Fire, disease and pests have a vital and complex role in forest health as both agents of renewal and destruction. Forestry may have meddled in these disturbance regimes. Are they now beyond “management?”
Forest health and the silvicultural industry will be the theme for Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association 22nd Annual Conference to be held in Prince George, British Columbia 29, 30, 31 January 2003
How healthy are Western Canada’s forests? What are the remedies? And what is the role of the silvicultural industry in fixing things?
Forest health: looking past the mountain pine beetle.
No one could ever accuse the WSCA of being too single-minded when it comes to the programs for our annual conferences. We are all over the map, in some cases quite literally. Next year’s Prince George meeting will be the usual hash of forestry ideas. But we would have to be blind these days not to recognize the relevance of forest health in Western Canada as an obvious theme for a meeting of people who tend forests for a living.
Naturally the Interior’s mountain pine beetle outbreak will be on the agenda. But in a way this runaway epidemic is kind of like looking at the bottom (as opposed to the tip) of the iceberg of forest health. The sheer magnitude of this problem and our preoccupation with it may be obscuring our seeing the true bulk of other emerging health problems in our forests.
For example any provincial map of insect outbreaks outside of the main mountain pine beetle shows a disturbing array of mapshading representing various bugs breeding and feeding in the woods across Alberta and B.C. These areas cover a lot of ground and seem to be growing. Overlay that with the escalating fungi, blight, and needle drop showing up in mature stands and plantations and our forests are beginning to look a little mangy.
Then there is the wildfire threat. Forests full of sick trees normally attract fire. But these natural disturbance patterns have been denied through decades of successful fire suppression. Now even our non-infected forests may be harbouring their own downfall in terms of pent up fuels and dense scrubby ingrowth. Add to this certain logging practices and in some cases our silvicultural treatments and you have a potential catastrophe waiting for the inevitable confluence of drought and ignition. The Americans and Australians have been severely burned by their forestry practices leading to unnaturally intense wildfires. It is not just fatalism to suggest our day in Canada is coming.
The situation is worsening too when it comes to policy and forest health. We are of course committing millions of dollars to the mountain pine beetle. But it appears the bug has outrun our imaginations when it comes to a true remedy. We may be just mopping up for now while actually setting the forests up for a repeat outbreak next rotation. Meanwhile it has been years since funds were available for a program monitoring disease and pest conditions in Canadian forests. This leaves us in the dark for proper data. In B.C. the provincial government, having ended paying for backlog programs to restore public lands damaged by fire, pest and disease, is now in the process of removing its legal obligation to tend these forests. This is not just avoiding a forest health matter, it is an abandonment of the principle of proper forest stewardship. These policy failings may come to an expensive head given that British Columbia’s auditor general has warned that governments are not prepared for interface fires; the zone were these health problems and communities intersect. To date there has been no coherent response to the AG’s warnings. None of these are encouraging signs from our policy makers.
We could go on. We could talk about how the federal government won’t go near the forest health issue, particularly wildfire, for fear of attracting some future liability for the pending catastrophe. We could compare us to the U.S. strategy where, with typical American horsepower, they are preparing to spend billions on forest health. This will generate a new source of wood and a forestry contracting sector that will stay busy for the next decade thinning, pruning, and burning U.S. national forests. We are doing practically nothing here (forestry funding is declining) although we face the same problem. We could talk about the sudden post-Kyoto protocol enthusiasm for our forests as valuable carbon credits. So what will they be worth as smoke? But we won’t go on. We’ll save this and more for our conference.
Block out those dates. Prince George 29, 30, 31 January 2003. Stay tuned. Watch this space. This will get interesting.