Paul Lawson

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?

Paul Lawson

When you stand in the middle of the UBC Malcolm Knapp Research Forest, your senses begin to wake up to the subtle and intricate layers of life lying within the blanketed silence around you: bird calls, the rusty creak of cedar branches, wind rustling through the canopy above, small creatures scurrying for cover.

In turn, you breathe a little deeper, inhaling the air and aura of the more than 13,000 undeveloped acres surrounding you with all of its inherent natural and human history. Across the glassy stillness of Loon Lake, early-morning fog rolls in wet and chilly as a clutch of students from a UBC Faculty of Forestry field school gingerly balance in their canoes alongside their professor.

For going on 70 years, UBC faculty and students have been researching, teaching and learning in the many ‘classrooms’ in the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest. Located in Maple Ridge, it’s named after UBC Professor Malcolm Knapp who was instrumental in facilitating UBC in acquiring the 5,157 hectares from the government in 1949; the forest has remained a fertile place of learning ever since.

Years ago, Paul Lawson was one of those young, aspiring forestry students, awed by the outdoor laboratory that sprawled endlessly before him and like many, he went on to launch a successful career in forestry after the completion of his degree.

In 1999, Lawson took on the role of director of the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest and, for almost two decades, has been helping researchers, faculty and students explore, interpret and discover new knowledge in every square centimeter of the forest, from the Golden Ears mountains down to Pitt Lake and south to the edge of the city of Maple Ridge.

Lawson is inextricably linked to the land and seems to walk through the forest as one would through one’s own living room. He casually notes the tree species: white pine, western red cedar, western hemlock, occasionally stopping to exclaim “Oh and there’s a marvelous old Doug” or “Look at the height on that one!”

To Lawson, it never gets old. He seems newly delighted by the forest as he moves through it and equally by the far-ranging research projects that abound within it. From seed to stem, undergraduate to doctorate, forest floor to canopy, it seems there is little that happens in the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest that Director Paul Lawson does not know about.

On site at Malcom Knapp, Lawson spoke with UBC storyteller Margaret Doyle on his long career at UBC and uniquely personal relationship with the forest itself.

Q
First things first — what brought you to the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest 18 years ago?

A: Well, I was here as a student back in the ’70s. I graduated from Forestry in 1977 and so I was here for my field schools, just like forestry students are today. So that was my first experience in this forest. And then I left, I graduated, went out to jobs, all over the province. I was up to the Queen Charlottes [Haida Gwaii], Prince Rupert, Gibsons, Gold River, Quesnel, Campbell River. I moved all around. And then I was back here living in Burnaby and I had my own consulting business. Then the job at Malcolm Knapp came open here in 1999 and I was like, “Hmm. Why not?” So, I’ve been here ever since.

Q
How did the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest get started?

A: Malcolm had this idea about having an outdoor classroom and having a piece of land. He started looking around at land all around the Lower Mainland. And this land here had been heavily logged, burnt and vacated by a large timber company in 1931. He spent a lot of time here in the ’30s, looking around and formulating a plan. And it took him until 1943 to be able to lease this land from the government. Then in 1949, it was actually given to UBC. So it took him from 1922 to 1949 to make this happen. Like that’s huge. Who can wait 27 years for something, right? He had a vision. He was patient beyond belief.

Q
There’s so much history here and remnants of equipment from another era. Can you tell us about the steam donkey at the entrance to the forest?
Old steam donkey discovered on the slope above Pitt Lake in 1973

A: Well, that was actually a couple of classes ahead of me, the 1975 class who were here on their field school in 1973 and some of them were crawling around on the slope above Pitt Lake and discovered that old steam donkey. I still remember them talking about it. They were all excited. “Oh, we’ve got to move it! We’re going to get it out of there!” And everybody was like, “You’re crazy.” But they went and fundraised money and approached what was then called Okanagan Helicopters. They also went to the different forest companies and raised money. They got equipment donated to them, lent to them — they asked everyone for help.

They hiked down there and they cut that thing off the sled that it was on and cut it up into pieces and Okanagan Helicopters came and flew it down and dropped it down at the office. They put it back together and it’s been there ever since.

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I like to tell people, “It’s not a new idea, climate change.”

