Strategic beetle battle

Being strategic now about where and how to harvest—as part of the fight against the mountain pine beetle in BC—could make a difference of up to 70 years in a forest’s growth cycle, and determine whether sawmills stay operating.

By Jim Stirling

Salvaging the stands devastated by the mountain pine beetle in British Columbia’s Interior has become an overwhelming preoccupation.                                   

Boosting allowable annual cuts, clearcutting and replanting is the name of the game. Timber supply areas around Quesnel, Prince George, Vanderhoof, Burns Lake and Kamloops have all experienced significant AAC increases since the beetle took over. More recently, the Williams Lake area received a 5 per cent surge in its annual timber harvest levels.                                   

But that prejudices a more strategic approach. Not all infected pine stands are the same. A significant percentage of pine leading stands contain solid understory development and other species, what foresters call secondary structure. Wiping that out in the rush to harvest mature beetle-killed pine only exacerbates timber supply downfalls in the mid-term. The result of that is predicted to include sawmill closures, devastated communities reliant on the forest industry and economic crises.                                   

Harvesting the dead-pine-only stands conventionally—while leaving alone the sites with viable secondary structures or utilizing alternate harvesting approaches— can ameliorate the future timber supply predicament and provide foundation to the challenges of a post-beetle landscape.                                   

 Dave Coates has been espousing just such a strategic response to the mountain pine beetle epidemic for a couple of years now. It appears decision makers in government and among licensee foresters are beginning to pay more attention to the data his team has produced.                                   

There’s no way all the pine killed by the beetles can be harvested during its shelf life for commodity lumber production. Additionally, lumber prices are underlining the region’s over-capacity. So, says Coates, it makes more sense to be strategic about where to harvest today and buy some time for tomorrow.                                   

Coates is a research silviculturist, forest sciences, with BC’s Ministry of Forests and Range Northern Interior Forest Region based in Smithers. He was recently acknowledged Professional Forester of the Year by the Association of BC Forest Professionals, in part through his practical approach to harvesting beetle stands. It is peer recognition for which he is suitably humbled. The award also represents encouragement to other foresters working in small communities with often limited resources and huge areas of forest lands to sustain.                 

Coates began working in the subboreal forest around Smithers in 1979. He is familiar with it and has developed a passion for it. Then along came the beetle, creating the worst forest health scenario in Canadian history. “It bothered me and others that the only answer we had as foresters was clearcutting and replanting,” recalls Coates. “There are lots of other trees there.”                                   

Coates is well aware of the need to extract the premium economic return from the resource while it retains value. His point radiates around where to concentrate on salvage and where not. Recognizing the existing forest inventory usually fails to count little trees, he set out to collect data that might reflect that. The process included assessment of sample plots from the Smithers-Houston region to Prince George generally south of Highway 16. The area represents the major subboreal forest across the central Interior.                                   

What was revealed is a considerable variation in stand structures. And these were the ones that averaged at least 50 to 70 per cent pine. Some contained considerably more.                 

The research indicated only 20 per cent of the pine leading stands that were dominated by dead pine contained virtually no other trees. But about 0 per cent of the stands contained enough other trees—secondary structure—that if left alone could potentially become available for harvesting in the mid-term, explains Coates. What is left are the stands with smaller trees with the potential to release and grow.                                   

Coates defines the mid-term as 15 to 40 years from now. And to him, that’s the critical period. “That will have huge implications on the AAC and whether sawmills will actually stay open or not,” declares Coates.                                   

He says factoring in the stricken pine’s shelf life and adding in a re-generation period can mean 15 to 0 years before a new crop of trees begins a significant yield curve. “A whole lot of stands are equivalent in volume today,” he says. Being strategic about where to harvest now can make a difference of up to 70 years of growth cycle for the future, he adds.                 

“My job is to provide information to the chief forester to make good decisions,” continues Coates. “And that’s beginning to happen.” He says it’s both a cultural and regulatory issue. Some forest companies are starting to be more strategic in their harvesting plans. Others are not.                                   

He believes regulations might be on the way to encourage companies about where they harvest first. And that, he reiterates, can make the mid-term timber supply issue a whole lot better.                                   

“It’s the mid-term supply that is the emergency,” elaborates Coates. “It’s more important than five to 10 years of salvaging and selling. It comes down to whether sawmills stay operating or not. As stewards of the land we have to minimize the impact.”   

SIDEBAR

Bulkley Valley a centre for research Dave Coates is among a core of people who didn’t want to see a talented pool of local researchers dry up and disperse. That was in danger of happening around 2001 when the provincial government initiated a round of cutbacks that closed its outlets including the regional Ministry of Forests office in Smithers, BC.                       

Apart from the cut-off government employees, there were other specialists in disciplines related to natural resource management who had migrated to the area for the lifestyle and outdoor recreational potential it offers. Coates and his cohorts wanted to retain them and build on that by attracting new young minds to research projects. The result was the establishment of the Bulkley Valley Centre for Natural Resources Research and Management.                       

“It’s been cool,” says Coates, a professional forester and research silviculturist. It’s also been a struggle, financially and logistically, to make the BV centre a recognized location for natural resources research. But now its reputation is ascendant within the scientific community for applied and timely interdisciplinary research. The public profile is also growing. The centre now has a presence in the old post office building on Main Street in Smithers.                       

They were incorporated as a not-for-profit society in 2002, recalls Kirsteen Laing, the centre’s administrator. That year the centre undertook a single research project, producing a strategic framework for landscape ecology in west central BC. Four more projects followed in 2003 and nine in 2004. Laing says the centre handled 25 projects in 2006 for different funders and covering a wide range of issues. Several projects related to forest stand characteristics and mountain pine beetle scenarios on regional ecosystems.                       

The 25 project number will be eclipsed in 2007, adds Laing. She says the BC Centre for Natural Resources Research and Management also hosts a regular series of well-attended free seminars during the winter months. And it hosts conferences. A recent event focused on complex stand management and monitoring. For more information about the centre, its work and membership support, see www.bvcentre.ca.  


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