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Accepting the challenges of the mountain pine beetle impact now—and in the future

By Jim Stirling

David Ainsworth wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he hauled his portable sawmill into the town of 100 Mile House in the fall of 1952. He quickly made discoveries as he checked out that part of British Columbia’s Cariboo country.                                   

One of them was that lumber manufacturers there were doing what they tended to do elsewhere and creaming off the best timber. In and around 100 Mile, that consisted of larger diameter spruce and Douglas fir. The remaining ubiquitous stands of smaller diameter wood were largely dismissed as uneconomic for sawlog production. The small wood was deemed acceptable for fence posts or firewood. Otherwise, they were just pecker poles: weed species. Trouble was, as Ainsworth and his family began sinking roots into the southern Cariboo, it became apparent those weed species represented the only foundation available from which to grow a business. So that’s what Ainsworth did. Through the years, he helped pioneer several forest industry improvements. The introduction of weigh scales, for example. And, significantly, the issues presented by handling and processing those pesky small diameter trees.                                   

Ainsworth’s leadership role in finding ways to utilize the wood type evolved into the mechanical roadside log harvesting system prevalent today. His Ainsworth Lumber Co Ltd flourished and has diversified into producing OSB and other wood products.                                   

Most of those small diameter trees of Ainsworth’s acquaintance—the weeds and the pecker poles—were lodgepole pine. To many, they stayed lumped into that ignominious category into the 1960s. Then, as the big spruce and fir became fewer, further away and more expensive to harvest, the lodgepole pine became a more acceptable if still a poor cousin alternative. Others discovered—as Ainsworth had recognized—that lodgepole pine is a valuable lumbermaking raw material. Many companies have done very well, thank you, exploiting the pine forests and fattening shareholders’ returns.                                   

Depending on where you were, lodgepole pine represented 50 per cent of the Interior timber harvesting land base. It amounted to about 1.1 billion cubic metres spread across 14.9 million hectares.                                   

But that was past tense. Because along came the mountain pine beetle epidemic. In a few years, the landscape underwent an unprecedented transformation. The provincial Ministry of Forests & Range estimates 530 million cubic metres of lodgepole pine were standing dead in mid-2007. That’s a mind-numbing quantity of wood.                                   

The epidemic’s scope is evident in other telling ways. Little children in Cariboo schools colour trees red. Because that’s what they see when they look out the window. That’s all they’ve ever seen. Citizen groups in forest communities affected by the beetle epidemic are investigating ways to diversify their economies as lodgepole pine volumes diminish. It’s a sensible thing to do: a broad-based economy is a more sustainable one. But a problem with these initiatives is the inherent assumption that the forest industry will simply vanish. Not so. It will change, but the Cariboo and other BC regions facing a beetle aftermath remain viable places to grow trees.                                   

In the nearer term—and of concern— are the vast amounts of fibre being wasted by licensees in the bush. It’s created as loggers salvage volumes still suitable for lumber production and leave the rest. It’s not waste, of course. It has many potential uses. But to capitalize on this requires the provincial government to take a leadership role. It must find ways to appease licensees while allowing the wood that’s being wasted to be economically accessed and used for other purposes. It needs a co-operative approach if it is to succeed. So far, neither the Liberal government nor forest companies have delivered more than occasional hot air on the subject.                                   

Another issue is establishing a new tree crop in the ground. Something that needs to happen sooner rather than later. In most areas under licensee management, the trend is to re-plant lodgepole pine. It’s relatively cheap, fast growing and reaches the free-to-grow stage quicker and thereby relieving the licensees’ silvicultural responsibilities.                                   

But is lodgepole pine the best fit for the countless planting sites out there? A monoculture, among other factors, helped precipitate the intensity of the beetle epidemic in the first place.                                   

Then there’s the spectre of global warming. Planting sites will differ significantly from those supporting the last crop. The water table will likely be lower, the weather drier and warmer, but punctuated with what meteorologists call intense weather events. Perhaps consideration should be given to other species of pine: those that thrive on drier, warmer soils.                                   

And would it be pushing credulity too far to suggest certain fast growing types of temperate-tolerant exotic species? It may prove wise not to arbitrarily dismiss all the possibilities.                                   

We should follow the example of David Ainsworth. He could have turned his International tractor around and gone back to where he came from. But he didn’t. He stayed put and accepted the challenges. And in doing so, helped change attitudes toward what the landscape had to offer.