Bulkley Valley Research Centre - Science in the Public Interest

Seeing the forest for the trees, February, 2006

Prince George Citizen, February 11, 2006, Page: 13, Section: News

Seeing the forest for the trees: New research suggests selective logging could offset some of the impact from the mountain pine beetle epidemic on the region's future timber supply

by Gordon Hoekstra

The normal approach to forestry in B.C.'s Northern Interior is to cut down virtually all of the trees, and then replant the area. That strategy is being doubled in the face of the spreading mountain pine beetle epidemic. The idea is to salvage as much of the dead lodgepole pine as possible before it decays too much to be commercially valuable, replant quickly, and then help grow those trees as fast as possible so they can provide a second generation of trees. However, it's still going to be a long time before those trees can be harvested, as much as 80 years. In the meantime, there's going to be a decline in the supply available for logging, as much as 40 per cent or more in some areas.

It's a case of not seeing the new forest for the dead and dying trees, says silviculture researcher Dave Coates. Coates, who works in Smithers with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, says the clear-cut-and-replant approach could be overlooking a golden opportunity to help lessen the falldown of the midterm timber supply. In some cases, particularly in pine forests that also include other species like spruce and sub-alpine fir, there is already a second generation of trees growing in the understory. He is suggesting a second and third approach be adopted. Firstly, in some cases, it could make sense to partially log pinebeetle killed areas, leaving behind the growing understory. Secondly, in other instances, it may make sense to simply leave the areas, and let mother nature take its course. Coates has estimated that using these other strategies could give a 10 or 20year boost to the midterm timber supply in some areas.

His research which he presented recently at the 27th annual Northern Silviculture Committee's winter workshop is based on data collected from UNBC, the B.C Forest Service, consultants and industry. Coates said it's particularly important to investigate these kinds of strategies because it could help mitigate the beetle epidemic's negative economic impact on forest-based communities.

The Canadian Forest Service has already crunched numbers indicating a 15percent reduction in the Prince George Timber Supply, would mean a loss of nearly 2,700 jobs in Prince George, Vanderhoof and Fort St. James. While Coates' research has been in the Highway 16 West area, he believes using understory growth to mitigate the timber supply falldown could be used in the Quesnel area as well.

Coates' next step is to identify which timber stands can be logged 20, 30 or 40 years from now. He is using a computer model he helped develop over the past decade that examines the growth of complex timber stands. "I think it's hugely important, and I also think it's good news," says Coates of the potential of the new approaches. "We have some real opportunities to do some things we didn't know we had," he said. "We've got caught up in the salvage rush, and also the idea (the forest) is all dead, which is kind of what it looks like when you fly over it," explained Coates. "But you get on the ground, and it's not so dead."

The approach Coates is examining is not unprecedented. He said it's used in the Prairies where the overstory of aspen is removed and the understory of spruce is protected. "There has been a lot of studies on the costing, and how much of those residual trees get damaged, so we're looking at all of that stuff to get a better handle on what it means," said Coates. "It's quite applicable."

Coates' research has caught the attention of B.C.'s chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, who is responsible for setting B.C.'s annual timber harvest. Snetsinger said he's interested in strategies that can lessen the timber supply drop, as well as how to protect other forest values. Research like Coates' could be particularly important as there is some evidence that the beetles are attacking younger and younger stands, which could worsen the timber supply falldown scenario. Once Coates finalizes his research data, the numbers will need to be plugged into models that estimate the impact on the timber supply, said Snetsinger. Another issue that has to be taken into consideration will be the cost of partial logging, which will likely be more expensive because less trees will be logged from a particular area, noted Snetsinger. He said it's an issue he already asked the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada to look at. "There's not going to be any silver bullet that mitigates timber supply, but every little strategy that you can come up with will help," said Snetsinger. "This will help I think, but we've got some work to quantify it and operationalize it."

Mike Jull, who heads up the Aleza Lake Research Forest at UNBC, says Coates' idea is an important one. But if the new approach - partial logging which leaves the understory trees - is going to be successful, there's going to have to be an incentive to industry, said Jull. He suggested at the silviculture conference that potential savings in reforesting could be used up front to reduce Crown timber fees companies pay. But that involves risk to the province. Jull noted that clearcut logging and replanting is a very predictable and low-risk way of reforesting. "So, the Ministry of Forests and the industry has to say if it's valuable enough to the communities to have these mid-aged stands around so you have something to log in 40 years, then they're going to have to accept more risk in the way they do things," explained Jull. "If you want to maintain some of the understory, you're going to have an incentive system," he said. "And it can't be something that takes forever for people to get used to. It's got to be something you can implement in the next year or so."

MOUNTAIN PINE BEETLE BASICS:

The mountain pine beetle epidemic, the largest of its kind ever in Canada, now covers about seven million hectares, an area larger than the province of New Brunswick.

The beetles, about the size of a grain of rice, and its larvae destroy lodgepole pine by eating out the inner bark, as well as by introducing a fungus that impedes water flow.

Exceptionally warm, dry springs and summers in 1997 and 1998 allowed the infestation to spread rapidly through mature lodgepole pine forests, abundant in the Interior. Consecutive mild winters have also helped its advance.

By the time it runs its course in 2013, 80 per cent of the Interior's pine is expected to be dead. The hardest hit areas include Quesnel, Prince George, Vanderhoof and Burns Lake.

The Canadian Forest Service used a model to predict that a 15 percent decline in the timber supply in the Prince George Timber Supply Area, the estimated decline provided by scientists so far, will produce a loss of nearly 2,700 direct and indirect jobs. That's a decline of five per cent. But that loss is anticipated to feel even greater, as a mini economic boom will be created as a result of increased logging and manufacturing in the interim. The drop from a 60 percent increase in logging from historical levels, to 15 percent below normal is estimated to be more than 12,000 jobs. That amounts to a 19 percent decrease in employment.

Quesnel, 120 kilometres south of Prince George, is expected to be hit even harder, although the Canadian Forest Service didn't include it in its modeling exercise.

Some scenarios predict Quesnel could be facing a 42 percent to 62 percent drop in its timber supply within 15 years that will last six decades or more.