After the beetle: the clock is ticking

Logging & Sawmilling Journal columnist Jim Stirling describes the WSCA’s position on the need for a comprehensive forest health strategy for BC’s forests.

Politicians have been vocal about what should be done on the landscape in the devastating aftermath of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the British Columbia interior.

We need to utilize as much of the dead fibre as possible. When it doesn’t pass the grade for commodity lumber production then it must be readily available for other uses like bioenergy production. We need to plant more trees to mitigate timer supply falldown. We need to tend the young stands to promote health within them and yield from them.

They’re all sound motherhood objectives. Trouble is, most of them aren’t happening. Pockets of promise in realizing bioenergy’s industrial scale potential exist but they’re compromised by cost, access and political issues. And re-planting is restricted largely to the licencees’ contractural obligations.No coherent strategy or overall vision is being applied to begin the formidable challenges of restoring a healthy forest landscape in the interior.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Estimates vary for the timing and extent of the timber supply reduction caused by the mountain pine beetle. The Ministry of Forests and Range in a 2007 analysis predicted a mid-term timber supply drop (which is described as up to 60 years) of 33 to 45 per cent in the interior and northern regions of the province.

These effects will be showing up in less than five years. The Canadian Forest Service takes a more conservative view estimating a regional 22 per cent decrease in timber supply. Whatever it turns out to be, the supply falldown threat is real and imminent. And that’s all the more reason to implement real changes to match real circumstances.

The province’s silvicultural community has an obvious vested interest in what happens on the forest landscape. But it also possesses inside knowledge about what strategy or range of strategies have the best chance of restorative success.And, as it turns out, the group has some interesting ideas.

Many in the sector are concerned about what they see happening in the forest, or more accurately, what they’re not seeing. They’re not seeing more trees being planted. The Western Silvicultural Contractors Association uses sowing request figures as a bellwether yardstick for future seedling planting levels.They indicate about 160 million seedlings will be planted in the province in 2010. The forecast is for about 100 million seedlings in 2011. The yearly average used to be 250 million. “The trajectory is pretty obvious,” observes John Betts, the association’s executive director.

He says stand sampling indicates 60 to 70 of beetle stands have some regeneration within them. But, notes Betts, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are or will satisfactorily regenerate. However, it’s convenient ( not to mention cheaper) to lable natural regeneration as a suitable response to the mountain pine beetle.

And natural re-gen doesn’t address issues about how best to restore stands so they are less vulnerable than the ones they’re replacing. As B.C. has painfully learned, a one-aged stand is prime target for more cataclysmic-scale insect infestations and attacks by other pathogens and wildfire. All those factors are compounded by a warming climate. “The truth is, there’s room for restoration work and that includes reforestation,” says Betts.

And this, he suggests, is where the two senior levels of government could and should take a leadership role. Job one, says Betts, is to have the federal government declare the beetle-ravaged B.C. interior an ecological disaster. It qualifies, even on a planetary scale. The declaration itself is easy to accomplish (as long as the Tories haven’t prorogued Parliament) yet opens up the potential of extraordinary funding sources. The feds could then come in and develop a comprehensive strategy, continues Betts, and work with the province to formulate plans to implement it. Working under an emergency banner should ease some government inertia and mitigate jurisdictional impacts from each government level over-protecting its respective turf.

Betts thinks such a co-ordinated and cohesive approach as well as making sense at home could also enhance Canada’s image abroad. A sincere and focused attempt to address the implications of a natural disaster with green and carbon-sensitive solutions might help rebuild some of the battering the country’s reputation received at the Copenhagen climate summit.

Declaring the beetle zone and ecological disaster may help encourage the provincial government to act on reforms to the tenure and stumpage appraisal systems in B.C. It’s tough to accomplish that by tweaking what’s in place.

The present industrial use of the forest is dominated by and geared to the production of sawlogs.That should remain the focus, along with providing fibre for the pulp and paper sector. But the working forest has much more to offer. Advancing knowledge, technologies and research are expanding the possibilities for productively using wood mass. This is fibre industry and government have been blithely wasting and allowing to be wasting for decades. It’s also fibre that belongs to the public and it behooves the province to get the maximum returns from harvested timber.A re-invigorated tenure and stumpage system in B.C. can encourage production of a more complete menu of wood products from available fibre.And that would be a positive legacy from the pine beetle epidemic.

By Jim Sterling, Logging & Sawmilling Journal

March/April 2010