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Beetle Battle

Fraser Lake Sawmills is having to rework its harvesting plans and the diet for its sawmill due to a beetle epidemic

By Jim Stirling


Emergencies are painful and require rapid response. Combating the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the British Columbia Interior is proving to be a protracted redalert exercise and the pain isn't going away. The effort to protect the health of the forest is having a huge impact on planning and logistics for licensees, their timber harvesting contractors and the Ministry of Forests. Manpower is being strained and costs are escalating in a fast tracked beetle war destined to accelerate before it slows. No one knows the precise scope of the beetle epidemic. Everyone involved recognizes it represents a major crisis, however. At least 300,000 hectares of working forest are affected. Some experts fear it could be double that, a position reinforced by yet another relatively mild winter that is unlikely to have significantly slowed beetle development. The infestation is heaviest in the Cariboo and west central interior but warning flags are evident in many other areas. The exponential growth in the infestation rate was phenomenal in the last two years and companies throughout the region are struggling to come to terms with it. "It's now the largest we've ever seen," says Dean MacDonald, forestry supervisor with Fraser Lake Sawmills. "In our Vanderhoof and Lakes District operating areas, 100 per cent of our 19992000 winter volume is beetle wood." Fraser Lake Sawmills, a division of West Fraser Mills, is located at Lejac near Fraser Lake, about 150 kilometres west of Prince George. Fraser Lake Sawmills has three forest licences. The largest is in the Lakes Forest District (367,000 cubic metres) where the beetle problem is worst; in the Vanderhoof district (260,000 cubic metres) where the infestation rate is increasing; and in the Morice Timber Supply Area (64,000 cubic metres) which is still relatively clean. The company has been tracking the beetle's march in the Lakes district since 1992 and in the Vanderhoof operating area for six years.

The Lakes infestation spread east and northeast from where the company's working forest borders Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Satellite imaging and flyovers confirmed the worst fears of an explosion in dead and green pine under stress between 1998 and 1999. It required an abrupt change in direction. The company was up to two years ahead with approved cutting permits-the beetles pushed that back to zero. The priority became detection and layout planning in beetle wood. The planning process began last July with fixed wing overview flights, recalls MacDonald. Detailed rotary wing followups were aided by GPS locating techniques before ground probing began identifying the levels of green attack. The layout program was based on the accumulated data. Attention areas less than a hectare in size are exempt from a Silvicultural Prescription (SP). Every site greater than a hectare requires an SP and amendment to the Forest Management Plan. The Ministry of Forests is also obliged to follow consultative channels with stakeholders like First Nations. The intent with the beetle emergency is to compress the cutting permit approval time from about a year to two months. The advertising period seeking public response to management plan amendments was cut from 60 days to 10. Fraser Lake Sawmills' planners and the people implementing the plans offer kudos to the forest service personnel in all their operating areas for cooperating fully with the licensees. The Forest Practices Code is not being circumvented, the planners emphasize.

There's no devious plot afoot for massive clearcutting or using beetles as an excuse to increase the cut. "We all have to live with the regulations," says Tom Olafson, forestry operations supervisor for the company's Lakes Forest District operations. "When the code does provide flexibility, the forest service will exercise it, but in a lot of situations that can't happen." Beetle layouts are not immune from considerations like archaeological, riparian and terrain stability assessments. MacDonald says the biggest problem with harvesting beetle-attacked wood is the logistics, sequencing where operations start and finish and allocating manpower. Moving, loading and unloading equipment increases sharply along with costs of road maintenance and snow plowing. Production takes a nosedive with small-scale snip and skid operations. More contractors and new subcontractors in the bush increases supervision costs per cubic metre, continues MacDonald.

Beetles attack vulnerable stands in steep and contentious areas requiring different harvesting systems like hand falling, line skidding and at least three cable logging shows. Bill Verigin, forest operations supervisor, fleshes out the logging impacts. The company uses six prime contractors to harvest 90 per cent of its volume. The contractor familiar with the Morice Timber Supply Area has joined three others in the Lakes district to handle the increased volumes. Average production has dropped from zero up to 40 per cent. The company's camp normally houses 60 to 80 employees and was home to 150 this season. Others used their own trailers. Verigin says equipment and truck shortages have compounded problems, especially late in the logging season when everyone's hustling to bring in the wood before breakup.