Q
How has teaching and learning changed in terms of what students are studying now, versus when you first started?

A: Oh, it’s totally different. When we were in school, we mostly learned about logging, how to build roads, facilitate logging, set up everything for the loggers and that was pretty much it. Even when I started in forestry, a lot of the [logging] sites weren’t replanted fully because you couldn’t get enough trees [seedlings] a lot of the time. There simply wasn’t enough nurseries and tree planters or trees available.

It’s much more sustainability focused now and balanced — what it should’ve been all along. It’s hard to describe yesterday’s standards and judge them by today’s but we were all about exploitation and jobs back then. And it’s kind of a shame because when I think back on some of the huge trees that we took out that really just got made into commodity products like railroad ties, the value of them wasn’t fully realized.

That’s another thing that’s different today. There’s a lot more focus on getting the optimum value out of products that are cut now. So that’s what we try and show students at our mill. What you can do with a log with the parts of the log that are the most valuable and how you can cut it in different ways to get the best value out of it.

Map showing the UBC Malcolm Knapp Research Forest.
Q
How do you facilitate research at Malcolm Knapp?

A: We’re more like a shopping mall and the stores come in and look after themselves. So the researchers are like the stores and we’re the mall. We work with researchers to try and find them the right location. We try and keep them separated from each other so they don’t put their projects on top of one another. We’ll often go out and help them cut brush or danger[ous] trees or help make sure their work sites are safe.

With researchers like Suzanne Simard, you can see examples of her work throughout the forest. But what she’s looking at is whether the trees we leave behind actually benefit the new trees that we plant, and how that process works which isn’t understood right now. She’s trying to trace that down to find out what it actually is. And as we learn more about it, the inferences you can apply to every living thing is really kind of interesting.

We’ve also got some other research projects here which have been going on for 30, 40, 50 years. So, we’re kind of the caretakers of all that.

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I think we offer what any forest could offer them: a connection to the land. To learn about the history and the future and what you can do to help keep the forests resilient, manage them properly so they’re going to be there for our grandkids. That’s what we try and teach them.”

Q
Any particular research projects that stand out for you?

A: The most interesting project that I’ve run across that’s at this forest is where they dug the fossil pollen out from underneath Marion Lake and they actually studied what plants were here, like 12,000 years ago. They bore down five meters into the sediment at the bottom of the lake and took cores out and actually microscopically evaluated the pollen of the trees in those cores. So, like 6,500 years ago there was a layer of ash from Mt. Mazama, which is Crater Lake in Oregon. It’s still at the bottom of that lake [Marion Lake] and it’s like three inches thick. So when it fell it must've been almost a foot thick. Just that alone is astounding, but the other really interesting thing they found was that a lot of the tree species that are here now, weren’t here 12,000 years ago.

The research concluded that was evidence that climate change was significantly going on back then. So I like to tell people, “It’s not a new idea, climate change, right?” There was a mile of ice here at one time where we’re standing. And ocean! And then Ponderosa pine or Lodgepole pine and all of what is here now… (gestures to the forest). Then there was a volcanic eruption that put a foot of ash over everything. I just find that fascinating. The natural history of what you can learn by looking around here.

Q
What keeps you working here after all these years?

A: Working with the young people, the students. My mom’s 94, she’s in an assisted-living home and she said, “Sometimes it just sucks being with old people all day.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I get it.” Being with young people makes you feel young, makes you feel valued because they like to listen to all your dumb stories and they laugh at your bad jokes (laughing). They have an energy that is just contagious.

Malcolm Knapp Old Growth Reserve
Q
What do you think is an important skill for someone that’s just entering this field?

A: Being able to listen. Like, you’ll get critics but you gotta listen to them all, right? And some of them actually have a point that you could’ve done better, you could’ve done different, you could’ve said something else — you gotta listen to all that and pick out what’s helpful and what’s not. And maybe 99 per cent of it is not, but every once in a while you hear something and you go, “They were right. I could’ve done better.”

Q
Is the research forest just for UBC students?

A: As far as educational opportunities at Loon Lake, it’s definitely not limited to UBC students. BCIT, Selkirk College, College of New Caledonia, Thompson Rivers — we have all the different forestry-related programs come here.

