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December 2005 & January 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal



Beetles Jump the Rockies

The mountain pine beetle has jumped over the Rocky Mountains in northeastern BC and battle lines are being drawn to keep it at bay.

By Jim Stirling


At one time, a wall of mountains was an effective defence to keep marauding enemies at bay. But that is no longer the case: the Rocky Mountains have failed to thwart the mountain pine beetle epidemic pushing eastward from the British Columbia Interior.

The beetles have seeped through low passes and ridden favourable jet streams into the Dawson Creek Timber Supply Area in the south Peace region of northeastern BC. And it’s there in the Peace Country that the battle lines are being drawn in a $14 million program to quell beetle populations and prevent further eastward migration.

The fear—and it’s a hugely legitimate one according to beetle experts—is that the mountain pine beetle, if not substantially checked, will on its own or through hybridization move into the jackpine forests of Alberta and the rest of Canada’s boreal forests to the east, causing massive turmoil. The beetle infestation is already Canada’s worst ever forest health disaster.

The fear is that the mountain pine beetle, if not substantially checked, will move into the jackpine forests of Alberta and the rest of Canada’s boreal forests to the east, causing massive damage and turmoil.

About 10 million hectares of pine forest in the BC Interior were infected by the summer of 2005, according to latest estimates. By 2013, at least a billion cubic metres of pine will be dead. The long-term economic consequences in the BC Interior have the potential to be equally staggering from the timber harvesting curtailments that will inevitably follow in the beetles’ wake. What’s happened west of the Rockies contains valuable lessons for possibilities in the Peace Country. One lesson is that it is folly to hope Mother Nature will oblige with beetle population-controlling weather at critical times during the insect’s life cycle.

One advantage the Peace Region has is it appears the beetles are still in small, localized pockets and that they develop on a two-year cycle rather than the single year in areas to the west. That helps buy some time. It also means the opportunity
exists to hit the beetles hard and fast with a variety of weapons.

A second advantage is that the forest industry, governments and their agencies are on the same wavelength. They recognize the need for a co-ordinated beetle suppression program if it’s to be fully effective. That, in turn, requires the commitment
for financial and other resources for as long as it takes.

In 2004, the Alberta government allocated $742,000 to the Peace beetle wars (BC put in $900,000) in the first year of a five-year memorandum of understanding. The federal government has also contributed funding to specific beetle suppression techniques—like fall and burn— that cannot be construed as a subsidy in the softwood lumber dispute with the United States.

The lead agency in the Dawson Creek Timber Supply Area (TSA) is West Fraser Mills’ Chetwynd Forest Industries Division. The other major licensee with sawmilling and woodlands operations in the TSA is Canfor’s Chetwynd Division.

“As lead licensee for the TSA, we do much of the planning, tendering and support for funds,” summarizes Brian Pate, forestry supervisor of West Fraser in Chetwynd.

One action both West Fraser and Canfor were quick to take was to shift their timber harvesting priorities into the pine forests and the most susceptible hosts for beetle attack. “We’ve switched to about 80 per cent beetle stands,” adds Pate. The company also hasn’t hauled beetle wood during summer flight periods.

Repercussions from the predominant pine harvest include a change in the log mix and reduction in piece sizes going through the sawmilling process. Fall and burning beetle-infested patches were due to pick up during the 2005-06 winter harvesting season.

Access to some areas is a problem, especially in the back ends of operating areas. Helicopter services for getting ground crews in where needed were being planned. Other issues the licensees are grappling with in the TSA are the size of openings and cut control with the accelerated pine harvest.

On the other side of the Rockies, small, scattered openings proved costly to log and largely ineffective as control measures, mainly because of the sheer size of the infestation by the time the strategy was employed. On the mountains’ eastern lee, the situation could be different. The bark beetle regulation reduces red tape and allows licensees to create small openings up to 15 hectares for beetle suppression purposes. Canfor is employing the strategy site specifically, along with fall and burn, single tree treatments and re-directing the harvest to susceptible pine stands, explains Alison Newbery, planning supervisor with the company in Chetwynd. Phereomone baiting is another technique being used to contain the beetle in a specific area.

Newbery confirms the good working relationship established with West Fraser, the BC Forest Service and BC Parks. “We had a meeting in Dawson Creek the other day with them and representatives from the Alberta government were on hand and other licensees like Weyerhaeuser in Grande Prairie.

“You can be really proactive when you’ve got everyone at the table,” she says. The TSA team also recruits experts like entymologists to help it understand how best to combat the beetles at ground level, she adds.

The forest profile in the Dawson Creek TSA differs from those on the other side of the Rockies. It contains a mix of softwood and deciduous forests with approximately a third of the TSA volume in lodgepole pine, points out Rob Kopecky, First Nations specialist and mountain pine beetle co-ordinator for the Peace Forest District based in Dawson Creek. The 30 plus percentile figure is not spread uniformly through the TSA but tends to be concentrated in the southern areas in the hilly terrains of the Tumbler Ridge region. This is where falling and burning, single tree treatments and falling and peeling techniques along with the harvesting of susceptible hosts is being concentrated.

Kopecky says prescribed burns are another beetle control method being examined with parks and environmental agencies. A central burn pile is one idea being mooted. But fire indices including fuel types, terrain and weather need to co-operate to have a successful burn plan, he adds. Kopecky says the BC Timber Sales Program has offered about 80,000 cubic metres of beetle blocks and susceptible stands for harvest in the TSA and double that volume is expected next year.

The beetles themselves keep throwing new wrinkles into the conventional equations. “We’re finding a lot of cases where a single tree has been infected above and below the snow level. With stump treatments, it’s really important to get right down close to the mineral soil level,” points out Kopecky. “And the beetles seem to be doing different things here, infecting younger and smaller trees.”

The cautiously optimistic news is that ground surveys in 2005 indicate beetle populations aren’t dramatically increasing. Not yet. Although populations in some areas are higher than others. But that needs to be kept in perspective, West Fraser’s Pate says, as forest managers in the BC Interior know only too well: “We’re one warm year from all hell breaking loose.”




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