Pine beetles: The aftermath
A Vancouver Sun series, December 2011
Introduction by Roger Annis: A pine beetle infestation of the vast pine forests of the BC interior, fueled by rising global temperatures and decades of destructive, clearcut logging practices, has laid waste to a large swath of the province. Last year, the beetle jumped its natural barrier for eons–the Rocky Mountains–and has begun an inexorable march across the boreal forest of northern Canada.
How extensive is the insect infestation of forests, spurred along by rising temperatures? This article in the Vancouver Observer (Dec. 2012) says half of the commercial forests of BC have been destroyed by the pine beetle and that the beetle species in Canada’s vast spruce forests is speeding up its life cycle and infesting at alarmingly higher rates. Dying trees across North America are releasing vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.
The BC government has greatly increased the amount of allowable logging of beetle-infested pine forests. The Vancouver Sun recently published a series on the grisly environmental impact of this salvage logging. One article described its aftermath with this headline: ‘It looks like Armageddon.’ Below is the entire series. You can also read it by going to the links provided. All dates refer to the print editions of the newspaper.
A comprehensive history of this story is told in Andrew Nikiforuk’s 2011 book, ‘Empire of the Beetle’.
Here is the Vancouver Sun series. It was originally published in December 2011. The dates of the online postings have been changed to September 2012:
1. Pine beetles, salvage logging and the environment
2. Inside a ‘dead’ forest
3. Flooding and the effect on ranchers
4. The bite of salvage logging on ecotourism
5. The struggling forest industry
1. The environmental costs of B.C.’s logging war on pine beetles
FIRST IN A SERIES: The plan was simple: Log and sell as much dead pine as possible before it decayed or burned. But the environmental costs of the large-scale salvaging of Interior forests are still being tallied
By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, Sept. 2012
THE INTERIOR PLATEAU — The province sold the epidemic as unprecedented in North American history. Biblical plagues of mountain pine beetles sweeping across the Interior landscape in dark clouds, leaving a dead zone more than five times the size of Vancouver Island in their wake. This was war. And the government fought back with an equally aggressive salvage-logging strategy, initially to try to stop the beetle’s spread, and then to harvest as much dead wood as possible before it decayed or burned.
The result? Massive clearcuts with no upper limits, faster approvals for cutting permits, more logging companies taking ever more timber, with industry in charge of conducting its own affairs.
It’s been a full decade since the B.C. government started increasing the annual allowable cut of lodgepole pine stands by an average 80 per cent – in some areas, much higher – in hardest-hit regions. The province promised that salvage logging of Interior pine forests would respect “other forest values” – the environment – but is that what happened?
A lengthy investigation by The Vancouver Sun shows that large-scale salvage logging has had wide-ranging negative environmental impacts that extend well beyond the death of pine trees due to beetle attack.
Salvage logging has hammered biodiversity on the landscape, affecting everything from smaller predators such as fishers and marten to plants such as mosses, liverworts and mycorrhiza fungus, which lives underground in the root system and plays a critical role in transferring nutrients to trees.
The removal of vast stands of forest has also increased the risk of flooding, leading to more erosion and sedimentation, which can affect everything from roads, bridges and culverts to fish and other aquatic life and even to dyking systems in the lower Fraser River.
The landscape has been so radically altered that provincial forests officials have provided maps to Emergency Management BC and others showing where dead pine and salvage logging are most heavily concentrated – and where the potential for flooding is greatest.
Salvage logging also increases hunting pressure both by humans and wild predators – due to a proliferation of logging roads – while increasing greenhouse gas emissions by opening up the forest to rot and by removing the green trees that absorb carbon dioxide.
All this during a decade of provincial cutbacks that included a dramatic decline in funding available for forest research – $2.5 million in 2010, down from $38.8 million in 1997 – through competition, including to academic, consulting, and industry researchers.
From Vancouver to Prince George, researchers are decrying B.C.’s failure to address the cumulative impact of salvage logging and fearing there is insufficient oversight of a deregulated, “results-based” system that puts the onus on forest companies to meet government objectives.
Looking at the big picture, these researchers say the mountain pine beetle represents a unique opportunity for the province to rethink the management of B.C.’s forests in the face of climate change – a key reason behind the epidemic.
Revisit the way logging and reforestation is done, they say, and strike a better balance between biological and commercial values.
“We have to value it differently,” said Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest sciences at the University of B.C. “Right now, we value two-by-fours. We don’t put a market value on the other things.”
B.C. and its beetle-killed forests are part of a global community grappling with issues of deforestation, climate change and biodiversity.
“The whole picture has to transform, not just here but around the world,” said Simard, who supports maintaining a greater natural diversity in B.C.’s forests.
And if we don’t address the issue?
Kathy Lewis, a professor of ecosystem science and management at the University of Northern B.C., confirms that a diverse forest is the best way for B.C. to meet the uncertainties of climate change, and fears the public doesn’t realize their importance to clean water and their ability to store carbon.
“We’ve seen what happened to the cod industry when people stop paying attention to the resource,” she argues. “We don’t want to see that happen with forestry here in B.C.”B.C.’s pine-beetle epidemic began in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2001 – a full decade ago – that the province began ramping up the annual allowable cut in a failed attempt to arrest its progress.
Winters were suddenly warmer, improving the beetles’ survival rates. Summers had become hotter and drier, potentially stressing the forests. And fire suppression had created an abundance of the mature trees preferred by the tiny creatures, which are the size of a grain of rice and carry a blue-stain fungus that finishes off the trees.
Their appetite has been prolific.
The B.C. government estimates that of the 2.3-billion cubic metres of merchantable lodgepole pine in the province, the beetles have claimed 726-million cubic metres over at least 17.5-million hectares.
As The Sun discovered during its research, salvage logging of those beetle-killed forests has created vast clear-cuts that would loom abhorrent on the face of our local Coast Mountains, but remain far less obvious on the relatively flat Interior Plateau.
The cuts tend to be in the hinterlands, where forestry rules and the environmental impact of salvage logging have received scant attention from the news media or urban-based environmental groups.
Salvage clear-cutting is not restricted to dead pine trees, either, but takes healthy, more commercially valuable species of trees with greater biological importance.
Other species such as spruce and fir represent about one-third of the merchantable harvest in areas of the Interior being salvage-logged for lodgepole pine. That figure does not include any immature trees and brush (smaller than 12.5 centimetres in diameter at breast height) in the understory also wiped out by clear-cutting.
One clearcut visited by The Sun about an hour southwest of Prince George spanned at least 5,000 hectares – an area 12.5 times the size of Stanley Park – with relatively little retention of forest for wildlife.
It resembled a vast dry plain, due to its sandy soils and the small amount of large wood left behind for smaller creatures.
Incongruously, the site was lit up by a rainbow. No pot of gold here.
The mountain pine beetle swept through this stretch of Crown land in 2003. Two years later, in 2005, it was timber giant Canfor’s turn.
“It was logged as one big progressive clearcut,” said The Sun’s tour guide, Phil Burton, a senior researcher with the Canadian Forest Service and co-author of the book Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences.
