Stumped: B.C. reforestation

Nathaniel StofelsmaOn an overcast morning in early May, a chill bites the air with just the slightest of ocean breezes. It’s as if winter never left. Days earlier, snow, hail and wind arrived to knock the pink blossoms off of boulevard cherry trees and make a mockery of southern Vancouver Island’s so-called “Mediterranean” climate.

But for Nathaniel Stofelsma, it may as well be summer. The manager of Arbutus Grove Nursery in West Saanich strolls about comfortably in light khaki pants, weathered running shoes and a forest green cotton T-shirt, inside a massive greenhouse insulated from the cold by clear plastic sheets stretched over aluminum frames. Outside on the farm belt near Victoria’s airport, it’s fleece-jacket weather, but inside it’s warm and humid, with a strong scent of fertilizer permeating the Amazon-like air.

Stofelsma, 33, is the second generation of his family to be in the business, which began nearly 30 years ago when his father Hans grew the operation’s first tree order of 100,000 western hemlock seedlings.The year was 1979, and the provincial government was in the midst of selling its nurseries across the province. Hans won an early tender put out by the province to grow the hemlock trees, and the family hasn’t looked back since.

As Stofelsma steps over the first of several hot-water heating pipes, he stops to survey a tiny lodgepole pine seedling that rises out of a peat-moss-filled hole in a white Styrofoam tray. The tray is about the size of a large beer case and sports 77 other similarly sized holes, each sprouting similarly sized seedlings. There are 416 trays in all, housing 32,000 pine in this one small section of the greenhouse – one of seven at Arbutus Grove, where nearly nine million seedlings were successfully grown last year. Eventually, those 32,000 pines will be replanted at one of the innumerable logging sites that have turned B.C.’s sprawling central Interior into a checkerboard of dusty brown clear cuts and forest patches.

As droves of dead and now red-needled pine trees littering B.C.’s Interior attest, a sea change is underway in Canada’s most heavily forested province. Fully one-quarter of all the trees in B.C.’s vast forests are lodgepole pine, and, as the waves of mountain pine beetles responsible for turning millions of pines from green to red continue their epic attack, four out of every five pine trees are expected to be killed. An area of B.C. forest greater in size than England has already been attacked by the beetles, and Canadians are awaking to a disquieting reality: the unprecedented attack, and its dire consequences for the environment and economy alike, are directly linked to climate change.

But if reforestation is to lay the foundation for recovery, we appear headed for trouble. As the beetle attack grows, spending on reforestation is shrinking to levels not seen in two decades. Stofelsma and his counterparts at commercial tree nurseries across B.C. report deep cuts in tree orders, a fall-off that has tracked just slightly behind the slumping fortunes of the province’s forest industry. Only a few years ago, sawmilling companies in regions where the pine beetle is active were awash in profits as they processed record numbers of beetle-killed pine trees. The largest of them, Canfor Corp., reported a net profit of $420.9 million in 2004. But Canfor’s latest annual earnings, announced in March, reflect a dismal industry-wide reversal of fortune: a loss of $360.6 million. Cost-cutting is now the order of the day, and that includes company spending on reforestation. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of trees paid for and planted on behalf of forest companies is expected to drop by 30 per cent. Meanwhile, the provincial government is only slowly getting back into the reforestation game after years of cutbacks.

As a result, fewer hardy young men and women are trekking up and over stumps and logging slash to replant scarred hillsides while offsetting their escalating university tuition costs. And tree nurseries are stepping down production at a time when the province’s forests arguably need them – and all that the best forest science has to offer – more than ever.

One thing B.C.’s nurseries do well is grow trees. Last year Arbutus Grove produced a record 8.8 million seedlings. Not surprisingly, the Vancouver Island nursery – which is a relatively small operation in an industry where some nurseries grow 30 million or more seedlings a year – specializes in producing coastal tree species such as Douglas fir. But reflecting the tough economic conditions prevailing in the industry, Arbutus Grove recently bid successfully on contracts to grow Interior tree species such as lodgepole pine. About half of the 276 million trees planted in B.C. last year were pine, and while the overall number of trees planted in the province may be headed down in future years, pine is expected to retain its position as the most frequently planted tree species in B.C. Hence Arbutus Grove’s desire to get in on a piece of the action.

