The pine beetle's deadly march

At night, you can hear them moving in the trees.

They've swept through parks and golf courses and ranchland and caught thermal currents to fly on the jet stream. They've colonized an area 1,200 kilometres long and 575 kilometres wide, nearly the size of Sweden. They're about the same size as a grain of rice but can kill a tree 10 storeys high.

And perhaps scariest of all, they're stealthy. One day, a tree looks fine. The next, it's been hit by nature's version of a drive-by shooting, left with tiny drifts of sawdust at its base or looking as though it's been pelted by popcorn because “pitch tubes” – blobs of sap that are the tree's natural defence – have sprung up on its bark.

From a helicopter flying west of Williams Lake, B.C., over the majestic Chilcotin Plateau and seemingly endless waves of dead, red trees, the mountain pine beetle appears nothing less than invincible.

In fact, it's not: the beetle remains vulnerable to fire, freezing temperatures and predatory birds. It can also be killed by cutting down infested trees. But in British Columbia at least, it has proved virtually unstoppable.

“I've been here all my life, and it makes me a little bit sick to my stomach to see it,” says Lee Todd, a logging contractor and helicopter pilot who works this region, six hours by road north of Vancouver.

“Our beautiful green forest is gone. It's just gone.

“It will come back. But the question is, how do we stop this from happening again?”

Like many people in the province, Mr. Todd is grappling with the scope and implication of B.C.'s unprecedented pine beetle epidemic. Stealthier than a flood or forest fire, the infestation is laying waste to vast stretches of trees and threatens the livelihood of thousands of workers, scores of communities and some of the province's biggest companies.

So far, the financial damage has ranged from thousands of dollars paid by residents in Kamloops, Prince George and other interior cities to remove dead or dying trees from their back yards, to millions spent by forestry powerhouses to process beetle-killed wood.

But everyone in the Interior seems to know the worst lies ahead. According to industry estimates, the attack has put at risk some $43-billion worth of lumber products – or nearly six times the worth of last year's softwood lumber exports to the United States – and $10.2-billion worth of stumpage fees.

By 2013, 80 per cent of B.C.'s lodgepole pine forest is expected to be dead. (The insects prefer older lodgepole pine, a species that makes up over half the Interior's annual timber harvest and defines the very look and smell of the forests that sit between the Rockies and Coast Mountains.) And now, the crisis is reaching well beyond B.C.

In Alberta, forest officials are planning to set alight large tracts of forest this fall to kill host trees and, it's hoped, stop the beetle's eastward march. Researchers have warned that the beetle's next stop could be the northern boreal forest, with outbreaks potentially extending as far as Newfoundland and Labrador. Traditionally, the Rocky Mountains and cold winters helped have kept the beetle from heading east and tackling other species such as jack, Scots and ponderosa pine. But it's feared the kind of sustained, frigid weather required to make a significant dent in epidemic beetle populations is no longer a certainty.

If Alberta is battling the beetle, in B.C., the focus has shifted to a massive salvage operation aimed at getting beetle-killed wood out of the bush before it becomes too dry or split to turn into lumber.

In the short term, that's creating a harvesting bonanza. But it won't last. There will be a gap between the current logging rush and the time when the next generation of forests is mature enough to harvest. The loss of future timber supply presents a “very significant challenge” to affected communities and the province as a whole, B.C. says in its Mountain Pine Beetle Action Plan, noting that some communities could see their income levels plummet by 25 per cent.

Other estimates have pegged the potential cost of decreased timber supply to the B.C. economy at $2-billion a year.

“There is no doubt this will be one of the biggest crises to hit resource-based communities,” says Scott Nelson, mayor of Williams Lake. “This isn't just a Williams Lake issue or a Quesnel issue or a provincial issue. This bark beetle is now in Alberta. Two years ago, they anticipated they had 15,000 [infested] trees in Alberta. Today – we just heard from them a couple of months ago – they estimate that they have 5 million trees now infected. This is a natural disaster that is going to occur across all of Canada.”

