Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic
The mountain pine beetle epidemic is causing environmental and social impacts to much of British Columbia. Our forests are very important and will no longer be able to maintain their role if changes are not made. The devastation has had a sweeping impact on B.C.’s ecological, and economical well-being. Additionally, recent studies are drawing attention to the carbon-emitting properties of the dead forests, which is a global concern.
A popular misconception developed that the current provincial mountain pine beetle epidemic began in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. While there is a very large infestation in Tweedsmuir that has no doubt contributed to the beetle population in some areas of north-western BC, infestation centres in many other lodgepole pine stands across the north central and southern part of the province also developed almost simultaneously with the Tweedsmuir infestation and have rapidly grown beyond control.
Since 1991, the traditional early season freeze would that kills the beetles and controls their reproduction has been missing as we have experienced generally warmer and shorter winters. Hot dry summers in 1998 and 1999 and again in 2003 weakened the old pine trees so they couldn’t resist beetle attacks. The Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) will attack most Lodgepole Pine beginning with trees of about 20-23 years of age and continuing to old growth, however it prefers to start with the most thriving, mature or thrifty trees first. Before fire-fighting efforts began in this province, natural fires claimed about 500,000 hectares of trees a year. Up until the large fires of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, fire suppression brought this number down to about 25,000 hectares a year resulting to large volumes of older trees. Lodgepole Pine normally regenerate through forest fires, natural or man caused. In fact, the cones are actually adapted to this. They will not open to release their seeds unless they are heated to more than 45 degrees C.
Many beetles, due to a lack of Lodgepole Pine, which is their preferred food, are now attacking Ponderosa, White, Limber and Whitebark Pines too. Most disturbing are the attacks on very young Lodgepole Pine as a lot of this volume has actually been reforested from previous cutting and contributes to the province’s sustained cut (AAC). The AAC is now threatened not only from losing mature volumes but also losing the successive regeneration that we have come to rely on for the future. On their own, the beetles can fly 1 or 2 kilometers (kms), but with the right wind currents can fly more than 100 kms, which explains their ability to cross the Rocky Mountains into Alberta. This is significant in terms of threat as it now becomes a National concern with the MPB has adapting to attacking the Jack pine forests that cover areas of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.
The Mountain Pine Beetle is causing many areas of forest to diminish. In addition, the ability of forests to soak up man-made carbon dioxide is weakening. The increase of Co2 being released into the atmosphere will affect the climate rather than the Co2 being safely locked away in the trees. Carbon dioxide is considered a primary greenhouse gas, or a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and can lead to the warming of the planet. Unfortunately this will be an ongoing problem throughout British Columbia’s interior for at least another decade. Ecologically, renewal begins almost immediately; however, if left to do so naturally the process will be slow. Once the dead wood is removed and new trees are planted the regeneration phase is sped up to make safer and productive habitat for all of the forest’s plants and habitat. The global warming trend that we see being aggravated by the MPB epidemic will gradually renew balance and the new forests will begin to capture emissions and create oxygen, in turn creating a healthy atmosphere.
For the last 40 years, forest fires have been fought effectively, providing safety for communities and saving valuable timber. A consequence of successful fire fighting is a high percentage and extensive areas of thrifty and mature trees. A closer look at the life cycle and history of the MPB will show that it has been with man for a long time and has been controlled naturally by sporadic and random events of forest fire and extreme early winter cold. Furthermore, with the dead forests on our hands, the summer heat can and will cause many more forest fires. As a consequence there will be loss of animal habitat.
The social impacts brought on by the beetle epidemic are beyond belief. Mill workers all over B.C are being laid off which is just the trigger to a long list of problems.
Quesnel Mayor Nate Bello said his town is booming for the time being because of increased harvesting rates as timber companies scramble to maximize the value of dead trees before the end of their shelf life. But 80 per cent of the area’s trees are pine and 80 per cent of those are dead or dying, meaning tough times are coming for the mills that provide roughly a third of the municipality’s budget.
“We could lose half of that,” Bello said. “So how are we going to keep our roads maintained, our sewers working, our water flowing? It goes on and on.
There are many communities just like Quesnel going through the exact problems with a lot of unanswered questions. The social impacts of the Mountain Pine Beetle are just surfacing and will continue to grow. This epidemic doesn’t only have a social impact but a visual impact too. How will this affect tourism in British Columbia? As you can clearly see the list will go on until this issue is fixed.
Economically, making use of the dead timber before complete rot will help a cross section of the population in our smaller communities who depend on the forest industry for economic and social stability. The Beetle infected wood has blue stain throughout it. There are no health hazards, nor is the wood weakened so, the wood can be cut for lumber and used to build houses, apartments, furniture, doors and hundreds of other items. In fact, a great deal of timber has been harvested and marketed over the past 30 years, during which the MPB outbreaks flared up in the southern Interior of the province. A growing concern however is the splitting and cracking of the timber when drying becomes excessive. While there is still marketable timber to be manufactured into lumber, the net conversion from log to lumber erodes significantly, producing large volumes of waste not suitable for lumber. Recently this waste is gathering interest for uses such as concrete panel board production, pellet fuel, bio energy fuel, and chipping fiber for pulp.
No-one can be sure as to when the mountain pine beetle epidemic will be over with or, if it will ever end. The pine beetle poses many challenges for the economy and parks. We must continue finding solutions for this ongoing battle, and minimize the beetles as much as possible, but also maintain the natural values of parks and protected areas.