Unwelcome guests make a home in B.C. forests

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PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. – Despite its relatively small stature, the Mountain Pine Beetle is having a large impact on the B.C. forest industry.

The black insect tops out at about seven millimetres in length, but has made its home in approximately 8.5 million hectares of pine forest in the western province.

The infestation began more than 10 years ago in B.C.’s Central Interior and projections indicate that at the current rate of spread, 80% of B.C.’s mature pine will be dead by 2013.

“The pine beetle has created a few opportunities but some challenges as well,” explained Roy Nagel, general manager with the Central Interior Logging Association. “There are big uplifts on the annual allowable cut to get through the issues pine beetle has brought.”

A $90 million investment over the next three years by the provincial government, will be allocated for forest service road rehabilitation to accommodate an increased number of trucks in the field. The B.C. Ministry of Transportation is estimating about 345,000 more loads of logs will be transported on the provincial road network, which is the equivalent of more than one billion passenger vehicle trips.

The rationale behind increasing the annual allowable cuts and vehicle traffic is the quicker an infested area is harvested, the better the quality the wood will be. But Nagel says that kind of “patch logging” is probably less economical.

“Now they want to go in and take the best trees, get the best economic trees while we can and then go back and clean up what we can,” commented Nagel.

The influx of annual allowable cuts has also changed the scope of the log hauling business.

Nagel explained, about 10 years ago the average trucking operation would haul about 110,000 cubic-metres in a year. The smaller outfits would do about 50,000 to 60,000 cubic-metres, while the larger operations would haul closer to 150,000 cubic-metres. Comparatively, today the average operation is hauling 350,000 cubic-metres a year, with some operations accumulating up to 750,000 cubic-metres.

“There are very few operations left that are doing 50,000 to 75,000 cubic-metres,” noted Nagel.

Although the mountain pine beetle has been present in B.C. for the better part of a century, its spread during the past decade has been difficult for forest industry stakeholders to gauge.

“The initial council of the forest industry did a lot of work tracking the beetle and looked at it as a slow moving forest fire,” explained Nagel. “The plan was to take out the trees that were hit, before the brood escapes; get out to the front and stop it there. The only problem was that it was so widespread it didn’t work.”

The mountain pine beetle’s tendency is to attack mature pine trees, usually more than 80 years in existence. Although the beetle is found primarily in mature lodgepole pine trees, other pine trees will provide the beetle with a suitable breeding ground.

“The concentration spread as they ate themselves out of habitat and began eating trees younger than 20 years, which is our future,” said Nagel. “The fear is it will get to different species and we don’t want to see it in the boreal forest.”

The resilient insect has been difficult to exterminate because it burrows underneath the bark of the pine trees. A sweeping pesticide would have little effect and may cause more damage to the surrounding ecosystem, rather than curb the problem.

The beetle’s life span is only about one year after it emerges from an infested tree, usually during the summer months. Hot and dry summers leave pine drought-stressed and more susceptible to attack by the insect.

One surefire way to control the mountain pine beetle population would require a little help from Mother Nature.

“With such mild winters, we have even seen two hatches in one year,” noted Nagel. “As they build up the antifreeze in their systems, it will take about a week of – 40 C weather to kill them off.”

Mountain pine beetles can be found as far south as Mexico and in a handful of western States. Until recently though, the pine beetle was primarily B.C.’s problem in Canada.

In the mid-80s, southern Alberta had a brief fling with the mountain pine beetle before an extended cold weather spell corrected the problem. This August however, the beetle made its return into Alberta across the Rocky Mountains and into the Grande Prairie region.

Together the provinces invested about $17 million this spring as part of a joint project to try and limit the spread of the mountain pine beetle. Included in the project was the surveying and mapping of 4.1 million hectares of forest and the removal of 45,000 infected trees.

With such a high number of infected trees in B.C., many log haulers are having to invest more money to be able to operate in the forest.

“The trees are not sucking up the moisture and the ground stays moister. The operator has to buy softer footprint equipment for out in the bush because we have to lessen road maintenance,” explained Nagel.

As well many truckers are having to invest in equipment to provide cut-to-length service for the mills.

“The cut-to-length initiative is to bring out the best part and not the whole tree,” said Nagel. “When the wood dries more spiral cracks evolve. It’s the contractor’s job to cut out defects and deliver the length specified. There has been more cut-to-length logging and it will continue.”

Purchasing new equipment is a short term problem for many operations. In the long term, the problem that may become a reality for truckers is finding timber in the forest to be able to haul.

“We have more wood than we know what to do with, but it won’t last. Overall there will be a decline in harvest activity in five to eight years,” added Nagel. “We’ll have to try and find ways to utilize all that wood better than we are now.

“The utilization has to be put in two stages: how much waste are you leaving out there and how does the mill optimize the wood brought in? They are doing a great job; it’s the first stage that will have to change. The question is what are we leaving on the ground when we’re harvesting?”

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