It's not known how far the beetle will travel, but it's currently breaking new ground. A member of the bark beetle family, the mountain pine beetle has lived for thousands of years in B.C. forests, usually attacking older, weaker trees. But never before – at least not on record – has it struck so voraciously.

Several factors pushed the pine beetle into its current state of overdrive.

Warmer winters meant fewer stretches of -30 C weather, the kind that curtailed previous outbreaks. Recent droughts left trees more vulnerable to attack. And decades of successful fire-fighting – much of it undertaken to protect stands of commercial lumber now threatened by the beetle – left forests overstocked with the big, older trees.

During this decade, the infestation has swept from valley floors to hillsides and beyond. Beetle populations have spiralled. During an aerial survey this past July, provincial bark beetle co-ordinator Rod DeBoice rode in a helicopter that was forced to land because the pilot couldn't see through the mess of beetles splattering against his windshield.

As the outbreak spread, the beetle ate itself out of its traditional habitat and into new ones.

“Five years ago, if somebody had said the mountain pine beetle would kill a 25-year-old stand of pine that's three inches across, you would go, ‘you're talking nonsense, that's never been seen,'“ Mr. DeBoice says.

“Well, they are doing that now, quite effectively – because it's warmed up enough, in winter they can get under that thin bark and make a go of it and not freeze.”

The insect is also heading to higher ground.

“They are killing trees up to 1,600 metres [above sea level] and that's not because the beetle has evolved into some super genetically strong insect,” Mr. DeBoice says, adding that beetle populations traditionally have tapered off at over 1,100 metres above sea level. “It's that the habitat, the climate, has warmed up enough for them and they are able to increase their range.”

The outbreak outpaced B.C.'s original projections. In recent years, the Chief Forester has announced hefty increases to annual allowable cuts, part of a strategy to wring as much value as possible from beetle-killed wood and to clear the way for new, healthier forests.

That's meant a bonanza for contractors such as Mr. Todd, whose firm hauled about 10,000 truckloads of wood last year and is on track to surpass that total this year. Started as a one-truck operation in 1991, his Eldorado Enterprises now has about 30 trucks and 100 employees, all overseen from a modest shop next to the highway where Mr. Todd lands his helicopter on the truck bed.

The beetle-killed wood that Eldorado harvests remains structurally sound, and therefore has a market value. If not suitable for lumber, the timber can be turned into wood chips, pellets or pulp.

But problems such as “checking” – cracks or splits in the wood – can reduce the amount of usable lumber in any given log. Beetles also introduce a blue fungus into the trees that stains and makes it less desirable to some customers, notably Japanese buyers who balk at the blue-stained wood.

In the short term, a lot of beetle wood is being left in the bush to be burned, as companies conclude the costs of hauling it would outweigh the proceeds from any harvest.

At one of Mr. Todd's logging operations on a recent sunny afternoon, the only pine beetles to be found were dead: innocuous-looking specks uncovered by peeling back a chunk of bark. But the damage they had caused was all around, in the form of rejected wood that hadn't made the grade for transport to town.

“We're having to leave more behind to get a product that's acceptable to a world market,” Mr. Todd says, standing in a clear-cut where nearly every tree in every stack of logs bears a tell-tale ring of blue.

“In five years, this high level of cut won't be available and it will be really, really hard on a lot of operators. Unless they find some alternative use, and I think they will.”

For the biggest lumber producers with operations in the B.C. Interior, the pine beetle is adding to a litany of woes that seem downright biblical. Vancouver-based West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. is one of the companies dealing with drastic changes to its wood supply at the same time it's contending with weak lumber prices and an ailing U.S. housing market.

“It's extremely important that we get good at this,” says Ross Johnson, operations manager at the company's Quesnel sawmill, referring to the processing of beetle-killed wood.

“And we will. There's still a resource out there that's usable and it's our job to make sure we can use it.”

One of the key tools in that battle will be technology. West Fraser's Quesnel mill, a new $120-million plant that opened in January, is outfitted with equipment that can help efficiently process beetle-killed wood by, for example, using X-ray technology to scan for checks and position the log so that the least possible amount of wood is trimmed off as scrap.

