McBride Forest Industries is tackling the tough job of harvesting beetle-affected timber in one of the more scenic areas of British Columbia.
By Jim Stirling
Mikel Jackman pauses in the dappled sunlight beneath a lodgepole pine high above Horsey Creek in the British Columbia interior. “When I was here two weeks ago,” he’s saying, “there was no sign of infestation in this tree. Now look.”
The stem was riddled to well above head height with the tell-tale signs of mountain pine beetle infestation. Jackman’s audience was a group of natural resources studies students on a field trip from the University of Northern British Columbia’s Prince George campus. The students were gaining an appreciation for front-line forestry. The stricken pine was graphic evidence of the beetles’ rapid rate of spread.
It’s a point Jackman has been making in communities up and down the Robson Valley trench, one of the more scenic and observed corridors in BC. The forest stewardship and management strategies used to stall the beetles’ progress will become a template for future forest harvesting practices in the sensitive region. The two-year harvesting program will be monitored daily by Jackman’s crews and watched as closely by skeptical preservationists concerned about the valley’s non-timber values and rural life style.
Jackman is planner for McBride Forest Industries Ltd (MFI). The stud mill, veneer and value added log building producer is the economic foundation of McBride, an attractive village in the upper Fraser River valley abutting Mount Robson Provincial Park.
MFI acquired the beetle management in the steep Horsey Creek/Small River drainages from the Ministry of Forests in April 2001. The company is in position to learn from its past experiences and from regions to the west. Delays and uncooperative weather patterns in that area have created a wildly out-of-control mountain pine beetle epidemic that has become Canada’s most critical forest health issue.
MFI and Jackman have been diligently pro-active and have gone out of their way to explain upfront what they’re planning to do and why they’re planning to do it. As a result, residents’ concerns have been accommodated in the development plans for the area. “We’ve been trying to find the balance, managing for people not trees,” says Jackman. “This is a chance to prove it can be done properly.”
MFI’s wood basket includes two forest licences of 177,000 cubic metres and 35,000 cubic metres annually, respectively. Most of the timber is in 200-year-old spruce/balsam forests ranging from exceptional quality to very poor. The lodgepole pine areas are mainly to the east of McBride at elevations of 800 to 1,350 metres and highly visible from Highway 16.
Visual quality constraint guidelines were established in a local resource user plan and the area was subsequently identified as a special management zone in an LRMP.
The beetle is in the upper levels of the endemic level, estimates Jackman, and threatening to become epidemic. As he pointed out to the UNBC students, a two to five per cent infestation occurrence can very quickly become five to 10 per cent. “If we try to do too little, we run the risk of the beetle getting out of control. We want to minimize that risk,” he explains.
Water quality, public safety and the visual quality objectives were the main concerns. The areas include private property and five creeks used for domestic water supply. Geotechnical assessments indicated low hazard levels with careful harvesting.
Jackman started calling on landowners to explain MFI’s objectives and listen to concerns. He got plenty. Nothing was abstract. He walked the hillsides with local people, showing them the problem. He explained harvesting plans around kitchen tables. Community meetings followed and explanatory flyers were delivered house to house prior to advertising the harvesting plans. Jackman was in the local media more than he wanted. Even when people didn’t agree, many respected the fact MFI had talked to them first, he notes. “It’s a very active community and there was a lot of emotion,” recalls Jackman. The area is the backyard of the Fraser Headwaters Alliance, a small but organized and dedicated group that has helped put more land in the Robson Valley Forest District into parks and protected areas than in the working forest (about 21 per cent to 18 per cent).
With the meetings and explanations prior to advertising the harvesting plans, MFI and forestry hoped for an accelerated review process allowed under an expedited major salvage operation. But that didn’t sit well with some people. MFI acquiesced, extending the review period from 10 to 30 days.
Public comments and concerns molded the amended plan. “Our first thought was a 100-year-old pine forest doesn’t fit partial cutting strategies well, within the LRMP’s visual constraints. We proposed taking 70 per cent of the stand and allowing natural pine and fir regeneration from native seed stock in the soil,” continues Jackman. There were concerns about that strategy; blowdown in a visually attractive area was one of them.
“We told the public we’d cut back to an average of 50 per cent of the volume over the next two years.” The 50 per cent was bottom line for MFI. “It has to be economically feasible for us. And we have to take some larger areas.” The harvested areas will be underplanted in spruce and fir and while they will take longer to come back, it will create a mixed species forest.
The amended plan also included accommodating individual landowners, reducing right of way widths to 10 to 12 metres and outsloping roads. About 24 kilometres of new roads will be required.
The 58,000 cubic metres of pine scheduled for harvest are summer logging shows, handy for MFI where 85 per cent of volume is winter logged. The largest block is 178 hectares, the smallest 3.5 hectares. Select cable and skidding shows are monitored daily. Extensive pheremone baiting has succeeded in drawing some beetles from gullies and inclines into the block boundaries. Throughout its reconnaissance, MFI has tried to predict where the beetles are most likely to go as the infestation develops. Jackman predicts local residents will benefit from remaining pockets of beetle wood under the ministry’s small-scale salvage program.
MFI is re-inventing itself during a period of unprecedented uncertainty in BC’s forest industry. The McBride operation used to be owned by Zeidler Forest Industries, along with a plywood plant in Edmonton and a mill at Slave Lake, Alberta. Zeidler was acquired by West Fraser Mills but the McBride operation didn’t figure in the new owners’ plans. It went on the block. Several half deals fell through until the operation was acquired by Eugene Runtz and partners. Owner of forest consultant company E P Runtz & Associates, Runtz is a long time McBride resident with an extensive history working with Zeidler.
“Our loggers were only working three months a year. It was get involved or get out of McBride,” recalls Runtz. “It’s still a struggle, fighting for our jobs and those of our contractors.” Not to mention the heavy reliance on the company from businesses in McBride. “And we’ve had terrific co-operation from the Ministry of Forests here,” adds Runtz.
The new-look company is
making great strides. Its veneer is sold on the open market and is
expanding into higher return markets like hardwood underlays. MFI’s
studs are marketed under the Weyerhaeuser wrap. “They’re an
outstanding company to work with and are making a huge difference to
us,” says Runtz. The diversifying venture into value added came through
an in-house initiative. Mill worker Robert Johnson came up with the
concept of a new head for the chip ‘n saw to produce squared and grooved
logs in four-foot lengths for house building. They can be easily fitted to
any sized structure like Lego. Beetle wood works well with the product.
Interest in the log building components has ranged from the Robson Valley
to Japan. Says Runtz: “We have to be aggressive with what we do and we
think we’re doing the right things.”
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