Each seedling grown in a nursery begins with a pre-selected seed, which often originates in a seed orchard where forest scientists know exactly what the progeny and genetic traits of the selected seed are. The seeds are then placed in individual peat-moss-filled holes in the Styrofoam and capped with a thin layer of fine grit that retains moisture and prevents the buildup of competing moss. Natural-gas boilers, fired at a hefty cost of up to $450 a day, then heat the water pipes, allowing the seeds to germinate. From there, the marvels of photosynthesis take over as the new plants convert light into energy and grow rapidly.

“These trees here,” Stofelsma says, pointing to some delicate green spruce seedlings that are a mere five centimetres tall, “will be seven to eight times higher in about five months.” To toughen them up for the harsh conditions of their new home in a distant clearcut, the seedlings will later be moved from the cocoon-like confines of the greenhouse to the open air on adjacent acreage owned or leased by the nursery. Then, just before planting, they will be pulled from their containers, their roots bound in their peat moss plugs, and loaded onto trucks for transport to the planting site. The objective is for no more than 48 hours to elapse between “the pull” and “the plant.”

A host of industry innovations has allowed for big advances in seedling survival over the years. In an adjacent greenhouse, Stofelsma points out suspended rolls of black fabric. The rolls will later be unfurled to form a temporary ceiling between the Douglas fir seedlings below and the arched, clear roof of the greenhouse. “The black cloth blots out enough light that the seedlings believe fall is on the way,” Stofelsma says. “The seedlings then start to build up wax on their needles to protect themselves against the cold, and they set their buds. What we do with the curtains is induce dormancy – prepare them for winter.”

Tricks of the trade have resulted in spectacular increases in seedling survival. In the 1970s, sometimes only half of transplanted seedlings survived; today it’s routinely 95 per cent. Without doubt, nursery operators such as Stofelsma have proven they are up to the task of growing tree crops. But as the beetle outbreak unfolds, along with a host of other warming-related insect infestations and blights, new hurdles must be cleared. How do we respond to the ongoing attack – one that could morph into a cross-continent pandemic as the beetles run out of lodgepole pine trees and “transition” into jack pine, one of the most prevalent tree species in the cross-Canada boreal forest? The industry remains a major player in the provincial economy, particularly in rural regions, despite all the gloom hanging over B.C.’s forest industry: a high Canadian dollar that eats away at industry profits as fast as the beetles bore into the pine; the spectacular collapse of the U.S. housing market; and a punitive Canada-U.S. Softwood Lumber Agreement that sees Canadian companies paying hundreds of millions of dollars in export taxes.

Last year, while posting one of its worst performances, B.C.’s forest industry still managed to export $12.2 billion worth of lumber and pulp and paper products. That’s a sizeable step down from the $15 billion BC Stats recorded in 2004, but not far off the $12.9 billion worth of product exported in 2003 – which shows the cyclical nature of the industry.

Up or down, the forest industry’s contribution to B.C.’s overall exports has ranged between 39 and 54 per cent over the past decade, suggesting that it, or a version of it, is an industry worth saving. But a sobering counterpoint is that by 2013, a mere five years hence, 80 per cent of B.C.’s mature lodgepole pine trees (those 80 years of age and older) will likely be killed by mountain pine beetles. The estimated value of all that dead wood, much of which will never be processed before the beetle-killed trees deteriorate to the point that they have no economic value, is about $43 billion worth of lumber.

The potential loss of so much valuable timber prompted the provincial government to approve massive increases in logging rates in 2002, in an attempt to entice forest companies to cash in on at least some of the attacked trees before they lost their economic value. Logging rates skyrocketed, as did lumber production. With all the added logging and milling horsepower in and around Houston, Vanderhoof, Prince George and Quesnel came something else: a spike in tree planting.

In 1985 forest companies became responsible for restocking the lands they logged, a job held exclusively by the province up to that point. The quickest way to restock is to plant new trees, although there is another option: wait and see if the logged areas reforest on their own from the seed of surrounding trees. The latter is enticing, as companies may not have to spend a dime to meet their reforestation obligations. But it carries risks. If weedy brush plants overrun logged areas, choking out new trees, then the companies pay twice – once to clear the brush and again to plant.

Rob Scagel, a consultant to B.C.’s tree-planting industry, tracks forestry statistics. In 1995, B.C. hit a high-water mark, planting 280 million seedlings in a single year. Last year, thanks to the dramatic upswing in logging in response to the pine beetle, the industry approached that peak, planting 276 million trees. But then things began to slip. This year roughly 250 million seedlings will be sunk into forest soils. Meanwhile, nurseries across the province, including Arbutus Grove, report to Scagel that there is a dramatic drop-off in orders for 2009, to the point that next year only 190 million seedlings might be planted.