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Three contractors who normally use five feller bunchers put 15 of the machines to work. Processor numbers have also increased to handle the volume, as have grapple skidders and tracked machines on the steeper ground. The barge crossing Ootsa Lake was enlarged to haul 15 vehicles from six and an extra scale site was added. MacDonald recaps some of the beetle wood implications on the sawmill. "There's an inability for us to control the right piece size," he says. The two-line mill with 28 inch and 20inch primary breakdown sides needs a mix of wood to keep both running. Beetle wood lacks size diversity, though. It also has inventory cost implications. Blue sap stain is a telltale sign of pine beetle infestation and it's not tolerated in the Japanese housing market. The mill was exporting between 11 and 20 per cent of production to Japan before the beetle populations mushroomed. Now the volumes have shrunk to about seven per cent. They'd like to increase, rather than have to reduce, shipments to Japan in light of US quota restrictions, says MacDonald. Those are problems enough but Fraser Lake Sawmills has other factors affecting cut control and the ability to get wood to the mill. Key are the lake transportation system for wood from East Ootsa South and a herd of caribou. Approximately two thirds of the Lakes district wood is transported on the Ootsa Lake reservoir. Logs are boomed at three dumpsites and are towed to the Knewstubb load out. The maximum journey is 74 kilometres and booms up to 350 loads take 36 hours. It's a 72 kilometre off highway haul to the sawmill.

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Companies in the BC Interior report the current beetle infestation is the biggest they've ever seen. In the Vanderhoof and Lakes District operating areas of Fraser Lake Sawmills, 100 per cent of their 1999-2000 winter volume is beetle wood. Fraser Lake Sawmills' Dean MacDonald (centre), with colleagues Bill Verigin and Tom Olafson, says the beetle wood has an impact on the sawmill in that the wood lacks the diversity of size the mill requires

The company can't use the lake until May/June and it freezes over again in December. The operating season is further narrowed and the mill's fibre requirements compromised during the pine beetle flight period. For about six weeks in July and August, the company can't haul beetle wood. The risk of beetles spilling off trucks spreads the infestation. And there's still another consideration. The Entiako caribou herd numbers about 500 animals that winter in protected areas near East Ootsa Lake South, where there's less snowfall and terrestrial lichen for food. In spring, the caribou migrate across the lake and up into Tweedsmuir Park where they calve. The animals stay in the park until fall and snow chases them from the high country to their wintering grounds. The company has to shut down operations as the animals migrate back. It also works closely with the ministries of environment and forests to keep harvesting compatible with caribou habitat requirements. Jack Peters is an area supervisor within the company's Vanderhoof licence and knows well the scheduling problems involved with harvesting beetle wood. "There's lots of moving stuff around and high development costs for volumes extracted. The planners do a good job but it's different trying to implement them on the ground," he observes. He tries to coordinate the logging, loading and trucking phases with the small volumes as best as he can. "You juggle a lot of balls at once. It's sure not boring." One area was horse logged to protect culturally modified trees (CMT) along an aboriginal trail.

 

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With beetle wood harvesting in high gear, there is a sharp increase in the amount of equipment moving, loading and unloading, along with increases in the cost of road maintenance and snow plowing. Production takes a nosedive with small scale snip and skid operations.

CMTs must be recorded and those older than 1846 are protected, infested or not. In late February, Peters was planning construction of 1.5 kilometres of road, estimated to cost about $4,000 /km to access two infested patches totaling about six hectares. The wood will be removed along the green road this summer. MacDonald concedes small snip and skid operations are really only buying them some time. "They are stands highly susceptible to attack and harvesting will slow it and give us time to plan a block into there through the normal process." Analyzing data of the beetle spread in the last couple of years, and where and how they've filled in, provides some indication of what to expect in the future. "We've planned roads into the extreme high risk areas, the ones most likely to be attacked," MacDonald says. But there's really only one guarantee these days: the company will remain in emergency mode operation.


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