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Going to War

The war is on in BC against an epidemic of mountain pine beetle

Jim Stirling


The key strategy in the BC beetle war is controlling the advance. This winter, an alliance of the forest industry and government has launched this exact tactic against an epidemic of mountain pine beetle that is exploding through the forests of west central British Columbia. They are cooperating and combining forces to expedite the identification, planning and harvesting of timber still in the green stage of infestation. "Our goal is to get as much volume as possible out of the forest that has beetle in the trees," says Doug Routledge, general manager of forestry and aboriginal affairs with the Northern Forest Products Association based in Prince George. "We have to stop following the beetles around or we'll be doing it for years and years," he says. Speed is of the essence but not at the cost of ecologically sensitive forest practices. "We think we can do the job within the BC Forest Practices Code and that's our goal," adds Routledge. The Cariboo Lumber Manufacturers' Association-with its headquarters in Williams Lake, BC-and the NFPA created a mountain pine beetle emergency task force. The role of the joint initiative is two pronged. It informs the public and other groups with a vested interest in the health of the forest on the extent and nature of the emergency presented by the beetle epidemic and emphasizes the need for focused action. The task force has also been mobilized to lobby the provincial government and help coordinate operational efforts on the ground. It's proving very effective on both levels. Figures associated with the epidemic are truly frightening.

At least 300,000 hectares of working forest have been infested by the pine beetle-an area more than 30 times the size of Vancouver. Some experts fear the epidemic could infest 500,000 hectares. The exponential growth rate has been alarming. It's estimated the infestation was growing by about 2,500 hectares a year between 1994 and 1996. In 1997, however, it grew by 15,000 hectares. It mushroomed to 100,000 hectares in 1998. That rate more than doubled in 1999. Clearly, the epidemic is totally out of control. The catalyst for the infestation growth is the weather. The mountain pine beetle is an endemic and natural part of the forest ecosystem. Winter mortality typically results in a survival rate of only 15 per cent. But Mother Nature has played the spoiler here and successive mild winters have resulted in an 85 per cent survival rate for the beetle larvae. Forty years of forest firefighting has saved valuable timber but produced a high percentage of mature lodgepole pine, 80 years of age and older, which are proving to be ideal hosts for pine beetle breeding grounds. Conservative estimates of potential loss es from the 1998 west central BC epidemic alone are $313 million. But the same basic conditions are creating epidemic level beetle populations in the working forests in other regions of BC. "If timber currently at risk to the mountain pine beetle in the Cariboo, Prince George and Prince Rupert forest regions were to be infested, total government losses of $3.9 billion over 10 years could result," says the CLMA/NFPA task force.

Companies operating on the front line of the epidemic are diverting an average 85 per cent of their annual allowable cut to battle the beetle. For some, 100 per cent of their cut will be beetle infested wood. Lodgepole pine is the dominant species, representing about half of the growing stock in the central and northern interior parts of the province. "The real bull work rests in the laps of operational staff with the licencees and the Ministry of Forests," says the NFPA's Routledge. Ground assessment work and probes continue to delineate the beetles' progress during their 1999 flying season and those statistics are still being compiled and analyzed. Routledge outlines a couple of scenarios.

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Two industry associations in BC have set up an emergency task force to deal with the mountain pine beetle-which has infected 300,000 hectares of working forest-and help coordinate operational efforts on the ground

One would see the beetles filling in the gaps, infesting trees they missed as they surged forward. That would increase the intensity of the infestation, but keep it within the same general area. That possibility would probably be easier to deal with, he suspects. However, if the beetles have continued to migrate beyond the known areas of infestation, then the green attack damage potential to new areas of the working forest increases exponentially. And those are areas with no existing forest development infrastructure like plans and roads. The beetles' flight is typically between May and July and the insect can travel 30 kilometres. A cool, wet spring delayed the 1999 flight and beetles were observed in motion into September. Routledge believes that delay may have an upside. "Their life cycle could be out of sync and there could be a higher mortality rate even with an average winter." Routledge notes two elements to targeting the green attack timber. There are those attacks occurring in areas of forest development where existing harvest and access plans can be modified to address the beetle problem. And there are attacks where no activity has taken place, complicating planning and adding significantly to costs. Routledge gives "full kudos" to Ministry of Forests and licencee staff in responding to the emergency. "Cooperation is evident and everyone is focused on getting their amendments out as quickly as possible." He notes that district managers have the right under the Forest Practices Code to respond to emergency situations. That doesn't mean a suspension of the public review process for a company's development plans, emphasizes Routledge. "The time frame for responding is abbreviated." Routledge adds the industry/government beetle thrust has met with good cooperation from most environmental groups.

They've been involved with the task force's plans from an early stage. The focus is on the working forest, not parks or protected areas. Routledge predicts the whole toolbox of timber harvesting systems will be used on the beetle wood. Individual stem removal, patch cuts, clear cuts, sanitation harvesting, snip and skid, fall and burn are among the range of strategies companies and their contractors will use site specifically depending on factors like terrain, timber types and densities and degree of beetle attack. The initial concentration will be on the green attack timber but the red attack-the dead and dying-wood has to be salvaged as well. Cleaning up the red attack areas could take years, however. The deteriorating quality of infested timber has significant implications. Blue stain fungus grows the longer the tree stands after infestation. The stain causes no structural impediment to the wood nor does it become a forest health transmission issue. But the appearance can negatively affect J grade lumber and some value-added finished wood products. Sawmills also face processing and kiln-drying problems with a constant diet of beetle wood and the resulting production of larger volumes of lower grade products. Mills geared to a specific wood basket face productivity challenges with a shift in the balance between the larger beetle choice trees and smaller diameter stems. One thing remains clear in this war: the lines have been drawn in the forest but the battle has barely begun.

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Figures associated with the epidemic are truly frightening. Some experts fear the epidemic could infest 500,000 hectares.



This page last modified on Monday, November 03, 2003