While somewhat speculative, in that orders could still come in and other orders drop off, Scagel’s number is likely to be close to the mark because months are required to gather and ship tree seeds, and months more to raise seedlings from the seed. “You’d have to go back 20 years to see such a low level of planting,” Scagel says. “It’s sheer bloody chaos. The companies are cancelling orders. Nurseries are being told to cut prices. Tree planters are being told to cut prices. And yet both seedling prices and planting prices are at a 30-year low. We’re planting trees right now at 1970s and 1980s prices.”

Sadly, the drop-off was predictable. Logging swung up sharply five years ago in response to the pine beetle, and with it lumber production and industry profits soared. Two years later, reflecting a lag between logging and new tree orders, nurseries and tree-planting companies reaped the rewards.

But during those same two years, forest company profits vaporized. Ironically, it is at least partly the companies’ and government’s log-it-or-lose-it pine beetle strategy that was to blame. Canfor had by then built another mill in Vanderhoof to rival its Houston operation. B.C.’s second-largest Interior forest company, West Fraser Timber, had opened another massive mill in Quesnel to keep pace with its competitor. Other companies similarly geared up production in response to government-sanctioned logging increases. The result was a dangerous oversupply in the U.S. lumber market at the worst possible time. By then troubling reports had surfaced of a deepening sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S. Thousands of homeowners had reneged on mortgage payments and walked away from homes. Real estate markets were flooded with homes sold by banks rather than families. New home construction slowed to a trickle and lumber prices plummeted. Awash in red ink by 2006, forest companies began cutting tree orders, partly because they were logging less and partly because they wanted to trim costs. Cutting back on reforestation was one way to do that.

Predictable as all this was, Scagel says it is folly to tie the fortunes of the tree growing and tree planting industry to market conditions – which is why he advocates an increased public role in reforestation efforts. “Would you tie education and hip replacement in Prince George to the market? I don’t think so.” In June, B.C.’s tree nurseries marked a milestone as the six billionth seedling was sunk into the ground by tree planting crews. At least part of the reason that number was reached was public investments in reforestation.

In the mid-’80s, the province joined with the federal government to fund the first of two five-year tree planting and tending programs. Victoria and Ottawa spent a combined $500 million on reforestation efforts between 1986 and 1997 (or $50 million per year), an amount roughly equal to one-quarter of what the forest industry spent last year in B.C. to plant 276 million trees. Under cost-shared accords known as Forest Resource Development Agreements (FRDA), the average number of trees planted annually in B.C. doubled to 210 million a year from the pre-FRDA annual average of just over 100 million between 1981 and 1986. Even larger increases occurred in the number of trees that were thinned in order to boost the growth of the remaining trees and in the clearing of brush to free up space for young trees to put on healthy growth.

The infusion of dollars reduced a troubling backlog of logged or burned forestlands that had failed to rebound with healthy numbers of new trees, lands that in tree-planting parlance are known as NSR, short for “not satisfactorily restocked.” But since the expiry of the FRDA, no new cost-shared agreements emerged. Worse, in the eyes of Scagel and others, the province curtailed its spending. And it is the province that has ultimate authority on public forestlands where the beetles have done their damage. According to provincial Ministry of Forests and Range reports, in the five years ending in 2004, the area of B.C. forest attacked by the beetles increased by a factor of 25. However, provincial reforestation funding headed rapidly the other way, from $45 million in 2000 to just $3 million in 2004.

In 2005, however, the B.C. government realized it had to respond to the beetle and the devastating wildfires that had burned through thousands of hectares of forest near Kelowna, Barriere and other Interior communities, and the Forests For Tomorrow (FFT) program was born. John McClarnon, forest establishment officer with the forest ministry’s harvesting and silvicultural practices section, says that under the program some eight million seedlings will be planted this year, 13 million the next, 18 million in 2010 and 21 million in 2011 for a grand total of 60 million “additional” trees as outlined in this year’s speech from the throne. If successful, the program will mark a dramatic increase over the low-water public reforestation spending of $3 million in 2004, costing taxpayers about $50 million annually for replanting, as well as related forest surveying activities and program administration costs.

