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After the beetle: the clock is ticking

By Jim Stirling

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 timber supply falldown. We need to tend the young stands to promote their health and yield.

These are 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' contractual 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 (for an analysis of the possible impact of the beetle on B.C. sawmilling, see story on page 26).

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 B.C. 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.

Betts says stand sampling indicates 60 to 70 per cent of beetle stands have some regeneration within them. But, he notes, that doesn't necessarily mean they are or will satisfactorily regenerate. However, it's convenient (not to mention cheaper) to label 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 a 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.

As well as making sense at home, Betts thinks such a co-ordinated and cohesive approach 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 an 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.

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March/April 2010

On the Cover:

Things are getting more active in millyards across the country, as lumber prices reach levels not seen in years. But harvesting the wood to get it to the sawmills--especially if it is beetle-affected timber in British Columbia--can be a challenge in itself. But it's a challenge that Westpine Contractors takes on with great skill, and the right iron. See story beginning on page 12. (Cover photo of Caterpillar 980F wheel loader in Tolko Industries' Heffley Creek sawmill by Paul MacDonald).

Spotlight

Wood pellet production in Ontario
is expected to boom with the province announcing the elimination of coal-fired power plants and a move to using wood pellets as a fuel source.

Part of the chip supply chain

Chipping the timber hit by the mountain pine beetle brings challenges, but Rivercity Fibre has figured it out and is now an important part of the chip supply chain for the Domtar pulp mill in Kamloops, B.C.

Working efficiently in bug wood

Using a variety of equipment, contractor Kelly King of Westpine Contractors has become very adept at harvesting and building road in the typically small diameter, super-dry beetle-killed wood that is only too common in the B.C. Interior these days.

Improving workflows with GIS web technology

Ontario's Algonquin Forestry Authority has a well-established GIS system, but adding ESRI's ArcGIS Server web technology is allowing it to improve workflows.

Canada's Top Lumber Producers--
Better times ahead?

Lumber companies went through some extremely tough times in 2009, but rising lumber prices this year could signal better times ahead.

Tech Update -- Forwarders

Read all about the newest forwarder features and technology in this month's Tech Update.

The Last Word

The clock is ticking on what should be done in the devastating aftermath of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the British Columbia Interior.

 
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