“As a whole, it’s a pretty massive footprint,” he said. “Anything that eats grass would enjoy this habitat. But anything that needs escape cover, if it’s sitting out there it would have a hard time getting by. If you’re a bird looking for a place to perch or nest or forage for dead insects in bark or logs you wouldn’t find much here.”
Invasive plants such as Canada and bull thistle, a noxious weed, are more likely to make inroads in the opened landscape, perhaps arriving with cattle grazing on the clearcut, he added.
By removing green trees and vegetation along with dead pine, the site now generates more greenhouse gas emissions, in direct contrast to a provincial policy to reduce them.
Green trees and foliage represent a sink because they absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, explained Art Fredeen, a professor and acting chair of the ecosystem science and management program at the University of Northern B.C.
Decomposition of a forest creates greenhouse gas emissions.
Selective logging of forests – taking the dead pine for lumber and leaving the live trees – is one way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. “We see that as a real potential … but the common mode of harvesting is clear-cutting,” Fredeen said.
Mark Feldinger, senior vice-president of forestry and environment for Canfor, the largest pine-beetle harvester in B.C., said in response that emergency management zones were created with “large openings” as part of a government effort to attack the beetle and try to reduce its spread across the Interior.
Canfor’s logging of this particular site was “consistent with government objectives,” he emphasized.
To appreciate the evolution of those objectives, one must understand the dramatic change in forestry policy with successive governments over the past 16 years.
In 1995, Mike Harcourt’s NDP government introduced the Forest Practices Code, “prescriptive” legislation that detailed how logging should take place in B.C. It generated industry complaints of excessive red tape and costs.In 2001, the province began ramping up the annual allowable cut in an attempt to arrest the beetle’s spread, rates that increased in coming years as B.C. tossed the notion of sustainable harvesting out the window.
“It was treated very much as a fire is treated, ‘We have this problem and we have to deal with it,'” said Marvin Eng, manager of special investigations for the Forest Practices Board, a government watchdog.
In 2004 – three years after logging rates increased – Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government replaced the Forest Practices Code with the “results-based” Forest and Range Practices Act.
The act limited clear-cuts to 60 hectares in the Interior, but it didn’t apply to beetle salvage logging – which had no upper limit on the size of clear-cuts.
Environmental protection was not forgotten during the transition to results-based forest management. The Forest Planning and Practices Regulation set out environmental objectives for values such as soils, timber, fish and wildlife, biodiversity, riparian areas, water, visual quality and cultural heritage resources.
But the responsibility for meeting those objectives fell to the forest companies.
“Government made a conscious decision to give up on land stewardship,” asserts Fred Bunnell, professor emeritus of forest sciences at the University of B.C. “The notion was, ‘Give all that to the forest companies.'”
Bunnell headed a scientific panel for sustainable forestry practices in Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s.
Earlier this year, he served as lead author of a comprehensive report for the Canadian Forest Service on the “ecological consequences” of large-scale logging of B.C.’s pine forests.
The report found that the pine beetle and subsequent salvage operations influenced “all major habitat” types, and made recommendations related to protection of streams, the need to retain tree species other than lodgepole pine and to plan areas to be reserved from harvest.
Ultimately, however, the collective impact of such large-scale harvesting of a landscape hit by pine beetles is unknown.The province knew there were serious environmental troubles in the forest at least by 2004, when the Forest Practice Board’s Eng – then a provincial landscape ecologist with the Forests Ministry – produced a technical report warning of potentially “significant negative effects” of salvage operations and the need for better planning at the landscape level (10,000 to 100,000 hectares).
Acting on Eng’s advice, the province’s chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, issued professional foresters with seven pages of “guidelines” that provided direction for retaining trees for wildlife.
Snetsinger noted “there is significant uncertainty” about the environmental effects of the 80-per-cent increase in harvesting in the Lakes, Prince George and Quesnel timber supply areas, particularly in regard to biological diversity and hydrologic function.
“Accordingly, I believe caution is warranted.”
The chief forester recommended that more trees be retained for wildlife as the size of cutblocks increased: 10-per-cent retention for cutblocks smaller than 50 hectares; 10 to 15 per cent for 50 to 250 hectares; 15 to 25 per cent for 250 to 1,000 hectares; and 25 per cent for areas bigger than 1,000 hectares.
Across the larger landscape – the big picture – he said logging plans should, in part, cover “as many years as possible.”
They should “recognize that retention levels may vary by landscape … in order to retain areas of non-pine species” and should consider the “full range of values for conservation,” including visual quality, winter range for animals such as moose and deer, and wilderness tourism.
Consistent with the government’s new results-based system, Snetsinger did not make his wishes mandatory.
“Though this guidance is not legally binding, it is important for me, as British Columbia’s chief forester, to share my thoughts on this important resource management issue with other forest professionals.”
So, did the timber companies follow the chief forester’s guidelines?
In a report released in November 2009, Eng, now with the Forest Practices Board, found on average trees were properly retained within smaller cutblocks, although “it remains to be seen” whether at least some of those retained trees would be cut later amid the frenzy of logging activity.
But he found no one was minding the big picture, addressing the collective impact of all those contiguous cutblocks.
Some of the cutblocks were recent pine beetle logging, but others dated back three decades to a time before the 1995 Forest Practices Code, when clear-cuts did not contain wildlife patches.
Put it all together and you have a significantly altered landscape, multiple patches of logging that were authorized without consideration of the greater overall impact.
More than half of the harvest since 1978 is now in patches larger than 250 hectares and more than one-third in patches larger than 1,000 hectares, the board found. Incredibly, at least seven harvested patches, amalgams exceeding 10,000 hectares – 25 times the size of Stanley Park – have emerged, the report found.
Eng warned in his 2009 report that the opportunity to reverse the situation “may be lost without quick action.”Did the province respond swiftly in the face of such a recommendation?
Two years after the board’s findings, the ministry now plans to meet with licensees in Quesnel on a Forest Management Plan pilot program related to issues such as species diversity across the landscape.
“It’s not something I’ve given up on,” Snetsinger said. “It’s just a very difficult thing to do.”
But Eng said nothing much has changed in the last two years. “As my father used to say, ‘The mills of the gods grind slowly.'”
Forest Practices Board chair Al Gorley, a former regional forests manager in Prince George, supports Eng’s conclusions.
“If all I’m looking at is this block, reasonable things were done. The problem is, when you add all the blocks up, it paints a bigger picture and a more important different picture,” he said.
“There was guidance from the chief forester to coordinate and look for proper ways to protect biodiversity over the landscape, but the implementation of that one was hit and miss.”
Gorley called on the province to “get on with” landscape level planning with defined objectives that “are not so general that they can’t be enforced.”
He also wants the province to pass new legislation, if necessary, to restore power to district forests managers to intervene on key issues – including disputes with other users of Crown land and conflicts between various licensees on the landscape.
With so many new logging companies on Crown land, “there are no real rules about where they can harvest, so they just look for the wood and they’re stepping on the toes” of traditional operators.
