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June 2003 - Forest Management

All-out beetle battle

Abitibi-Consolidated has mounted an all-out battle against the mountain pine beetle epidemic in BC.

By Jim Stirling

Like the advancing line of a forest fire, the mountain pine beetle epidemic is scattering increasing sparks of infestation into the mature pine stands of the sprawling Mackenzie Forest District in north central British Columbia. And, just as initial attack is a crucial strategy to contain a wildfire, forest companies in the region are concentrating their control efforts on green attack timber and adjacent stands. It’s no easy task.

Tackling the mountain pine beetle for Abitibi-Consolidated’s Mackenzie Region are (left to right) Gary Walsh, logging supervisor, Dan Boulianne, operations and planning superintendent, and Darin Hancock, forest health and Forest Innovation Investment Account supervisor.

The woodlands crew at Abitibi-Consolidated’s Mackenzie Region are well aware of that. What they want to avoid—if at all possible—is the devastation caused by the beetle elsewhere in the BC Interior. But Mother Nature is providing no assistance. Another mild winter will have done little to reduce beetle populations and they will continue spreading into Abitibi’s Timber Supply Area from the south and west. The mountain pine beetle began making its presence felt in Abitibi’s operating areas on the west side of Williston Lake in 1998-99. Infestation was deceptively light and spotty to start with. But aerial sketch mapping in 2002 revealed a phrase you don’t want to hear when evaluating beetle populations: an exponential leap.

Survey data in the fall of 2002 showed the estimated amount of beetle infested lodgepole pine in the interior had exploded 50 per cent in a single year to 108 million cubic metres across an area equivalent to five Vancouver Islands. “Our infestation in 2002 was rated ‘high’, that’s one peg lower than ‘severe’,“ says Darin Hancock, forest health and Forest Innovation Investment Account coordinator for Abitibi in Mackenzie. That rating has caused the company to become pro-active and aggressive in response to the beetle’s invasion. “We’re capturing the green attack, usually on south and southwest slopes, as much as possible and not just for salvage,” says Dan Boulianne, operations and planning superintendent. “Our surveys have shown us where the hot spots are and the susceptible pine stands around the hot spots. They are our expanding focus.”

Survey data in the fall of 2002 showed the estimated amount of beetle-infested lodgepole pine in the BC Interior had exploded by 50 per cent in a single year, to a stunning 108 million cubic metres.

An advantage in the beetle wars Abitibi and Slocan Forest Products—another major licensee in Mackenzie—have is that others have been where they are today. “We’ve certainly been in contact with other companies and forest districts,” says Boulianne. “The biggest help was the insight they provided that confirmed our approach to the problem,” he adds. “We have also become part of the Emergency Bark Beetle Area, which gives us additional leeway in planning and the permitting processes.” Small-scale salvage initiatives, like snip and skid on 15 hectares or 5,000 cubic metres or less, and individual tree treatments can proceed forthwith. But for regular blocks, the planning process is well prescribed. Abitibi has to make amendments to its Forest Development Plans to accommodate expedited salvage operations in each of its areas of interest affected by the beetle’s incursion. “The Forest Service here is acutely aware of the impending ‘fire front’, but the number of documents and assessments that we have to prepare is much the same, although the review period for public comment is shortened.” The mountain pine beetle has been showing up most consistently in the Osilinka and Mesilinka river valleys.

Unlike many infested areas in the central interior, the terrain is frequently difficult. Considerable amounts of it are on the edge of conventional versus cable log harvesting ground. “We also have to try and make the block big enough to be economical,” says Boulianne, because of high logging costs. “A few of our sites are really inaccessible and our options there are limited.” Then there are those areas that certainly aren’t economical to harvest, but illustrate well Abitibi’s commitment to decelerate the beetle’s spread. And that translates into making bold and innovative moves when necessary. “We wouldn’t normally have gone in there to log,” says Wayne Lewis, woodlands manager of one particular area. “It was a 100 per cent control measure.”

Abitibi-Consolidated frequently has to deal with steep terrain, often broken and punctuated by gullies—conditions unlike those in many beetle-infested areas in the central interior. Some of it is just plain “ugly ground” to harvest, says operations and planning superintendent Dan Boulianne.

Boulianne sums up the situation succinctly: “It’s ugly ground.” The terrain is steep, in excess of 100 per cent in places, broken and punctuated by gullies. And in a different twist, to make life interesting, there was a power line to contend with. Unusual, to say the least, in a relatively isolated area. But the line is essential to servicing Northgate Exploration’s Kemess gold, copper and silver mine to the north. Abitibi had tried some fall and burn and pheremone baiting in the area, but it wasn’t getting the job done. “We had to come up with a logging solution to get the wood off,” says Boulianne. “We spent significant time with the contractor (Taylor & Taylor Contracting of Prince George). We came up with a cable plan where some of the parameters we put in place were beyond the layout specs,” he continues. “We had to expand our mindset on that layout.” Sections of the hillsides had been criss-crossed with old cat trails put in place by mining exploration companies more than 30 years ago.

Where possible, Abitibi and the contractor tried to take advantage of them. The harvesting configuration involved forwarding trees down to a processing site at the bottom of the hill for short log hauling from there. And, of course, avoiding the power line. The ability to work through break-up was probably one of the few saving graces of logging the site. And as Hancock notes, the predominant rock and duff presents post-harvest issues. Some of the wood taken from the site so far is definitely merchantable, says Boulianne, although the quality of most stems is not that good. Time will only tell how successful the move was in impeding the beetle’s progress to other susceptible stands in the area. Abitibi has been co-operating with Slocan by swapping charts outlining their respective beetle infestations, to effect operating efficiencies of benefit to both companies. A further benefit for Abitibi in its beetle campaign is an experienced woodlands staff who know what to expect and have experience dealing with government agencies. “It’s a huge advantage,” says Hancock. There’s something else they know to expect. “We know the beetles are coming and we’re anticipating more next year after the beetles’ 2003 flight,” says Boulianne.

Other beetle problems in the offing in BC
The mountain pine beetle epidemic in BC is generally acknowledged as the most serious forest health issue in Canadian history. Projections state it will have affected up to 200 million cubic metres of timber by the end of 2003. Its sheer size and economic consequences overshadow other forest health issues. But it is by no means the only concern in Abitibi-Consolidated’s Mackenzie Region. Spruce bark beetle populations are also on the rise, for reasons similar to those leading to the proliferation of the mountain pine beetle. The company has been dealing with the issue in its spruce stands for a couple of years and there’s no abatement indicated. Woodlands manager Wayne Lewis says the balsam beetle problem is probably as serious in its scope as the mountain pine beetle epidemic. But it doesn’t get the same attention, probably because the balsam is considered a less economically valuable species, Lewis says. But economic value aside, the balsam situation has implications for those trying to manage the entire profile of the forest. And there’s yet one more factor affecting the health of the region’s forests. The lodgepole pine beetle is a separate species from the mountain pine species of beetle, although they attack the same tree. “We’ve treated some sites for the lodgepole pine beetle. It’s not as aggressive as the mountain pine beetle but it attacks en masse, generally low on the stem, in an abundance of hosts,” says Abitibi’s Darin Hancock. Abitibi plans to participate in a study during the summer of 2003 to learn more about the pest’s biology and modus operandi.


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