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    It's easy to support a motherhood statement like "genetic diversity should be conserved." After more than a decade of attention to this topic, most of us realize that genetic variation provides the raw material for future selection in tree improvement programs for new traits (e.g., resistance to new insects or diseases, or changes in fibre quality to meet new industrial demands). We also realize that natural populations require genetic diversity to adapt to new environmental conditions, to allow evolution to proceed. But how do we go about conserving genetic diversity, and how can we rigorously assess whether we are meeting this goal?

    In 2000, the Forest Genetics Council of British Columbia (FGC) realized that, while gene conservation continued to be a high priority, this objective was not being met in a strategic and rigorous manner. As a result, the Centre for Forest Conservation Genetics (CFCG) was established in the Department of Forest Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Funding is provided from the Forest Investment Account (FIA). The CFCG has a mandate from the Forest Genetics Council to (1) study population genetic structure of forest trees using existing or new data; (2) assess the current degree of gene conservation both in situ in existing reserves and ex situ collections, and the need for additional protection; and (3) evaluate the current degree of maintenance of genetic diversity in breeding and deployment populations of improved varieties to meet current and future environmental challenges.

    The Gene Conservation Technical Advisory Committee (GCTAC) of the Forest Genetics Council has identified the following objectives for a provincial gene conservation program:

    • Inventory and catalogue forest tree genetic resources.

    • Support information and policy requirements related to forest gene conservation.

    • Provide gene conservation expertise to support and integrate with other biodiversity and forest ecosystem conservation efforts in British Columbia.

    • Develop and advance gene conservation theory through research and collaboration with other agencies worldwide.

    • Support FGC objectives by improving the efficiency of gene conservation in seed planning units (species, seed zone, elevational band) where genetic improvement is being actively carried out or where forests are being managed using natural regeneration.
    • Carry out communication and extension on gene conservation to the forestry community and public.

    • Assess risks related to biological, policy and administrative factors, and provide recommendations to FGC on mitigating these risks.

    Gene conservation is accomplished primarily in two ways: in situ and ex situ. In situ conservation is the long-term maintenance of genetic diversity in wild populations, typically in conservation reserves. These populations can continue to adapt and evolve, and to self-regenerate, in these reserves. The primary concern for in situ conservation is that population sizes are large enough for the long-term maintenance of genetic diversity (5,000 individuals of reproductive age is a good target), that reserves are located in different geographic areas to maintain populations adapted to different environmental conditions, and that each of these geographic or ecological areas has more than one reserve to guard against catastrophic events. Geographic information systems (GIS) and spatially explicit databases are used to catalogue the degree of protection of 48 tree species in British Columbia in reserves that fall under the provincial Protected Areas Strategy. [More about this project]

    Ex situ conservation maintains genetic diversity in seed banks, clone and tissue banks, breeding populations, and arboreta. It typically provides a back-up to in situ conservation, but often has smaller sample sizes. One of our former graduate students, Washington Gapare, developed efficient sampling methods for ex situ conservation, focusing on the ability to capture existing genetic diversity and rare alleles (genetic variants) in seed collections. Rare alleles are those most likely to be missed when sampling for gene conservation. Some rare alleles may be vital for meeting future genetic needs, such as those conferring resistance to the white pine shoot tip weevil in Sitka spruce, or blister rust resistance in the white pines [More about this project].

    Developing strategies to meet gene conservation goals for individual species often requires species-specific information on patterns of genetic variation. We have sound data on genetic variation for BC species of major economic interest, but know very little about genetic variation in other tree species in the province. Part of our mandate is to determine patterns of variation for these so called 'minor species'. Our approach to this problem was (1) to initiate a project on genetic diversity in whitebark pine, a species previously found to be at risk, and (2) to prioritize other species for attention:

    We initiated work on whitebark pine as this keystone, high-elevation species is threatened by an introduced fungus causing white pine blister rust, as well as by fire suppression and climate change. First, Jodie Krakowski studied genetic diversity and mating system in whitebark pine for her M.Sc. research and found substantial diversity but higher than usual inbreeding [see related article Genetic Diversity and Mating System in Whitebark Pine]. Her work raised questions about inbreeding and disease resistance as well as ecological genetics that were then addressed by the Ph.D. research of Andy Bower. He has detected significant geographic variation in traits including cold hardiness and growth phenology that will need to be taken into account when restoring this species. [More about this project]

    To prioritize remaining species for gene conservation research, we used three approaches. First, we surveyed foresters, botanists, and naturalists in the province to collect field observations on the current status of these species. Second, Dr. Pia Smets reviewed the literature of what is known in terms of the genetics and ecology of all of these species. Third, we compiled the results from the project cataloguing in situ protection of these species. Finally, we convened an expert workshop at UBC in March 2002, to discuss the results of all of these approaches and to rank species for attention by the CFCG. This effort is summarized in the article [Prioritizing Minor Species for Gene Conservation Research]| More about this project].

    The role of maintenance of genetic diversity in third-party forest product certification was the focus of a project involving Dr. Justin Stead, Director of the Global Forests and Trade Network of the World Wildlife Fund, and Graeme Auld and Dr. Gary Bull of the Department of Resource Management in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC. This project investigated the role of genetic criteria and indicators in forest certification. A workshop held at UBC in January 2002 discussed the results of and solicited feedback on this project. The resulting report, summarized in the article [Forest Certification and the Management of Forest Genetic Resources], shows the need to develop robust indicators of the maintenance of genetic diversity to back up vague objectives relating to genetics. [More about this project]

    Climate change presents substantial challenges to both the conservation and utilization of forest genetic resources. The CFCG was awarded a grant funded jointly by the NSERC Strategic Grants Program and the BIOCAP Canada Foundation to explore genetic strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change, and the potential for natural populations of forest trees to adapt to new climates without human mitigation. As part of this work, Andreas Hamann and Tongli Wang have developed a spatial climate model for BC called ClimateBC that provides climatic normals and predicted future climatic means for any location in the province. This model is being used to predict the future distribution of climatic envelopes of species and ecosystems in a warming climate, and the degree to which protected areas will remain within these climatic envelopes in the future. [More CFCG climate change related projects]


    We are also examining how changing seed deployment strategies would affect the productivity of lodgepole pine forests under climate change, using provenance trial data as climate change experiments [Adapting Forest Gene Resource Management to Climate Change].

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    For an updated listed of forest genetics meetings visit

    We are located on the third floor of the Forest Science Centre, 2424 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4

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