Eng likens the lack of coordination of logging across the landscape to a person who receives his paycheque in $10 bills. “If you put that in your pocket and go around deciding what you’re going to do with each bill, by the end of the month you haven’t gotten anywhere because you’ve just got a bunch of individual decisions.”
Bunnell agrees coordination is lacking under a system that puts companies in charge of forest management.
He also believes the province’s ability to inspect and enforce compliance in the forests has been compromised by a lack of funding, including cuts to forestry research.
“The government used to plan large areas, but they don’t do that any more,” he said. “It all falls to the individual companies. It has to be coordinated, but that’s gone, it got in the way … There is no vision for the forest resource.”
Industry, too, would like to see provincial changes in light of the vast changes pine beetles and salvage logging have had on the Interior landscape.
Doug Routledge, vice-president of forestry and northern operations for the Council of Forest Industries, says the province needs to take a comprehensive look at various land-use plans on Crown lands. A whole range of forest values are at play, he said, including objectives for wildlife habitat, forestry, water resources, and parks and protected areas.
“As a province, we haven’t done a good job of maintaining those land-use plans in light of change, and one of the changes is the mountain pine beetle epidemic.”Mark Feldinger, senior vice-president for Canfor, the largest harvester of beetle-killed pine in B.C., said there is always room for improvement, but he feels the overall industry and government response has been satisfactory given the unprecedented epidemic that swept the Interior.
“You have a fire burning and you try to rally the troops and let’s all figure out how to do this together,” Feldinger said. “Do I think it’s perfect today? No. Do I think it’s functioning reasonably well? Yes. Professionals out there on the land base … are using appropriate judgment.”
As for the chief forester, he remains unconvinced that changes to the system are necessary.
Snetsinger said he “always knew that the landscape level was going to be a hard piece to deal with” because it required the various licensees to cooperate on areas to be harvested or set aside.
“It takes time and effort and money to do that kind of collaboration and planning. But I was hoping that would be something they’d try to do,” he said.
“There is no legal objective for landscape-level planning. We didn’t bring this into law. Could it have been better with landscape-level planning? Well, maybe. But at the end of the day, I think licensees have done a good job doing what the government asked them to do, which was salvage the timber and start the process of forest renewal.”
As for calls to give the district forest managers more power over plans – along with a role in dispute resolution – he said they do some of that now.
“They used to be able to say yes or no to a cutting permit or forest development plan. Now if the plan meets the requirements under the act and licensees do everything they’re supposed to do … it is more likely to be in the approval mode than not,” he said.
And district managers can still become familiar with the issues and stakeholders on Crown land, he said, and “play that intermediary role … in aiding and resolving conflict.”
As for legislation: “It would be something you’d have to look at very closely. I don’t know that I’ve seen enough analysis to jump to that conclusion.”
While the province reduced the harvest rate of pine beetle in areas of the Interior earlier this year, rates continue to be higher than they were before the epidemic arrived.
“We always knew these rates weren’t sustainable,” Snetsinger said.
Far less certain is the full impact of such unsustainable logging practices on the greater environment and its breadth of plants and animals – and how damaging one part of an intricate web of life affects the whole.
As Bunnell, the research guru, warns a seemingly content forest sector: “We’re going where we’ve never been before – and it’s all inter-connected.”
2. ‘Dead’ pine forests very much alive
Contrary to public perception, pine forest floors are flush with growth, and wildlife is abundant
By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, Sept. 2012
Phil Burton calls this place a jungle. It’s not the tropical Amazonian rainforest or even B.C.’s temperate rainforest, but a stand of lodgepole pine located off the Pelican Forest Service Road about an hour’s drive southwest of Prince George. The federal forests researcher estimates the pines were about 30 years old when the mountain pine beetle epidemic swept through here in 2005.
The pine may be dead, but the understorey on the forest floor is very much alive today, flush with white spruce, Douglas fir, sub-alpine fir, alder, and a thick swath of green shrubs and berries. “Quite a diversity, a jungle in here,” says Burton, co-author of the book Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences. “The growth has actually increased because it’s no longer shaded out by the trees.”
It is easy to think of a lodgepole pine forest killed by beetles as a dead forest with no value aside from being clearcut as fast as possible for its economic worth. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
A thick, living mature pine forest is relatively sterile compared with the potential for new plant growth once the pine needles fall and allow in more sunlight.
Depending on soil conditions, once the pine trees stop sucking up water, the forest floor can become wetter and more conducive to growth of other plants.
The Forest Practices Board, a provincial watchdog agency, confirms that a post-beetle-epidemic pine forest is “not a biological desert” and can provide greater biodiversity than a mature lodgepole pine forest or a stand regenerating after clear-cutting or fire.
The board further urges that unsalvaged dead-pine forests be carefully managed, as they will “contribute significantly to future timber supplies, hydrological recovery, wildlife habitat and visual quality.”
Here’s one simple example of how a dead forest can contribute to biodiversity: insects feed on dead wood and, in turn, are devoured by birds such as woodpeckers, which may then fall prey to raptors.
“For everything we see as dead or as waste, other things see it as food or a resource,” Burton says.
Standing dead pines can also provide shade for growth of young Douglas firs, a species of value to both the timber industry and to wildlife.
As well, dead pine can impair the ability of insects such as terminal weevils to find and attack otherwise healthy spruce trees, Burton explains.
Less certain is the future of this vibrant patch of dead pine forest: it’s quite possible that salvage loggers will show up and clearcut the site, perhaps to make wood pellets for the bio-fuel industry.
If that happens, it’s not just the dead pine that will disappear. As Burton notes, the forest industry tends to “not leave the living while salvaging the dead” – which means it is “standard operating procedure” for saplings, spruce and fir, along with any live pines, to be cut at the same time.
While industry focuses its salvage logging operations on stands where lodgepole pine dominates, it argues it doesn’t make economic sense to selectively leave all healthy species behind.
Industry does leave trees when it suits it, however, including mature trembling aspen, since cutting one can lead to ever more saplings sprouting forth from the site.
The Forest and Range Practices Act, introduced by then-premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government in 2004, limited the size of individual clear-cuts to 60 hectares in the Interior.
But that limit does not apply to salvage harvesting, which has no upper size limits.
In late 2005, the province’s chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, issued guidelines – but not formal requirements – on the amount of forest that loggers should leave behind for wildlife, ranging from 10 to 25 per cent of the land, depending on the size of the cut.
When the Forest Practices Board did a followup investigation, it found that the logging companies had generally done a good job implementing the guidelines at the cutblock level but that no one was coordinating all those cutblocks across the larger landscape. Despite that criticism, Snetsinger says he remains satisfied with the way salvage logging has taken place in response to the pine beetle outbreak.
After a recent stay at a rustic lodge in the Chilcotin near Nazko, west of Quesnel, he said: “One might have this picture of a landscape that is sort of two dimensional – old forests or recently harvested. But that’s not really the case.”
Snetsinger said he observed moose and black bear, heard wolves around the campfire – and even spotted some, as they emerged from bush about 30 metres away.
“I haven’t seen wolves that close to me ever in the woods, and here I was in the middle of this beetle-devastated forest,” he said.