The province also committed to clear up a backlog of NSR lands and to ensure that no new NSR lands developed. But as was the case with so much of the green-themed speech, there were a paucity of details, no dollar figures and long timelines. A promise to “pursue a goal of zero net deforestation,” for example, committed the government to enact a law giving “the goal” legal effect by 2010 and to have a “viable strategy for realizing that vision” in place by 2015 – more than two provincial elections from now. In the meantime, Scagel says, the government doesn’t appear to have basic information at its fingertips, such as how big the current NSR problem is. “We know there’s a lot of land out there that has not been reforested. But we don’t know how much. Why?”

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the ongoing beetle attack is that very young trees – trees only 15 to 20 years old – are dying with the old. This is probably as good a reason as any for advocating for increased public investments in reforestation, Scagel says. When these young forests were planted, they were planted with forest company dollars. The companies that planted them met their legal obligations to successfully reforest the lands only to have the beetles come along and kill the young trees. Now the dead trees stand on public lands where they are an unfunded liability. If the provincial government doesn’t pick up the tab to replant them again, who will?

As average temperatures climb and areas of the province become hotter and drier or hotter and wetter, forest ecosystems may become more susceptible to disease and pest outbreaks. Certain trees may become more stressed than others, making them vulnerable to localized extinction. Others now found in southern regions may become more ideally suited to life further north. Still others that currently favour life in valley bottoms may come to like it higher up previously cooler mountainsides.

This poses unique challenges for the forester who at the best of times must make a leap of faith. What tree do I plant today for harvesting decades down the road? Now imagine the leap in light of a warming world. What tree do I plant today that may be somewhat suited to the current climate but ideally suited to the climate I think awaits us 80 years from now? Making the right choices now will have huge economic implications. Because if the right trees are selected for planting in the right places, tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars may be saved in unnecessary repeat plantings.

The atrium of UBC’s Forest Sciences building is a reminder that in the forest industry nothing is permanent. Filled with afternoon sunlight streaming through skylights that run in a graceful curve above the fourth-storey offices, the beautiful space is a study in wood. Golden veneers provide a smooth finish to wall panels and doors, while beams of striped Parallam, a strong-as-steel product made of long strands of wood and resins adhered together, rise from floor to ceiling.

A sign just inside the building’s glass doors tells visitors they have arrived at the MacMillan Bloedel Atrium, named after the venerable B.C. forest company that pioneered Parallam. The company ceased to exist in the 1990s when it was swallowed up by Weyerhaeuser, which later broke up the old MacMillan holdings into units now held by Western Forest Products and Island Timberlands. Nearby, another sign points to the Fletcher Challenge Canada lecture theatre, named after the New Zealand-based company that bought B.C. Forest Products in the 1980s. A decade later, Fletcher Challenge was no more.

While companies come and go, trees live on – although as conditions change, where they grow and how well they grow may require a helping hand. In her third-floor office above the atrium, UBC forest geneticist Sally Aitken sits in an office crammed with books and files, her casual attire a variation on a theme (shirt, sweater and pants running the gamut from dusty sage to olive to forest green). In the journal Evolutionary Applications, Aitken and a team of fellow scientists recently noted how three possible fates await tree species in a warming world. They either migrate to new ground with shifts in ecosystems, they adapt to changing conditions or they die.

Migration or adaptation likely won’t be a smooth ride. Lodgepole pine, B.C.’s most common tree, is, as we speak, facing a double assault: by the pine beetles but also by deadly fungi such as Dothistroma (which appears confined to the wetter regions where pines grow). Fungi and insects also have an inherent advantage over the trees. Their short lives mean they are able to adapt to new climate conditions more rapidly than trees, as Aitken and others have reported. Despite this, there is hope. One in five older pine trees will survive the present onslaught, and much can be learned from those survivors.

Indeed, spread out across B.C. are at least 60 test sites where “provenance trials” for lodgepole pine and other tree species are conducted. The trials have allowed geneticists such as Aitken to begin to understand what populations or provenances of pine may fare better in a climatically chaotic world. Seeds are selected for the trials from a variety of points across the province, allowing for comparisons between distinct populations. As a result of those trials, among the most comprehensive of their kind in the world, it appears that lodgepole pine seeds drawn from two large planning zones known as the Prince George Low and the Nelson Low produce trees that grow well across a broad range, suggesting that they may be more resilient in the face of a changing climate. “For whatever reasons,” Aitken says, “evolution has produced these trees that have a wide range of tolerances.”

