Monday, October 15, 2007

Pine-beetle devastation marks end of B.C.'s pine forests
Oct. 12, 2007

My first glimpse of what has now become a catastrophic natural disaster for B.C. was in 2003, when I was travelling around the province writing stories from the so-called heartland.
At that point, the mountain pine beetle was already into its fourth voracious year of attacking B.C.’s pine forests. In my stopovers in Quesnel and Prince George, the briefest glance from the car window was all it took to see the damage. In the worst-hit spots, dead trees covered the landscape.
The people in affected areas were still trying to be cheery and entrepreneurial about the pine beetle disaster in those days. The greyish-blue wood colour that is a hallmark of a beetle-infested pine was being reworked as a niche product - “denim pine.”
I returned to the coast and didn’t think too much about pine beetles after that. Lodge pole pine is a rarity in coastal forests, so it’s easy to forget the whole tragic thing if you don’t get out of town much.
But a visit to my old haunts in Kamloops last week brought me face to face with the terrible reality of B.C.’s pine beetle infestation another four years on.
Most of the beautiful pine forests that dot the dry hills around Kamloops are dead now, or will be soon. I saw the red patches across the river valley first, and initially wondered if I was looking at deciduous trees turning colour. I drove past a familiar hill on the Yellowhead Highway and wondered if fire was responsible for the greying trees. Then I remembered.
By the time the beetle infestation peters out in eight or so years, 80 per cent of the pine trees on B.C.’s forestry lands will be dead. Half will be dead by next year.
In parks and on private lands, the damage will be equally catastrophic. The more established the forest, the greater the impact; pine beetles prefer older trees.
Like most catastrophes, there’s a tangle of reasons for why B.C. is in the grip of the biggest beetle infestation in North American history.
To start with, there are just more mature lodge pole pines in B.C. than there used to be. In 1910, the province had 2.5 million hectares of pine that was at least 60 years old. That figure had more than tripled by 1990.
A long-standing provincial policy to put out wildfires rather than leave them to burn is also a factor. Instead of burning up on a regular basis like they once did, B.C.’s pine forests now live long enough to grow old, which is just how the pine beetle likes them. Logged land that had been replanted with a single species added to the problem, as it concentrated stands of lodge pole pine.
Then came global warming. The only weather that will kill off a pine beetle is several straight days of cold temperatures below -35 C. Since 1999, when the current infestation started taking hold, the Interior hasn’t seen a winter like that.
The environmental impact of the infestation goes well beyond the aesthetic of 9.2 million hectares of dead lodge pole pines. A healthy forest soaks up significant amounts of runoff in the spring. It also creates a lot of shade, which slows the rate of snow melt.
So dead trees mean way more water making its way into B.C.’s creeks and rivers every spring. Topsoil on the forest floor gets stripped away in the rapid flow of runoff, and rivers jump their banks. Fragile ecosystems, roadways, farmland, fisheries - all will be put at risk by the time the infestation runs its course, in ways that no one can fully predict.
In terms of making money from those dead trees before they’re too rotten to sell, the province is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The annual allowable cut in half of the 20 hardest hit Timber Supply Areas has more than tripled in recent years as the government and forest industry scramble to salvage what value they can from the disaster. Take away too many trees too fast, however, and the subsequent flooding makes it much tougher to replant.
But the biggest impact of the beetle infestation will be felt in another 10 to 15 years. That’s when more than 30 logged-out Interior communities will hit the wall in terms of having any wood left to harvest.
At the moment, those communities are seeing some economic benefits from the infestation. With all those dead trees out there and a real sense of urgency at the provincial level around salvaging the wood as quickly as possible, there’s no shortage of logging work right now.
But when the trees are gone, they’re gone. New pine forests won’t be ready for harvest for another 60 to 80 years. And while forestry-dependent communities have been grappling with hard times for years now, the economic devastation caused by the pine beetle could easily be the worst blow yet.
What can be done about any of this? Short of saying a prayer for our vanishing pine forests and bracing for the disaster still to come, barely a thing. This is devastating history in the making, and we can only hope to sift some new understanding from the wreckage.

1 comment:

Ian Lidster said...

I hope you don't mind me commenting on your blog, and including you in my blog list.
Anyway, last year my wife's work took her to the heart of pine beetle country and she was staggered by the sight and pointed out that most of us, here on the coast, have absolutely no idea of the devastation that has been wreaked. Good piece.