“The ecosystem isn’t dead out there. If there are wolves, there’s moose and deer. That’s a microcosm, but I got a good sense that things aren’t so bad out there. We have a resilient ecosystem.”
One counter argument is that the wolves have benefited from improved access to prey due to the vast spider’s web of new logging roads that have been punched into the Interior landscape.
“When I fly the Interior of the province, the end result, in my view, is very acceptable,” Snetsinger continued from Victoria. “The practice of forestry is at a very high level.”
Continuing my journey with Burton along the forestry backroads, he calls out our position on a mobile radio to any logging trucks that might be lumbering our way.
It is early evening, a good time for viewing wildlife in the small patches of forest that interface with the gravel road.
A beaver hauling a green bough in its mouth casts a gentle ripple across a pond. A small black bear with cinnamon-coloured fur, scared by our sudden arrival, shimmies up a mature Douglas fir. And a lynx strides out from bush, nonchalantly crosses the road, then melts back into the landscape.
Seconds later – in cartoon fashion – a snowshoe hare suddenly materializes, heading in the opposite direction. Then another, and another. Soon the road undulates with the furry prey.
“Look at what he’s waiting to eat,” Burton says. “We’re near the peak of the hare cycle.”
We also observe mature pine that should have been killed years ago by the invading beetles. Instead, they continue to thrive, just as a house might survive a tornado or forest fire while others around it are vanquished.
“Is that genetics, a micro-site, or just pure blind luck – the day the beetles flew by they found other places to live?” asks Burton, manager of northern projects for the Canadian Forest Service.
“One theory is that there’s been this chemical arms race between the beetle and the pine for millions of years. Whether it’s greater resin production or nasty chemicals, some pine are more resistant than others.”
OTHER THREATS EXIST
Burton drives us to a radar station at Mount Baldy Hughes, where, in 2004, radar detected swarms of mountain pine beetle emerging from trees and heading up into the atmosphere to continue their spread.
“Since then, researchers hired planes and went up with big scoops to different elevations and in different directions to see how many they could catch in the air,” he explains. “No matter how poor the odds, if you have millions of dispersing insects some will make it.”
As we rattle down the logging road, Burton mentions that almost forgotten amid the beetle-killed pine epidemic is the fact that the region’s northern forests are being invaded by at least two other pests.
The larvae of the aspen leaf miner, a tiny moth, turns the leaves of trembling aspen into “ghostly little skeletons,” he said, while the forest tent caterpillar also feeds on the aspen’s leaves.
On a recent drive to Vanderhoof, about one hour west of Prince George, the road was “greasy with their guts as they crossed from one side to the other,” Burton says of the caterpillars.
“We don’t really know why they’re showing up,” he says, noting that climate, a buildup of food sources, or crash of their predators are all potential answers.
“All we can say is that the infestation this year was at unprecedented levels of severity and breadth.”
Whatever the cause, they are also evidence of bigger changes underway in B.C.’s Interior forests.
Perhaps, Burton says, it is time for forest managers to pay heed and develop a new model of forest management.
“Anticipate – don’t think it’s a catastrophe you always have to react to,” he says. “Whether it’s fire, wind storms, or insect attacks, all indicators are we’ll see more of this. The characters will change every five to 10 years as to what the next crisis is, but we can be sure there’s going to be another agent of forest disturbance and disruption, so let’s just plan on it.”
The new approach may also require government and industry to temper their expectations.
“We’ve often tried to manage it like a factory in which we can optimize production. Instead, we need to recognize it’s an ecosystem, a portfolio of ecosystems that’s more like an investment portfolio.”
Reducing one’s risk during uncertain times, he suggests, might be the wisest and safest environmental strategy.
3. A flood of problems for ranchers
Interior land owners claim that in a rush to salvage wood, logging companies contribute to flooding in some areas, water shortages in others, threatening farmland and fish
By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, Sept 2012
Watching the pine beetles kill off the Chilcotin’s vast stands of lodgepole pine forest was bad enough for cattle rancher Randy Saugstad. But he argues the greater concern is the way the B.C. government has allowed salvage logging to take precedence on Crown forests at the expense of other land uses and the environment. Pointing to a clearcut on the hillside in the distance, he laments: “It’s like a gold rush mentality. They have an insatiable appetite for this wood.”
A thunderstorm boils up on the horizon as we travel aboard his all-terrain vehicles alongside Twinflower, past a farm gate for 14 horses, to the edge of a pond rippling with wildlife. Yellowleg shorebirds wade for insects and a muskrat dives below the surface. “I’ve seen a mallard with ducklings, too,” Saugstad says matter-of-factly. The only problem with this serene picture is that it shouldn’t be here: this is supposed to be productive hayfields, not rendered unusable as wetland habitat for wildlife.
“We’ve never fertilized,” he says of the swamped hayfields. “We take what crop grows. It’s very productive land, it’s been here a hundred years and always survived.” Noting the pond peaked at a depth of one metre last spring, Saugstad blames his predicament on clearcut logging – as old as the 1970s and compounded, more recently, by salvage logging for beetle-killed pine.
FLOODING AND MORE
Across the Interior, altered hydrology is just one of the problems ranchers encounter during salvage logging, says Kevin Boon, general manager of the 1,200-member B.C. Cattlemen’s Association.
Removal of natural forest barriers can encourage cattle to roam farther afield, making them more difficult to manage and putting them at risk of mixing with other herds and of being exposed to wild predators.
As an example, cattle might normally avoid a mature pine forest because it offers little to eat; all that changes as the death of pine trees and salvage logging open the landscape up to a flush of new grass.
Resolving the problem is not cheap at a cost of $10,000 per kilometre for fencing.
Large-scale logging is also blamed on reducing biological diversity, while increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
But flooding, for farmers, is a major concern – and there is no question salvage logging increases the risk of floods.
Even dead trees help to intercept snow and return it to the atmosphere through evaporation, thereby reducing the overall amount of snow to reach the ground. They also provide shade to slow the spring melt.
And, even in a forest of dead pine, there are living trees, including spruce and fir, that continue to absorb water.
Clearcutting these stands increases the risk of flooding downstream, along with greater siltation and erosion.
A study by the Forest Practices Board – an independent government watchdog – at Baker Creek, west of Quesnel, showed the mountain pine beetle increased the flood risk by 60 per cent, increasing to 92 per cent after salvage logging and representing a “major shift” in hydrology.
A 2011 report for the Canadian Forest Service – largely a synthesis of previous studies – concluded: “As the total area salvage logged increased, peak flows also increased and generated an associated increase in flood frequency ….”
The report, headed by Fred Bunnell, a forest science professor at the University of B.C., noted that logging as little as 30 per cent of an area “could induce significant changes” and that “in snowmelt-dominated streams, peak flow is much more sensitive to logging at higher elevations.”
While the report found that retaining non-pine species could help reduce the flood risk, it found logging dead pine stands increased both the total amount and rate of spring snowmelt over what would have occurred otherwise – an effect that lasts about 15 years.