Q
What would you tell future students about this forest in terms of what they’ll learn and experience here?

A: Well, I think we offer what any forest could offer them: a connection to the land. To learn about the history and the future and what you can do to help keep the forests resilient, manage them properly so they’re going to be there for our grandkids. That’s what we try and teach them. So it’s a pretty important thing to have people who are dedicated to that.

Q
Is there any one particular memory that stands out for you during your career here?

A: The agreement that we put together with the Canadian Cancer Society, I think was a real landmark for us. What it was able to do was convince everybody at UBC that all of a sudden Loon Lake had a reason to exist as more than just a forestry camp. And that really made me feel great knowing that this place was going to carry on after I was gone.

These kids [cancer patients] uniquely need the camp. I’ve seen some of them live longer, just to come back. There has been a number of them that have said, “I want to live another year.” And made it. And then died right after camp. And some of them are just … (makes a shrinking gesture) … almost make you cry just to look at them, let alone listen to their stories.

But we’ve invested almost 10 million [dollars] in donated funds in the last 15 years. Mostly [from] UBC and alumni. The biggest single one [donor] was the Peter Bentley family, which helped pay for the dining hall, as well as really good support from the forest industry in B.C., and the Ronald McDonald House paid for the docks.

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People like that are what makes us more than just a patch of forest. There are hundreds of them who come here every year and ask, “What can I do to help?” I hope they keep coming forever.”

Q
In 1956 during the Hungarian Revolution, the UBC Faculty of Forestry took in the entire Sopron School of Forestry. Did you know any of those Sopron faculty or students?

A: Oh, yeah. Lots of them. A lot of them were some of my bosses when I first started in 1977. I remember Zoli Novitsky. He’s not with us anymore. But it was one of my first job interviews in forestry and this Hungarian guy is sitting there and he says, “We’ll give you a chance and if you’re no good, we’ll can you.” Just like that. Right in an interview, right? Whoa, man. I was 18! They were hard asses, some of them.

Tony Kozak [former associate dean of the UBC Faculty of Forestry] was one of my professors, as well as Oscar Sziklai and Leslie Adamovich. There were probably six or seven Sopron faculty that had either came and started here or came to Malcolm Knapp as professors.

Taking in a whole school like that just lock, stock and barrel, students, faculty — and then they went on to really kind of influence and contribute to the forestry business and B.C..

Which they did. They did in a pretty profound way.

Q
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not at Malcolm Knapp?

A: Wildlife stuff. My wife and I go to Marion Lake every summer and camp, and the phenomenal variety of birds and wildlife that you see there is just unbelievable. Every year there’s something different. We now take a Bluetooth speaker and use an app to call the owls at night and they’ll come and land right over top of you.

There are cougars there that have come and scared the crap out of us. I don’t think they were hunting us but one afternoon he [an adult cougar] came right up to where we were camping. There’s kind of a shrub hedge along the lakeshore and he was crawling through there and he came to where the pathway goes to the lake, and came out on it. We were sitting right there and when I stood up he just took off through that brush hedge. It was like a sound of a rocket, just, “Whoosh!”

UBC Students
Q
What will you miss the most once you are done working here?

A: All of the people who came here and left behind more than they took away. Whether they were staff, students, researchers, guests, donors or contractors so many of them have contributed to our success over the years it is beyond belief. For instance, our logging contractor was at the auction one time and saw an old fire truck come up for sale — he bought it on the cheap and donated it to us. We used it for a lot of years. People like that are what makes us more than just a patch of forest. There are hundreds of them who come here every year and ask, “What can I do to help?” I’ll never forget those folks and I will miss serving with them. I hope they keep coming forever.

Explore the UBC Faculty of Foresty.

Learn more about the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest.

Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partner: Paul Lawson, Director of UBC Research Forests, Faculty of Forestry; Victoria Farahbakhchian, Education Coordinator, Malcolm Knapp Research Forest; and Renita Drakes, Manager of Digital Communications and Technology, Faculty of Forestry.

Story team: UBC Brand & Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC Photographer; Lina Kang, Web Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Mark Pilon, Graphic Design; Matt Warburton, Manager, Design & Content; Mormei Zanke, Assistant Writer.

Published: August 2018