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May 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal



Fighting the beetle with research

Research into mountain pine beetle activity is yielding some interesting results,
such as what type of forest stands are more susceptible to beetle attack and the
need for more mixed species forests in the future.

By Jim Stirling

There’s much understandable concern about the implications of the timber supply fall down in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the British Columbia Interior. How will the industrial structure change and what might be the effects on jobs and forestry-dependent communities?

Philip Burton (inset photo) and his team with the Canadian Forest Service are looking at stand dynamics, what’s actually happening on the ground in some beetle-infested pine stands.

It’s encouraging to note the scientific and research communities have been quick off the mark to examine a wide range of issues surrounding the beetle itself and the impacts of the epidemic on the forest landscape and economy. Many of the research projects that have been initiated are collaborative in nature and designed to provide landscape managers and decision makers with timely and practical information to enhance planning.

There’s probably two to three dozen such projects underway between Prince George and Victoria, reckons Philip Burton, manager, northern projects, with the Canadian Forest Service based in Prince George. Burton and his team are looking at stand dynamics, which is code for what’s actually happening on the ground in some beetle-infested pine stands. And what they’re finding may influence—in a positive way—the future timber supply equation and biodiversity values.

In north-central BC, it appears up to 50 per cent of the stands where pine is dominant support an understory of robust seedlings and saplings, including species like spruce and balsam.

The information comes from sample plots and pooling data from the provincial Ministry of Forests, says Burton. A well-stocked understory provides a jump start on the next crop. It can reduce rotation timelines by several years.

And it introduces management options. Perhaps it makes more sense to redirect the cut away from those stands, explains Burton or—on some sites—use a partial rather than clearcutting harvesting system to remove pine but help protect the understory.

UNBC’s Staffan Lindgren (above) says BC is now paying the price for decades of influencing nature’s regular patterns of insect, fire and other disturbances.

The second year of what will hopefully be a three-year project, funded by the provincial Forest Sciences Board, is designed to take a look at the broader picture, says Burton. It will employ GIS technology to assess the future timber supply potential across a wider area and translate that information to data tools like forest cover maps.

“It will help tell us where there’s a rich understory of trees and where it’s barren,” Burton points out. “At the end of that, we’ll have a tool for planners, licensees and the ministry to strategically prioritize what stands to harvest, what stands can go down the queue or are best left to their own devices.”

It will also help direct replanting and rehabilitation work to where it can be most effective. The forest may well be different than the one the mountain pine beetle is eroding. “Maybe spruce-fir will be better adapted to the ‘newer’ forest, given the prevailing climate,” speculates Burton.

But Burton predicts big changes in forest policy and regulation will be needed in the coming months. The stumpage and appraisal system has to be looked at, for example, to reflect partial cutting techniques in a mixed forest regime, he suggests.

While new research projects are ongoing, there is also a wealth of existing information about the beetle that has had such a huge impact on the BC Interior. “We know an awful lot about the mountain pine beetle,” states Staffan Lindgren, professor, Ecosystem Sciences and Management Program at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. “There’s been an enormous amount of research into understanding what the insect does and what drives it,” he says. “It’s more important to get people to use the knowledge that’s there.”

It’s a frustrating trait, says Lindgren, to not take advantage of the partial solutions that are available. He attributes it to two factors. One is a turnover of people in government and industry, which tends to preclude an institutional memory. Two, beetle outbreaks come in waves and there’s no focus on acquiring knowledge in the valleys.

Lindgren explains one of the tools designed from past knowledge that could have been useful earlier on in the current dilemma. A susceptibility assessment of stand conditions conducive to mountain pine beetle infestation looks at a variety of factors including stand age, size, location and density. It’s accompanied by assigning a risk rating to a stand. It’s supposed to be used when there’s no beetle problem to let you know what stands to deal with, and those most likely to reduce future risk.

“It’s not a perfect tool, but it allows you, with some confidence, to assign a priority on what and how to manage,” he explains. The boundaries break down when the beetles are out of control on the landscape.

What Lindgren and his associates are doing now in a federally funded project is, in part, to take the existing information a step further and build upon the susceptibility rating and risk analysis. They look at probable losses in terms of basal volume under average conditions and prioritize the stands where the highest losses are likely, points out Lindgren. When the beetle attacks a stand, some produce brood, some produce much less. “We want to figure out if we can characterize the stands that become sinks compared to those that become sources,” he summarizes.

Knowing what stands are likely to cause less of a problem, even when the beetles are out of control as they are now, is important, he adds.

So what stands are likely to produce more insect broods? Well, it’s very complex and still unclear. But it appears a more compact stand diameter distribution is more likely to be a source stand, he surmises.

The mountain pine beetle isn’t going to go away, says UNBC’s Staffan Lindgren, and the best way to deal with it is management of the lodgepole pine, rather than management of the beetle.

Another part of Lindgren’s project focuses on beetle population dynamics. Most of the research into the topic has been in south-central BC and the US. Lindgren wants to find out if beetle populations in the central and northern areas of the province behave differently than their southern brethren. Early indications are they might. The northern beetles tend to utilize more of the tree to a higher level and produce more brood as a proportion of number of attacks. It’s also indicated the northern beetles can utilize thinner bark in smaller trees.

“They’re essentially suicide attacks. There are so many beetles they will attack anything and everything but they don’t produce any brood,” he believes.

With the current situation, Lindgren says we’re now paying the price for decades of influencing nature’s regular patterns of fire, insect and other disturbance. “The mountain pine beetle is a reflection on the vegetation on the landscape and if it’s old growth pine, the beetles take advantage of it,” he notes. The beetle isn’t going to go away, and the best way to deal with it is management of the lodgepole pine rather than the beetle, he adds. Lindgren, like Burton, expects more mixed species forests in the future and echoes the need for changes in forest legislation. Forest companies are obliged to replant areas they log with seedlings and monitor them to a free-to-grow stage. They frequently choose lodgepole pine because it’s a very hardy species that grows fast and beats out competitive vegetation very well. The pine reaches free-to-grow stage earlier, saving forest companies money.

“Free-to-grow regulations, while well intended, are causing problems because they favour lodgepole pine over the planting of other species. From a forest health point of view, we need to get away from that,” says Lindgren. It’s not just the mountain pine beetle threat. He cites the incidence of fungal disease —a needle blight—that’s killing off pine plantations in wet belt areas of northwestern BC.

“They’re planting pine where it shouldn’t be in a monoculture,” he says. “We need to learn to read nature better and understand why certain species grow where they grow and not enforce our will.”



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