Friday, October 21, 2011

Pine beetles a lesson in messing with nature

It’s 2001 all over again in forestry news these days now that those nasty little mountain pine beetles have worked their way into Alberta.
The story in the Edmonton Journal this week about the beetle infestation could have been lifted from any B.C. newspaper a decade ago, when the insidious insects first began upping their game in our own lodgepole-pine forests.
More than 17 million hectares of B.C. pine forest have been affected since then. The province has spent more than $750 million so far trying to mitigate the damage.
Here in the land of Douglas fir and cedar, the pine beetle invasion tends to feel like old news. But forestry-dependent communities elsewhere in B.C. are all too aware of the ongoing impact the ravenous bug is having.
The province gave another $9 million this past spring to the three community coalitions set up to identify and fund mitigation strategies in the hardest-hit areas: Cariboo-Chilcotin; Omineca; and Southern Interior.
The beetle explosion created a boom in B.C. forestry for a few years, when the government cleared the way for more intensive logging to make use of all the dying pine trees.
Government didn’t have much choice about that, as beetle-killed trees would have rotted on the ground if they hadn’t been harvested. Might as well make some money and create some jobs from all that lost forest.
But the short-term bump in harvesting has left a long-term problem: Much smaller - even non-existent - harvests for many years to come in forestry-dependent communities. They’re left waiting for a new generation of pine forest to grow large enough to log, which will take 40 years or more.
 “Stakes in beetle invasion are enormous,” said this week’s Journal headline. Indeed. Having recently travelled through the beautiful pine forests of the Rockies, I can’t imagine the landscape without them.
Then again, I drove the Princeton highway this summer and noticed that the devastation of a few years ago is barely visible through the new growth.
That’s a marked change over the way things looked in a previous road trip, when red, dead pine trees were all you could see. The heartening thing about nature is how forgiving it can be of our transgressions.
And the invasion is definitely about our transgressions. Pine beetles have been infesting pine trees for centuries, but climate change and past forestry practices created ideal conditions for the bugs.
We planted monocultures - great swaths of nothing but pine, which is not how Nature would have it. We fought forest fires with vigour to protect forestry revenues, only to discover that by suppressing fires we had weakened forest health and created dense stands that made it easy for pine beetles to migrate from tree to tree.
Warmer winters have contributed to the problem. A good, long cold snap is the only real defence against the beetles. But we haven’t seen too many of those in recent years.
The beetles kill a tree by burrowing into its soft tissue and cutting off the water supply to its upper branches. The bugs also spread a blue fungus (remember “denim pine,” a branding exercise aimed at putting a positive spin on the faded-blue colour of beetle-killed wood?) that also speeds the tree’s death.
You’d think in this age of a chemical for everything, there would be a remedy for death by beetle.
But aside from the removal of infected trees and some hasty thinning, nobody has come up with a real solution. In the U.S., the pine beetle has already destroyed 16 million hectares of forest in Idaho national parks. The forest service is busy in Montana parks right now thinning stands in hopes of staving off more devastation.
The lesson learned from all this? Mother Nature knows best. There’s a reason for bio-diversity, and for leaving forest fires to burn. Woe to any culture that tries to trump nature.
Oops. I confused my watts in a column last week on China’s Three Gorges dam. As an astute reader pointed out, it would take five million projects the size of Three Gorges to generate the 100 billion megawatts of hydro power I said the dam was capable of.
Make that 100 billion kilowatt hours. Still a heck of a lot, but nowhere near the staggering amount I erroneously suggested. When the project’s 32 turbines are all up and running (29 are currently in operation), they will in fact generate about 22,400 megawatts.

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