Forestry chair

Forestry chair McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 21, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 06
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Forestry chair

It was a day marked by the themes of renewal, recognition and interconnection last week at the inauguration of the George and Frances Tomlinson Chair in Forest Ecology. Speaking to a crowd of students, staff, retired staff and alumni, the first holder of the chair, Jim Fyles, professor of natural resource sciences, observed aloud: "We have the students on the edge and the gray hairs in the middle. They're the ones who have laid the foundation for what we have now."

Among those "gray hairs" were brothers, Richard and George Tomlinson. Richard Tomlinson, the scientist, inventor and entrepreneur, who made Canadian history two years ago with his $64 million gift to McGill, needed little introduction.

His older brother, an accomplished chemist, fellow McGill graduate (PhD'35) and inventor, is less well known, at least to the McGill community at large. Among McGill's forest ecologists, however, George Tomlinson, who has just turned 90, has been a familiar figure for 25 years, ever since his retirement as vice-president, research, at the Domtar Research Centre in Senneville, whereupon he dedicated himself full-time to the subject of acid rain and its effect on forest nutrients.

The chair is endowed by Richard Tomlinson but named after George and his wife Frances Fowler Tomlinson, also a chemist (PhD'36), because of their dedication to forest conservation. Long before the term "acid rain" entered the popular lexicon in the '80s, Tomlinson was a regular participant in international conferences on forest degradation. He got to know the top German researchers, helped foster exchange between German and North American forest scientists, and for many years led an annual tour of forest sites being monitored in the northeast United States.

Frances Tomlinson, one of the first women to graduate from McGill with a doctorate in the sciences, helped save the last bit of old growth forest on Île Perrôt, now known as the Molson Nature Reserve, a McGill field station directed by Jim Fyles.

During the talk he gave last week for the inauguration, George Tomlinson showed slides of a 250-year-old red spruce showing the signs of calcium and magnesium deficiencies. "You can tell by the browning of the needles and the ends of branches falling off." Nutrients key to forest health, such as calcium, magnesium and potassium, become deficient when sulfuric or nitric acid accumulate in too great quantities, resulting in the leaching of the nutrients out of the soil and into the groundwater.

Tomlinson made the point that even though many forests have recovered from the bad acid pollution years of the '80s and early '90s -- thanks to the scrubbers installed in smoke stacks and a reduction in the burning of coal -- acid rain remains a problem. The main culprit now is the automobile -- exhaust contributes to the creation of nitric acid.

Continued monitoring is the key to understanding the changes in forest soil chemistry, he noted. Looking at the audience, which included his brother, son and daughter-in-law, Tomlinson expressed the hope that "this work may be carried on here. It's important because the forest is extremely important to us."

Tomlinson's hope has an excellent chance of being fulfilled. Fyles sees the creation of the chair as a means for expanding the work of the university's four forest ecologists, who include himself, tree ecophysiologist Benoit Côté, chair of the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, soil scientist William Hendershot and forest ecologist and director of the Gault Nature Reserve, Martin Lechowicz, all of whom are members of the province-wide network GREFI, Groupe de recherche en écologie forestière interuniversitaire.

The creation of the chair has already allowed the department to hire another forest ecologist, Chris Buddle, an entomologist who studies the role of spiders and insects in forest ecology and how they are affected by changes in the ecology. To allow for the hiring of top graduate students in the area, a Richard Tomlinson University Fellowship has also been awarded to the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the first one affiliated with an endowed chair.

Fyles' area of research includes the nutrient cycle in forests, how this varies between a natural and planted forest, and the elements which determine productivity and carbon storage in the forest. Addressing the audience after George Tomlinson's presentation, Fyles' overwhelming message was that the forest is immensely complex and the creation of the George and Frances Tomlinson Chair in Forest Ecology will help connect various forest ecology researchers from different parts of the country.

"This chair is about people, hundreds of people, from the industrial partners, to profs, students, neighbours, national networks, governments," he said in a "treevangelical" style, a PowerPoint slide behind him depicting the spider web of relationships involved in forest sustainability.

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