A pine beetle hydrology report, prepared for the Canadian Forest Service by staff in the Ministry of Environment and University of Victoria, says the Interior Plateau – including the Salmon River, Mahood River, and parts of the Nechako and Stuart drainages – is at the greatest risk.
Tolko Industries Ltd., the private forests company that salvagelogged about 300 hectares in the hills above Saugstad’s ranch, argues that it takes great pains to consult not just with ranchers, but with first nations and other users of Crown land on how they might be affected by logging and “to seek resolution or at least to mitigate their concerns.”
Noting the Forest Practices Board has not found fault with Tolko’s actions, Tom Hoffman, the company’s Cariboo region woods manager, argued that everyone in the Interior must appreciate that climate change and the mountain pine beetle have altered the landscape – and the people who live and work there.
“I believe Mr. Saugstad has water issues, but it’s not unique to him,” he said. “It’s ubiquitous. Talk to any rancher or forester or anyone who builds roads, they’ll say the same thing.”
Tolko also counters that it undertook several measures to specifically mitigate the effects of harvesting on Saugstad’s ranch, such as forest buffers along the creek and tributaries, deactivation of roads to restore natural drainage, a bridge to restrict access into the watershed, seeding, and improved retention of non-pine.
“We don’t take the approach that we own the landscape,” Hoffman said. “We treat everyone with respect.”
While logging dead-pine forests can create hydrological problems, he said, reforestation is the fastest way to restore the hydrology. It’s a case of “shortterm pain for long-term gain,” he added, noting the exact impact depends on factors such as the individual site and weather conditions.
Younes Alila – an associate professor in the University of B.C.’s department of forest resources management who has studied the impact of salvage logging in 1,600-square-kilometre Baker Creek – believes the only situation where salvage logging can be justified from a hydrological perspective is where the stand is predominantly pine and all or most trees have been killed by the pine beetle.
In stands of mixed ages and live trees – including pine that survived the beetle attack and other species – the understorey can have a 10-to-15-year head start over clearcutting and replanting due to increased sunlight and moisture as the pines die and the needles fall off.
“It’s more economic for industry to clearcut than selectively log the dead trees. Therein lies the attempt to justify … that salvage logging is better than leaving it behind.”
Douglas Lake Ranch south of Kamloops – the largest in Canada at about 20,000 head of cattle – selectively logs the dead pine on its own property to reduce fire risk and to open up the landscape to allow movement of the cattle and to encourage growth of grass for forage.
The lesser pine is chipped for pulp or power production, and the better logs are sold to market in what is largely a breakeven operation. Other smaller trees are left intact to encourage faster regeneration.
Logging companies on the adjoining Crown range land are reluctant to adopt the same selective techniques, Boon believes, because there’s no profit in it.
Alila noted the flatter Interior Plateau causes unique problems, since snow melts at the same time, unlike in mountainous regions. Clearcutting removes the ability of dead trees to intercept snow and provide shade to slow the melt.
“It’s much more sensitive than steeper terrain,” Alila said. “It all melts at once.”
In addition, he said, erosion and sediment from the salvage logging of pine beetle stands can pose a threat to roads, bridges and culverts, and can harm aquatic life and fish, altering stream channels – even “choking” the lower Fraser River far downstream where sediments build up around municipal dikes.
While B.C.’s Forest Planning and Practices Regulation sets out water-quality objectives in terms of fish, wildlife and community watersheds, it also stipulates that such measures must “not unduly reduce the supply of timber” from B.C.’s forests.
NOT ‘GOOD SCIENCE’
For the record, Saugstad is not opposed to logging, only the current approach that puts the forest industry in charge of determining his future.
“I worked in logging,” he says, noting his family owns a 600-hectare wood lot close by. “We’re not trying to protect our viewscapes or airy-fairy stuff.”
Saugstad was born and raised in the Bella Coola Valley, more than a four-hour drive to the west, where his great-greatgrandfather was among a group of Norwegians who settled in Hagensborg in the 1890s.
He used to fly helicopters in Yukon and northern B.C., including charters for the B.C. government during the controversial wolf-kill program of the 1980s.
One of the pelts from that era still adorns the wall of his log home. “We got 120 wolves that winter,” he says behind a handlebar moustache.
“[The program] was working, but it wasn’t socially acceptable.” In 1990, he bought this 145-hectare ranch at Twinflower Creek, about 100 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake. His 150 cows and 150 calves also utilize 100,000 hectares of Crown range land extending into Big Creek Provincial Park, east of Chilko Lake, the largest high-elevation lake in North America.
Every so often, Saugstad fires up the single-engined, homebuilt Pegazair plane he keeps in a shed and conducts an aerial patrol to keep track of his cattle.
Wolves have been increasing in the Chilcotin in recent years, he argues, aided by the network of logging roads that allows ever greater access to the backcountry.
“You fly around, and the whole country, there’s no place without a road,” he says, accurately observing that human hunters also have easier access to game such as moose.
Those flights also reveal a landscape that is far from dead, a rich flush of plants growing on the forest floor beneath the dead pine and helping to hold back flood waters – until salvage loggers show up.
And flooding isn’t the only problem. Saugstad says low stream flows last summer starved his $30,000 hydrogenerating system – which includes 2.5 kilometres of 15-centimetre pipeline that normally produces five kilowatts of electricity.
Last January, he says, reduced water meant that a pool near his house froze solid, killing off the resident rainbow trout.
“Not a one left. Frozen solid to the bottom.”
Clearcutting, Saugstad argues, also helps to produce an evenaged stand of pine that will become susceptible down the road to the next wave of pests.
“None of this stuff is based on good science,” he said. “It’s based on a knee-jerk reaction by [then-premier Gordon] Campbell’s government when the beetles came. The mills convinced him, ‘Oh, let’s salvage it.'”
A decade ago, the province began ramping up the annual allowable cut in response to the pine beetle outbreak: more logging companies, bigger clearcuts with no upper limits, and companies put in charge of ensuring their logging meets government objectives.
It’s not so much a question of companies doing wrong in the bush, Saugstad observes, but a system that puts too much power into the hands of industry to determine what happens in the field.
“We need some protection from the forest service again,” he said. “There’s got to be some rules back in place and some oversight from the government. We can’t have the fox guarding the hen house like it is now.”
The province’s chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, said in response that timber licensees cannot “disregard water issues” created by salvage logging, noting that the “beetle can affect the water table, there’s no question about it, and the logging can affect it more. That’s fair to say.”
REPORT RAISES FLAGS
The Forest Practices Board has expressed discontent with the way the province gives industry the ultimate say out here.
In a 2010 report on Saugstad’s case, the board concluded, “there is fundamental weakness in the … system that allows one tenure holder to hold the power of decision over another tenure holder.”
The Saugstad report noted about 42 per cent of the 8,500-hectare Twinflower Creek watershed had been logged, mostly in the 1970s.
Due to a “history of flooding and erosion events” on the ranch downstream, the province in 1989 – one year before Saugstad bought the property – attempted to mitigate the risk of flooding and erosion by excavating the creek to better channel the water through the property, the board report found.