Other scientists such as Alvin Yanchuk, manager of the Ministry of Forests and Range genetics section, are simultaneously pursuing other lines of inquiry. Yanchuk’s eyes lit up recently when he realized that the beetles had attacked some postage-stamp-sized (relatively speaking) tree plantations where progeny trials were underway. Because Yanchuk and others knew a lot about the genetic origins of the trees in those patches, they could say with certainty which trees grown from which seeds were either dead or alive following the attack.

At the computer in his downtown Victoria office, Yanchuk displays a picture of one such patch. A square of mostly red and dead pine trees stands isolated in a sea of healthy spruce and cedar trees. On the pine island, however, not every tree is red and dead. Healthy spires of green indicate that some trees survived the beetle’s onslaught. The spires suggest that the beetles “preferentially or differentially attack certain families of pine,” Yanchuk says. “But why is unknown. There’s something going on where [the beetles] don’t want to mess with certain genotypes.” The big challenge is to confirm why the beetles appear to favour certain trees over others and then apply those lessons when growing new generations of trees. Yanchuk cautions, however, that a rapid escalation in the planting of “resistant” trees would be unwise. “You don’t,” he emphasizes, “want to get into an arms race” with the beetles. They will adapt to change far faster than the trees can. Rather, the goal should be to boost the “average resistance” of forests by interspersing trees of pest-resistant genetic stock among the others. “That,” Yanchuk says, “might be enough to control future hyper beetle outbreaks.”

What these and other research findings imply is that creative human intervention is needed – intervention that may require altering current provincial regulations that restrict seed movement. Such regulations have long been in place to protect the genetic diversity of seeds and to ensure that the seeds used in reforestation efforts are adapted or suited to the sites they will be planted in. Global warming, however, has raised serious questions about how adaptable certain plants or populations of plants may be in the face of climate change. Therefore, there’s a need to rethink earlier policies.

As UBC’s Aitken says, “What nature can’t do is move populations large distances over a short time.” And in a period of accelerating climate change, we may need to move things further and faster if future forests are to survive, let alone thrive.

None of this will happen on a dime. Seed orchards already producing seed deemed to be more resilient will need to grow much more of it, a process that may take a decade or more. In the meantime, companies that have already invested millions of dollars in existing seed inventories will continue to use that seed. Will what is planted today and tomorrow be enough to counteract what the beetles took away? Will it be sufficient to sustain a healthy reforestation industry?

Dipping below 200 million seedlings planted each year breaks more than a symbolic barrier, Scagel says. “If we can’t provide a minimum of eight weeks of work each season, tree planters won’t come. We’ll start to lose nurseries.” With struggling forest companies unlikely to do more than meet the barest reforestation obligations, Scagel says, government must pick up the slack.

Through the FFT program, government-funded planting is ramping up, McClarnon notes. But only the most productive tree-growing sites are being planted with those dollars and only after a financial analysis confirms that the work will deliver enough profitable healthy new trees to offset the reforestation costs. “The net volume gain must equate to at least a two per cent return,” he says. Nevertheless, some unique planting opportunities exist. Mind-bogglingly large as the beetle attack is, it is misleading to suggest that the 13.5 million hectares of forest so far affected are actually “dead.” In many cases, the dead pine are interspersed with other older living trees. In others, younger and smaller trees beneath the dead pine are alive and growing well. Some of these forests may be ideal to “in-fill plant,” McClarnon says, meaning sending crews in to plant additional trees amidst the dead ones.

The entire FFT budget, which includes surveying large areas of forest in future years, is estimated to cost provincial taxpayers $44 million next year, $50 million the year after and $54 million the year after that. Beyond that, McClarnon says the long-term goal is to plant somewhere between 17.5 million and 20 million seedlings per year under provincially funded programs.

Welcome as the additional trees are, Scagel believes the public is not getting good value for the money. For the equivalent of what is currently budgeted, Scagel says, up to 75 million additional seedlings could be planted annually, as opposed to the 20 million FFT is shooting for. Too much money, he says, is tied up in red tape, including the administration and audit fees of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the company the government has hired to oversee the program.

In the meantime, nursery operators are feeling the pinch. At Arbutus Grove, Stofelsma says tree orders are down 14 per cent from last year, with next year expected to be “significantly worse.” Logging companies that once marketed their green credentials with the words Forests Forever have put the brakes on reforestation, and after years of cutbacks it’s clear that the province is far from picking up the slack.

Outside the toasty interior of his greenhouse, Stofelsma steps into a steady cold breeze.