Dealing with beetles on steroids in British Columbia

By Jim Stirling

This past fall, a gathering of forest experts in Prince George, B.C., examined circumstances surrounding the region’s latest significant spruce bark beetle outbreak. The infestation is gathering momentum in specific areas of north central B.C. and it’s a worry.

The participants in the meeting were drawn from the forest industry, ministry and academia. Many of them were people who have been around long enough to experience first-hand the devastating spruce bark beetle epidemic in the region in the 1980s. They were gathered to pass on their collective knowledge from that period to the industry and ministry people of beetle containment strategies this time around.

The big difference between then and now is the consistently warming forest environment. A major consequence of that is the beetles’ life cycles are now on steroids. The consistently warmer weather is creating a host of interdependent changes that combine to shorten the time taken for spruce beetles—and all the other species endemic to B.C.’s forests—to reach maturity. Their numbers are increasing exponentially as a result. As a speaker at the Prince George meeting put it: “By the time you start recognizing you have the spruce beetle (problem), they’re several generations into the outbreak.”

The consensus strategy about how to deal with the new reality seems to be a shift in management philosophy. You can’t continue managing the forest just for tree growth. What progressive foresters are trying to do when they’re permitted the luxury is to manage the ecosystem. The forests, not just the trees.

Take a look at the issue from another perspective. About 220 million tree seedlings are scheduled for planting in the interior of B.C. during 2017. Another 20 million could be planted in coastal B.C. The ballpark figures come from the usually reliable indicators of sowing requests received by the Western Silviculture Contractors’ Association.

The association members are largely responsible for planting those seedlings on behalf of their client companies. Most of those seedlings in the interior will be lodgepole pine. Does that mean we’re on the way to creating another monoculture; one that creates a productive environment for beetle populations and other forest pests to proliferate? At the same time creating a scenario for the rapid spread of massive and disastrous wildfires on the scale we’re experiencing more frequently? Not necessarily. But the situation does help illustrate the complexities of Mother Nature’s reactions to a warmer, drier climate and the expectations and demands placed upon a shrinking industrial forest land base. The objective is to have these two realities working in concert—not opposition. The question is how.

Creating a new, responsive and independent management system for forest land appears a promising conversation starter.

There have been generally informal discussions about making adjustments within the existing appraisal system to recognize and compensate licencees for planting different species site specifically, and generally being more creative on the landscape. But such systems are vulnerable to short term changes. Strategic is the euphemism regularly employed.

Similarly, funding for a new forest land management system would need to be on a different basis than the present expediency inherent with a four-year political cycle. Trees take a long time to mature, even in a warming B.C. Interior. Their welfare should no longer be dependent upon the whim of a provincial government or viewed as a pot to plunder whenever it has the fiscal urge to do so. A long term approach and commitment to forest land management in all its guises would avoid that tendency.

And therein lies the underlying principle to any discussion about the future of forests in B.C. The lion’s share of the province’s productive forests grow on Crown land and as such are owned by all the people of British Columbia. Maximizing a return to the public owners is paramount. A return is not necessarily measured in the same way as the forest industry’s. Rather, it’s measured in terms of a resilient and sustainable landscape upon which growing and safeguarding trees is a motivating principle.

A reconstituted and financed forest service could be designed as a public trust to be the kind of independent vehicle required to drive forward the idea. The financing part is trickier, especially when independence and longevity are implicated issues. But there are always solutions. Trees are a hard asset. It is especially true today. We’re in a world where greenhouse gas emission reductions are becoming economic drivers. Trees are becoming more marketable as carbon sinks—not just future lumber sales.

B.C.’s forest industry is fortunate to have working within it many gifted and dedicated people. They’re employed in forest companies, in governments, academia, NGO’s, consultancies and First Nations. And they’re questioning the status quo more frequently.

The present system cannot always produce the holistic landscape approach that many view as a route to more successful outcomes. It seems, from this quarter at least, that increasing numbers of these people get it. They understand a different approach is worthy of investigation. As well, they are recognizing changes influencing forest lands in B.C. can’t always be satisfactorily addressed by maintaining or tweaking the status quo. A radically changing forest landscape may well warrant, or even demand, a corresponding shift in longer term management response to best benefit its owners: the people of B.C.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
December/January 2017

On the Cover:
A Tigercat 870C buncher at work for D. Lind Contracting in B.C. In this issue, Logging and Sawmilling Journal looks at the situation the forest industry is facing with an increasingly older workforce, and where future equipment operators are going come from, beginning on page 4. (Cover photo courtesy of The Inland Group).

Where are the industry’s future employees going to come from?
There is growing concern in the forest industry about where future loggers and equipment operators are going to come from—and a B.C. logging company is taking action in its own backyard, working closely with a local high school to encourage students to look at the forest industry for their careers.

A new look for B.C.’s coastal forest industry
Forest management in B.C.’s Sea to Sky Corridor has taken on a new look, with majority-owned First Nations companies, such as Sqomish Forestry LP, now being large forestry players in the region.

Forest safety—by satellite
Satellite technology is transforming lone worker safety in the forest industry by ensuring no worker is ever without access to a vital line of communications in the remote locations so common to the industry.

Resolute ramps up Atikokan sawmill
Resolute Forest Products is ramping up its brand new sawmill near Atikokan, Ontario, part of the company’s overall investment of $150 million in the region, creating more than 200 jobs.

A family logging affair
Chris Weare of Nova Scotia’s R&C Weare Logging has readily stepped up to the plate—with the support of family—in running their logging business, a heckuva of a busy business affair with an equipment line-up that includes 13 harvesting machines, 10 tractor trailers hauling wood, and roadbuilding gear.

Bouncing back
Alberta’s Spray Lake Sawmills has bounced back from the economic downturn, and is even stronger now thanks to consistent mill improvements—and it is looking to grow its treated wood program.

Getting ready for legal pot
The imminent legalization of marijuana—which could happen as early as this year—provides a good reason for forest companies of all sizes to prepare themselves with at least a well-defined and communicated substance abuse policy.

Building business-and a safe workplace
Ontario logger John Fleming has won two health and safety awards, and has found that in addition to helping build a safe workplace, the awards have helped build his business.

The Edge
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates and FPInnovations.

The Last Word
Jim Stirling on how B.C. is dealing with the spruce bark beetle on steroids, and possible containment strategies.

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