Two years later, in 1991, a major storm caused considerable damage to the ranch – damage blamed on the 1989 excavation.
That history might have created an argument against further salvage harvesting – but that’s not what happened.
Tolko clearcut about 300 hectares, a figure the company argues is relatively small on the landscape.
The board said in its report that the effect of clearcutting “can be higher peak flows occurring earlier in the season, compared with those that occur in a mature, non-harvested forest. These higher peak flows can affect water quality and stream channel stability.”
The board said research shows that a stand of dead conifers will provide about “50 per cent of the hydrological function” of a live stand, once the conifers have lost their needles.
However, it also found that allowing a stand to die, decay and regenerate naturally will result in a slower rate of hydrological change compared with clearcutting.
Leaving it to nature “prolongs the hydrological recovery of the area,” it found, adding that research on the Fraser Plateau indicates that “by 35 years, the regenerated stands will be providing a similar hydrological function as a mature stand.”
The board found no research to show that “existing summer water shortages would be reduced further by harvesting” – something Saugstad insists is taking place.
The “peak flow hazard index” is a form of measurement of flood risk. At Twinflower Creek, a provincial forests official had recommended that the rating for the watershed not exceed 0.5, a moderate hazard.
Tolko, the company with logging rights in the area, estimates that the hazard level reached 0.66 after the pine beetle epidemic, increasing to a high hazard of 0.78 post harvesting.
The company estimated an elevated risk from harvesting would last about 20 years, after which conditions would be better than had the dead stands not been harvested.
The board report noted provincial legislation does not require Tolko to conduct a “formal, full watershed assessment” and that timber and ranching objectives diverged.
“The licensee’s rationale for harvesting and accepting a higher risk, is based upon economic benefits and possibly improving the rate of hydrologic recovery in the watershed over the longer term.
“For the rancher, the shortterm risk is what is relevant.”
Saugstad defiantly rejects any suggestion that if he stops poking his finger in other peoples’ eyes he actually might get more cooperation.
Now 60, he takes no comfort in the promise that conditions will be back to normal in 20 years. Which means he’s now fighting as much for the rights of other ranchers as himself. “We’re having an impact. Our views are being heard. I’m not quitting.”
4. B.C. ecotourism at the mercy of salvage-logging free-for-all
Uncontrolled clear cutting scars landscape
By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, Sept 2012
Debbie Atha had a dream that went like this: Gregarious woman approaching 30 quits her well-paying pharmaceutical sales job in England to move to the B.C. interior to invest her time and money building a dude ranch.
“I had an early mid-life crisis,” she allows. “I wanted to do something special.”
And why not? The province had billed itself as Super Natural, the Best Place on Earth, a land where the government is officially committed to doubling tourism revenues by 2015.
All goes well until loggers show up in force to salvage log the beetle-killed lodgepole pine forests around her ranch.
With the timber goes much of Atha’s hard-earned trail system, and perhaps the very survival of her business, Free Rein Guest Ranch.
“Come to our province and ride through unspoiled boundless Crown land,” she says of the message that sold her. “That’s just not cutting it right now. It looks like Armageddon out there. These clear-cuts are huge, as far as the eye can see.”
Owners of other guest ranches in the Chilcotin and Cariboo share her concerns.
To the south, near Green Lake, is Siwash Lake Ranch, where owners Allyson Rogers and Roy Grinder have so far managed to maintain their trails and viewscapes due to keeping constant pressure on the logging companies.
“I’ve been fighting them for four years, being very proactive,” Rogers said. “In the area close by, the logging going on is appalling. It’s non-stop logging trucks. You have to go after it, doggedly. You can’t give them a moment’s rest.”
The Wilderness Tourism Association, with $1.6 billion in annual revenues in B.C., is concerned about rampant salvage logging running roughshod over ecotourism.
“The situation is a free-for-all,” asserted association president Brian Gunn. “There’s no control. There’s no restriction. They have complete freedom to do what they want, when they want and nobody else has much say in that.
At a conference on nature-based tourism in Kamloops in November, he said, there was “widespread concern” about the logging industry’s efforts to communicate with and accommodate the interests of other users of Crown land.
“It concerns tourism operators, ranchers, trappers, fishing resorts, people who own homes in the backcountry.”
The association is putting together a “Crown land plan” aimed initially at seeking a meeting between stakeholders such as tourism operators and ranchers and the timber licensees in the Cariboo/Chilcotin region.
If that doesn’t yield results, the association may have to pressure the province for legislation to protect all users of Crown land, he said.
“They want to be treated as good neighbours, with respect for their businesses, but they’re not,” Gunn said.
Atha, who grew up living at an English riding school, flew from her home in Leeds in 2003 to a Colorado guest ranch as a tourist, returning the next year to learn the ropes and eventually operate her own guest ranch.
“I’m an only child. My parents weren’t impressed whatsoever. I had a good career, a nice home and life, but there was something missing. I just wasn’t happy That was the bottom line.”
In 2006, she purchased a 115hectare ranch with a pond near Bridge Lake in the Cariboo, east of 100 Mile House. She thought it would be a good location; the area’s reputation for fishing would complement the horseback riding.
She moved to Canada in April 2007 and accepted her first guests in August of that year. She’s since built a 6,000-square-foot lodge and amassed a collection of 18 riding horses with help from her parents, who followed her from England.
There was some bug kill in the area when Atha arrived, but she says conditions have become noticeably worse in the past two years.
“It’s just gone absolutely crazy. We’ve lost 60 per cent of the total (riding trail) area to logging. Now I am starting to panic. We’re getting to the point where I can’t sustain the business if there’s too much more. We’ve lost so much of our tenured trail system.”
Atha’s ranch has a commercial tenure to operate on about 20,000 hectares of Crown land that is also up for grabs to salvage loggers.
“The first I know is when I see ribbons go up,” she explains. “I panic, and usually call forestry (the ministry), but until the licence is issued there is nothing they can tell me. And apparently it’s a free-for-all. Any licensee can go anywhere … and walk around the forest and tie ribbons and then apply for a licence.
“All the rules have gone out the window and nobody really knows what’s happening. I’m surrounded. You can’t ride a horse across these clear-cuts because the debris is three feet deep. It looks like World War Three, complete annihilation of everything with the odd aspen here and there or a sorry-looking spruce or fir.”
“My clients are complaining like hell. One lawyer from England, I took him up on one of my favourite spots that I hadn’t been to since it was logged. He couldn’t believe it. He was crying. He said, ‘I just didn’t know this was allowed.'” Atha emphasizes she is not “anti-logging by a long shot,” only anti-logging that takes place “at the expense of everybody else.”
Atha had praise for one forest professional – Ken Freed of Kentree Enterprises Ltd. – for going the extra distance to respect her concerns.
“If all the logging outfits followed this guy’s example, there would be no conflict because he cleaned up, retained the aspen and spruce, and kept my trails accessible and ready to use for the start of my season.”
Freed worked for the B.C. Forests Ministry as a timber officer in the 100 Mile House Forest District for 18 years before going into private consulting in 1999. He works with smaller companies who share his commitment to log in the “fairest and most equitable” way to other users of Crown land.
