Environmental Hero: Suzanne Simard | One Earth

Environmental Hero: Suzanne Simard

Suzanne Simard wants to change how we think about forests. Having grown up in British Columbia, she was raised in a family of Canadian loggers, and her grandfather taught her about the serenity that could be found among the trees. It was when her family dog fell into a massive hole outside of their outhouse in the woods that she first saw the fascinating world underneath the forest layer by layer. It’s this curiosity that led her to study forestry and eventually to her life’s mission to save the wilderness.

After college graduation, Simard’s first job was to mark old-growth trees for clear-cutting and replant them with fast-growing firs and pines. The foresters felt these limited tree species wouldn’t compete with the older trees and would be best for profit. However, only planting one or two species causes forests to lack the necessary complexity for a healthy ecosystem. Simplified forests become vulnerable to infection and with climate change being an issue, this creates a negative feed-back loop for issues like megafires and insect infestations. Also, removing other tree species did not promote the growth the foresters predicted.

Image credit: Jdoswim, Creative Commons

As disease spread through these plantations, Simard knew there was something deeper to how forests worked, so she decided to return to graduate school where she became engrossed in why old-growth forests are so powerful. In her studies, she found that fungi play a major role in symbiotic communication between trees and essentially connect the plants underground. This led her to the discovery that fungi colonizing within a birch tree could connect with a faraway fir tree using DNA microsatellites. In her 1997 PhD thesis, she discovered that trees going through photosynthesis release carbohydrates into the ground and provide the structure below energy. The underground microorganisms then connect each plant so that supplements are evenly distributed in a ‘wood wide web’.

Trees have been communicating through this underground network for 500 million years. They share information through the fungi exchanging nutrients by sending hormonal, chemical, and electrical signals and connecting their roots. But this groundbreaking discovery also came with a problem. This specific type of fungi is the most vulnerable to temperature rise, and climate change could ultimately cut off the flow of information between trees. Without this connection, the forests would die, having catastrophic affects around the world. 

Simard asked herself how her discoveries can help fight the climate crisis. The answer she found lies in our relationship to nature. She knew the best people to consult with would be the First Nations Indigenous who rely on natural resources to survive. They taught her about ‘reciprocity’ which is based on mutual respect and is the idea that every action ripples through our ecosystem and is connected. So, when trees are healthy, they share nitrogen from mother trees to their neighboring trees deep into the forest, which is then tied to the health of the rivers, leading to the oceans that lead back to the people, and so on.

In response to the Douglas fir forests of British Columbia still struggling to regenerate and the threat of climate crisis, Simard founded The Mother Tree Project which investigates forest renewal. Launched in 2015, her aim is to identify future forestry management practices that will help forests remain productive, diverse, and resilient as the climate changes. This project is important because it will provide vital scientific data to guide the management of not only the Douglas-fir forests but forests throughout the world as the planet warms. Without such data, all our forests are at risk of substantial decline in their capacity to sequester and store carbon. It also will provide information about biodiversity and clean water supplies.

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