless volunteers working to heal Garry Oak meadows continue to battle it from dominating these important habitats they have painstakingly brought back.

Knotweed species threaten riparian areas and appear to leave behind a biological desert once controlled (regardless of control method). There is so much that we do not know about the specific impacts of invasive species. It is worrisome with the number of rare species within the CDF zone and the lack of information to inform their protection beyond generalized understanding of invasion biology. I think a lot of resources have been poured into the control of species, but not enough have been invested in the “and then what?” post invasion recovery part. This is what my new lab at UBC will be focusing on. We need to understand the legacy of these species, above and below ground, to inform how we bring healing to these lands post-invasion. Failed restoration efforts show us that we have underestimated their impacts as some species appear to leave a legacy difficult to reverse.

What are some lessons you have learned in your experience working in restoration and implementing land healing initiatives that could be applied to the CDF zone?

I think for a long time I conducted restoration as Western science taught me. In many ways it was automatic and based on aesthetic notions of belongingness. Remove invasive species, make a list of native plants, plant those plants, and leave. I now refer to this as “McRestoration”. My personal journey to bring together my Indigeneity with my Western scientific training gave me an opportunity for deep self-reflection and the permission to work beyond the limitations of a singular worldview. This has brought new wisdom to my work that makes me feel sad for the countless lost opportunities I had to do work in a way that was more likely to yield improved long-term results. 

Woman standing in a over-browsed forest
Photo by Jennifer Grenz.

I recognize now that a greater degree of specificity needs to go into land healing work in any part of the CDF zone. This means thinking of projects as more than “ecological restoration,” but as multi-dimensional healing initiatives instead. Healing for the lands and all relations reliant upon them, including the often forgotten people. We need to think relationally as we approach sites, acknowledge our values, make clear our goals, allow for goals perhaps not often included in ecological restoration (food security, cultural reclamation, community building, education etc.) and ask ourselves, “what exactly do we want to accomplish here?” We must move beyond trying to put things back to an arbitrary point in time. I think this type of approach allows us to incorporate the very difficult discussions about what these systems look like in a changing climate and how we might assist with their adaptation and resilience.

Woman doing restoration work in a field.
Photo by Jennifer Grenz.

A challenge of  implementing restoration and stewardship projects is establishing longevity. What needs to change to ensure there are financial and other supports in place to ensure much needed restoration initiatives are sustained?

Oh boy. It will be difficult to contain the length of response for this question! Our funding models for restoration and stewardship are too often the cause for long-term restoration failure. I believe they are largely to blame for not accomplishing enough, despite the incredible efforts of many. My many years working for environmental non-profits, especially my time as an Executive Director, made this failure abundantly clear. This is where my term “McRestoration” comes from. We are too often funded to come in like caped crusaders for the Earth, do our work, take some pictures, and fly out of there never to return. Funders want the appealing reportable project outcomes such as “Funding went toward planting thousands of trees” rather than to say, “We paid two students to weed, water, and monitor trees for three years”. This must change. Funders can no longer disregard the stewarding part of stewardship. Perhaps this is a failure in our own messaging and education to funding agencies. 

Hand holding soil.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Ok, enough about funders now. The other important piece of this is what I have touched on in the other questions. Human relationship with land. We live in a time when we are less directly reliant upon our lands. In many cases, this relationship has been reduced to “appreciator” status. If we were solely reliant upon our lands to provide our food and technology, we would be out there every day cutting back berry plants to create season long production, planting berry patches, spacing trees to use for specific purposes, ensuring that the deer have good bedding down areas for example. That is no longer the reality for most. While many of us Indigenous land stewards continue to “live the land” and stewardship groups do what they can to recruit volunteers, we cannot do this work by ourselves. It’s not enough. We must find new ways to create and strengthen human relationships to land to meet the reciprocity required for CDF lands to adapt and thrive in our modern context. 

People putting daphne on a large pile of daphne.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

I personally think that land-based education for students and community food security initiatives may provide solutions to get this important work done. This requires purposeful and strategic thought… and quickly! I will leave you with this final thought, if we find ourselves admiring or enjoying “nature”, we should immediately ask ourselves, what is my act of reciprocity for the benefits of this relationship?

About Dr. Jennifer Grenz

Jennifer Grenz has a BSc in Agroecology and a PhD in Integrated Studies in Land and Food Systems from the University of British Columbia. She has nearly two decades of experience providing consulting services and on-the-ground management of invasive species for all levels of government. She has recently been appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Forest Resources Management jointly appointed between the Faculty of Forestry and Faculty of Land & Food Systems at UBC. Her current research focuses on applying an Indigenous worldview to invasion biology and ecology and challenges us to think differently about our role in ecosystems management as we face a rapidly changing climate. Jennifer is a proud Nlaka‘pamux woman of mixed ancestry whose family comes from the Lytton First Nation (though she is one of the coastal cousins!).  When she isn’t chasing weeds, Jennifer continues the traditions of her grandmother as a gifted textile artist and grower of foods and medicines on her farm in Parksville.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.