To ensure her trails weren’t “crushed down and wiped out,” Freed came up with a plan that included commitments to leave trees around the trails, limit the number of sites where heavy machinery would cross the trails, and remove limbs and other debris afterwards.
“I personally went out there and it took me four hours, walking the trails and cleaned them off by hand.”
He explained it is important to take other concerns seriously and implement real measures instead of “just patting them on the head and saying, ‘Have a nice day.’ It just makes good common sense. We’re a small-town community, so we do what we can.”
With more players trying to meet the provincial goal of taking as much beetle-killed wood as possible, he says, the “frustration comes in” when people suddenly notice flagging tape and cutblocks all around with no time to plan for them.
As for Atha, looking back on the dream that brought her to Canada, she says: “The irony is, it’s been everything and more. My thoughts when I was on that plane, I was telling myself, ‘I’m about to embark on a journey that will not only rattle me to my roots physically, but it will challenge me spiritually, emotionally, mentally, the whole nine yards.
“That’s what I wanted. I’m still smiling and happy and I wouldn’t be anywhere else. I love this province, this community, my guests, my horses. I’m not hating life or anything.”
5. Forestry’s ‘perfect storm’
Pine beetles, a weak economy, lessened U.S. demand and a strong dollar have the industry struggling
By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, Sept 2012
The Chilcotin’s beetle-killed lodge-pole pine forests are saturated with water. The harvesting crews have been sent home. And logging trucks known as Super-B Trains, hauling 300 to 400 logs apiece, are inching their way through deep mud wallows.
Tolko Industries Ltd. needs 125 loads per day to feed its two operating mills in Williams Lake, and likes to maintain a raw-wood inventory of a week or so.
Conditions in the bush have reduced that to as little as one day when The Vancouver Sun visits.
“We’re tight, to say the least,” confirms Kevin Sytsma, a forestry manager for the privately owned timber company.
The problem is a combination of unseasonably wet weather (following two years of dry conditions) and the fact that dead pine trees no longer absorb water like a living forest. Depending on soil conditions, that can leave excessive moisture on the ground, hampering logging operations and potentially slowing regrowth of the next generation’s seedlings.
Clearcutting can also make matters worse, research shows, contributing to increased flooding problems, especially in spring, until the new forest returns to more normal conditions.
This particular site – rocky and poor for growing – is known as the Boulder Patch. It’s tough on equipment and is being logged by a Tolko contractor, San Jose Logging of Williams Lake.
“It’s standing water and it’s not going anywhere,” laments Dallas Getz, whose family owns San Jose. “Out here, there’s a lot of clay so it takes longer to dry out.”
Conditions in the bush can vary widely, even from one side of a hill to the other. Logging superintendent Ray Rodger notes the roads are drying out faster than the bush.
“We’ve had so much rain out here now we can’t push it any farther. We’ve done all we can without having any environmental issues out here.”
It’s been a full decade since the B.C. government started increasing the annual allowable cut of lodgepole pine stands by an average 80 per cent in the hardest-hit Lakes, Prince George and Quesnel timber supply areas. More recently, the cut has been reduced to 40 per cent above pre-epidemic levels. Today’s reality for the forest industry involves travelling longer distances to salvage-log dead pine trees, the quality of which has deteriorated over the years.
But the pine beetle is the least of industry’s concerns: forest companies have been hurt even more by the weak economy and reduced lumber demands in the U.S., coupled with the strong Canadian dollar.
“The global economic downturn, specifically the decline in the North American building market, has been a larger factor,” confirmed Doug Routledge, vice-president of forestry and northern operations for the Council of Forest Industries.
Guenter Weckerle, woods manager for West Fraser Timber in Williams Lake, calls the current situation a “perfect storm” and credits forest companies for reinvesting in their mills over the years – so they can continue to extract value from dead pine and remain economically viable in such tough times.
Provincial figures for medium and large mills in the Interior show that 78 mills produced 10.3 billion board feet of lumber in 2001. Fewer mills, 72, produced a high of 14.2 billion board feet in 2006 during a market surge. In 2009, there were just 53 mills, producing a total of 7.9 billion board feet.
B.C.-wide, the provincial government reports that 55,500 people were directly employed in the forest industry in 2010, compared with 88,600 in 2001, a decline of 37 per cent.
The amount of provincial funding available for forest research through competition, including to academic, consulting, and industry researchers has also declined dramatically over the past decade, to $2.5 million in 2010 from $38.8 million in 1997, according to calculations by New Direction Resource Management.
Routledge attributes forestry’s downward trend to economic slumps “unparalleled” in their “depth and duration.” That, and some sawmills switching to non-lumber products such as plywood and engineered wood, including oriented strand board, which is formed by layers of wood.
He credits mills’ continued survival to three factors:
. Provincial policies, including faster cutting approvals and the passage of the “resultsbased” Forest and Range Practices Act, which puts the onus on companies to meet government objectives.
. Senior governments working with industry on market retention and development.
. Industry reinvestment in milling technology to get better recovery from the dead wood and to sort logs by moisture content for better kiln results.
There are two shelf lives in the salvage logging of beetle-killed pine, he explains.
One is the biological shelf life, with trees losing their value within a year of falling down; the other is the economic shelf life, with market demand dictating whether logging in any given site is economically viable.
The hopeful news for loggers is in the biological shelf life. The rate of deterioration has largely flattened out, Routledge said, with much of the cracking of the wood having already occurred.
He noted pine trees killed during a prior beetle event in the mid-1980s – the spread of which was arrested by cold weather – are still being harvested in colder, drier, higher-elevation areas where there is reduced rot.
One of industry’s biggest challenges still lies ahead.
During the rush to harvest as much beetle-killed pine as quickly as possible, the province charged stumpage rates as low as 25 cents per cubic metre – much of that lumber shipped in containers to China.
The U.S. claims those stumpage rates are unfair and is seeking a $499-million penalty against Interior forest companies under the Softwood Lumber Agreement.
VARIED LOGGING SEASON
Back in the Chilcotin’s Big Creek watershed, wetter forests after the pine beetle epidemic have affected all aspects of logging, including the timing of breakup – the spring snowmelt when wet conditions in the forest typically preclude logging.
“We used to log up to the end of February and early March, fill the mill yards with logs, then everybody would go home for two months,” said Larry Price, a Tolko harvesting manager.
Nowadays, crews work as soil conditions and the vagaries of weather allow, with the company struggling to get some workers into the bush by July this year.
Cutting is done by a machine called a feller-buncher, a type of heavy equipment that snips the pine trees then stacks them, ready for the skidder operator to transport them roadside to a processor that de-limbs and cuts the logs to length. A loader then puts the logs onto the trucks for delivery to markets.
So far this year, Tolko’s Soda Creek mill shut down for six days due to lack of wood blamed on wet conditions, while the Lakeview mill closed for 19 days. A third mill in Williams Lake, Creekside, has been closed since 2009 due to economic reasons related to market demand.
The ground is so slippery this day that once a Super-B Train is full of logs, the loader operator nudges it from behind until it is on more solid ground.
