Canada's looming forestry crisis

August 18, 2005

People rarely get excited about bugs, except in summertime when mosquitoes swarm and thoughts turn to West Nile Virus.

But there is plenty to get excited about when considering a certain beetle now overrunning British Columbia’s forests, a bug that is on a frightening flight path toward Canada’s cross-country, northern boreal forest.

The economic and ecological implications of the mountain pine beetle’s foray into the boreal would be staggering. Hundreds of millions of trees killed. Valley after valley carpeted in spires of dead and deteriorating pine. And one of Canada’s most important industries -- one with exports of $40 billion in 2003-2004 -- facing a looming shortage of trees.

Two years ago, Canadian Forest Service scientists noticed telltale signs that the beetles had leapt the formidable northern Rocky Mountains to land near Chetwynd, BC. There, the needles of thousands of pines were now a rusty red, meaning the beetles had bored into and killed the trees a year earlier. It was the clearest signal yet that the beetles were on the doorstep of the boreal, with only a few hundred kilometres more to go before being firmly ensconced there.

As a beetle infestation of biblical proportions continues rolling through BC threatening the economic livelihood of dozens of communities, it is worth asking whether everything is being done to prevent a similar calamity further to the east.

In the politics-as-soap-opera environment that is Ottawa, it is no real surprise that a federal government decision in March to give BC $100 million to fight the mountain pine beetle barely registered in the national media. Yet how those funds are spent could effectively blunt the attack in one critical area where the beetles have made a troubling appearance.

In much of BC, stopping the beetles would be about as easy as a beach bum sucking up an incoming wave with a straw. So intense is the infestation around communities like Quesnel and Prince George that the once green forest is a sea of red. But around Chetwynd, where the beetles have never before been, things are different. They are isolated and still relatively small in number.

Getting rid of them, however, is another matter. Unless there is a severe winter cold snap, all recently attacked trees will have to be logged or burned before the beetles fly again. In many cases, such work will require crews going into forests that are not commercially viable to get rid of the infested trees. Work crews will also have to identify all newly attacked trees and get rid of them too. The heartening thing is that in parts of BC where the outbreak is not too intense, such efforts have worked. And they could again, if the will is there.

Curiously, Ottawa’s announcement spoke not a word about keeping the beetles out of the boreal. Yet given the stakes involved, this is precisely what most if not all of that $100 million should be spent on.

The other thing not mentioned by Ottawa, nor BC for that matter, is that today’s beetle numbers are out of control for reasons that pose huge challenges for Canada. First, more and more beetles are doing damage because global warming is making the environment more to their liking, allowing them to expand their range. Second, thanks to our fire-fighting efforts there are now many far more older pine trees on the landscape than there were a century ago. Ironically, by "saving" forests from fires, we’re sentencing them to destruction by other means.

Somehow in the midst of all of this a new course must be charted. The beetles threatening Canada’s boreal forest thrive in situations where landscapes are much the same. By rejecting monocultures and striving to make our forests more of a patchwork quilt of wildly diverse ages and species, we can make them a whole lot less susceptible to the kinds of devastating outbreaks now underway.

A more hopeful plan would see us embracing diversity at every turn in the years ahead. The biggest and most important tools at our disposal in that work are logging, deliberately set and carefully controlled fires, and planting the right trees in the right places, with an aim to ensuring that we enhance biological diversity at every turn.

The industry that benefits from logging has a role to play in that work. But given the enormity of the challenges ahead, public reforestation funds are also needed. In BC, the province needs at a minimum to start investing about $120 million per year in reforestation and forest restoration efforts. Once it does, it will be in a lot better position to turn to Ottawa for further help.

With the beetles poised for a cross-Canada sweep, bold and creative responses are required. Anything less, puts our national boreal forest at grave risk.

Ben Parfitt is the resource policy analyst with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of Battling the Beetle: Taking Action to Restore British Columbia’s Interior Forests.