The trucks used to haul about 58 cubic metres of green logs in three bundles, but the lighter dead pine allows for loads of up 68 to 70 cubic metres of the same weight.
Increasingly, timber companies are being forced to drive farther afield and build ever more logging roads to access dead timber that remains merchantable.
The distance from Tolko’s Boulder Patch logging site, here on the Interior Plateau, to the mill in Williams Lake is about 135 kilometres, a round trip of seven hours, including one hour for loading and unloading. Logging sites farther west have a nine to 10-hour round-trip cycle; drivers stay overnight at Tolko’s Big Creek camp.
Some forestry crews in remote areas use the SPOT tracking device, a satellite-based personal locator beacon for safety in case they get into trouble.
Culled wood – everything from tree tops to wood with rot or other defects that makes them worthless to the lumber mills – are piled in rows by the roadside, ready to be burned this winter.
Anything beyond about a four-hour round trip to markets makes it uneconomic to chip up the lesser wood for use in heating mill operations or as wood pellets for the biofuel sector – an industry that can also have negative environmental effects.
A 2011 study – headed by Tom Sullivan of the department of forest sciences at the University of B.C. and published in the journal, Biomass and Bioenergy – showed “for the first time” that such piles of woody debris “maintain habitat for red-backed voles” and are thought to increase biodiversity in a clearcut.
Because the “demand for biomass for bioenergy” has the potential to “negatively impact” biodiversity, forest managers must give due consideration to both, the study said.
Meanwhile, the slump in forestry has resulted in more contractors, equipment operators and tradesmen, such as heavyduty mechanics, have moved to Alberta’s oilpatch in recent years. Or, to higher-paying mining jobs, including two in the Williams Lake area: Gibraltar and Mount Polley.
ALLOWABLE CUT REDUCED
It’s been a decade since the province started ramping up the annual allowable cut in the Interior to address the beetle epidemic, which has killed at least 17.5 million hectares of pine, an area more than five times the size of Vancouver Island.
The allowable-cut increase averaged 80 per cent in the hard-hit Lakes, Prince George and Quesnel timber supply areas, but more recently has been reduced to 40 per cent above pre-epidemic levels.
Tolko is one of several players on Crown land under salvage logging, including several first nations.
Tsi Del Del Enterprises, a joint venture company with Tolko based at Chilanko Forks in the Chilcotin, won a business leadership award this year from the Forest Products Association of Canada and Assembly of First Nations.
It’s up to licensees to get together and make “gentleman’s agreements” on who should cut where, Sytsma said. “You have to look at principles of fairness in access to timber … I’m putting a positive spin on it.”
Since 2005, guidelines from the province’s chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, have urged timber companies to retain patches of trees within salvage-logged pine clearcuts on a sliding scale – as little as 10 per cent in cutblocks up to 250 hectares and a maximum of 25 per cent for cutblocks greater than 1,000 hectares.
These are not compulsory; under the Forest and Range Practices Act, adopted by the Liberal government in 2004, the province set objectives and left it to the timber companies to decide how to get there.
Sytsma says wildlife patches are critical for allowing wildlife such as mule deer, bear and moose to move through the landscape, providing both thermal cover and escape cover.
MAKING MOST FROM TREES
At Tolko’s Soda Creek mill, meanwhile, plant manager Ryan Oliver explains how the company has invested $7 million on its “canter line,” one example of an industry-wide efficiency program to allow the mills to squeeze more wood out of the dead pine trees and remain profitable.
The automated line takes a pine log, rotates it to determine the best way to recover lumber, then chips away at the sides to produce a cant. A second scanner confirms that calculation, then a curve saw does the actual cut to maximize recovery of the wood as lumber. Once the wood seasons, the curve straightens out.
The stud lumber (an inferior grade to dimensional lumber) is shipped almost exclusively to China in containers, much of it used for concrete forms.
“We take the lower end of the spectrum at this mill and we do what we can,” says Oliver, noting the emerging market helps the company to maintain its workforce.
The experience is similar for other companies. Mark Feldinger is a senior vice-president for Canfor, the largest logger of beetle-killed pine in B.C. The company has harvested 7.4-million cubic metres of conifers so far this year in the Interior, the vast majority of which has been targeted at mountain pine beetle attacked stands.
About 30 per cent of the lumber goes to China, compared with less than 50 per cent to the U.S. In addition to Canadian markets, the company also sells to South Korea and Taiwan, with a future eye to India. Up to 10 per cent of pine-beetle wood fibre – including bark, sawdust and shavings – is being used to power and heat the company’s mills, as well as for sale to wood-pellet operations.
Routledge said prices for pine lumber have dropped from a high of $300-plus per thousand board feet a decade ago to $170180 in 2009 and now sit in the mid-low $200s today, with increased efficiencies allowing companies to keep operating.
At Tolko’s Soda Creek mill, the amount of wood the mill gets out of a log has declined by about 10 per cent since 2004 as the pine stands deteriorate, Oliver said.
On the other hand, he added, the beetle-killed wood requires less fuel for drying, just a 30-minute heat treatment in the kiln to kill any bugs and meet China’s import requirements.
For now, the economics of salvage logging the Interior’s pine forests remain marginal, with industry holding out for an eventual U.S. recovery and better economic times.
Ultimately, however, the prospects for a robust forest economy may seem less certain than the inexorable return of the mountain pine beetle – a pest, sure, but also a species as natural to the Interior as the moose or black bear. Exactly when it returns in force – and how society prepares for that day – are the unanswered questions.
Salvage logging, drought, cold all factors in Chilcotin ranch water woes
By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun, December 20, 2011
Salvage logging of beetle-killed lodgepole pine forests contributed to water problems on a Chilcotin ranch, the Forest Practices Board said in a report released Tuesday.
But the board suggested that drought and cold weather were also contributing factors on Twinflower Creek flowing through Randy Saugstad’s ranch.
In January 2011, the rancher experienced an “unexpected loss of water when a stream his cattle regularly drink from inexplicably froze solid, and then later in the year two floods affected his pasture land,” the board found. Saugstad blamed salvage logging by Tolko Industries Ltd. of beetle-killed timber in the watershed.
“To some extent, forest practices likely influenced the situation,” board chairman Al Gorley said in a statement. “However, there were numerous other factors including drought and cold weather that also likely played a role, so it’s not possible to attribute the problems solely to salvage logging.”
Mountain pine beetle has killed vast areas of pine forest in the Interior of B.C., affecting the timing and movement of water. The subsequent salvage of dead trees may worsen these effects, the board found.
“This case underscores the need for greater knowledge about the effect of forest disturbance on watersheds, and for further assessment in the Twinflower Creek watershed before additional logging occurs,” added Gorley.
The Forest Practices Board is B.C.’s independent watchdog on forest and range practices.
The Cariboo-Chilcotin Beetle Action Coalition announced this month it had approved $30,000 for a watershed assessment in the Big Creek area of the Chilcotin. The assessment will focus on Twinflower as well as Bambrick, Mons, Copper, Tete Angela and Ray creeks.