The mill is handling shorter logs, of lesser quality, than it would have handled before the outbreak, Mr. Johnson says. There are more production disruptions, as a result of the beetle-killed lumber and the demands it puts on machinery and employees. And to make matters worse, beetle-killed wood kicks up a lot of dust when it's processed, something that causes Mr. Johnson, with his stickler's eye for safety, efficiency and productivity, no end of aggravation.

Still, West Fraser sees a future in this town, where a string of mills hug the river side and camera-toting visitors from a train tour stroll through a downtown where business owners appear to have turned flower-basket displays into a competitive sport.

“The industry is not going to be devastated in five or seven years,” Mr. Johnson says. “We are providing a product right now with beetle-killed wood, and we can get better.”

The company has hedged its bets, however. Last year, it bought 13 sawmills in the U.S. for $325-million U.S., saying the deal provided “geographic, fibre and product” diversification.

Federal and provincial governments are promising millions for pine-beetle related programs, with the Ottawa agreeing to provide $1-billion over 10 years.

Some of the funds are going to grassroots agencies such as the Cariboo-Chilcotin Beetle Action Coalition, which has launched an ambitious program aimed at nurturing other parts of the economy, from log-home building to tourism. Other money is spent on research into the beetle and its impact, boring into topics such as how long beetle-killed trees retain economic value and the effect of fires and harvesting on the beetle's spread.

Such strategies are intensely controversial, with critics arguing that clear-cuts destroy wildlife habitat and are of little or no use in containing beetle populations. There's also the question of whether pine beetles contribute to global warming, essentially by turning what was a carbon sink – a live forest – into a carbon source.

The results of such investigations may be years off, which still leaves communities and local governments hunting for near-term solutions.

Right now, Williams Lake is booming. Two mines have re-opened and others are in development. The provincial government is hoping that mining will pick up some of the slack left by the beetle epidemic, and has announced tax breaks to encourage exploration in beetle-hit areas.

Perhaps the biggest buzz around beetle-killed wood is as a potential energy source. When B.C. unveiled its new energy plan in February, it flagged the idea of using beetle-killed wood as fuel. A follow-up call for proposals from provincial utility B.C. Hydro garnered more than 80 responses.

But Pat Corbett, owner of the Hills Health Ranch near 108 Mile House, worries that not enough money is going into research and development in areas such as reforestation, climate change and alternative products like fuel and pharmaceuticals that could be derived from beetle-killed wood. “We need an injection of research and development at an extreme level,” says Mr. Corbett.

The beetle is oblivious to the difference between backcountry or parking lot. For the insect, a pine is a pine, whether it's located at a remote fly-in fishing camp, an industrial clear-cut or a suburban backyard. That is abundantly clear in the bustling Interior city of Kamloops, where the pine beetle has attacked trees in parks, golf courses and back yards. It's easy to spot dead or dying trees here, and tree-cutting services are among the busiest outfits in town.

Long-time resident Cliff Knauff and his neighbours have even resorted to stapling scented dryer strips to pine trees in the hopes it might deter the beetles. He has his doubts as to whether it will work, but reasons that a box of fabric softener is a lot cheaper than the cost of cutting down and removing a dead tree. Besides, beetles are known to be influenced by pheromones, so perhaps there's something to it.

Just outside of Kamloops, at the Eagle Point golf course, 15,000 infested trees were cut down and hauled away last year, says manager Jade Dominichelli. The cost of removing so many trees would have been prohibitive, but the course – which is in receivership as a result of issues Mr. Dominichelli says are unrelated to the pine beetle – was able round up enough volunteer labour and equipment to help do the job.

This summer, the course looks immaculate, if a little sparse. The greens and fairways, oddly enough, have never been in better condition, Mr. Dominichelli says, perhaps because they are no longer competing with thirsty pine trees for water.

Look closely, too, and you'd see the forest lining the fairways isn't dead and that undergrowth – including new young pines – has remained unaffected by the beetle.

Long-time foresters such as Mr. DeBoice, who vividly recalls a beetle outbreak in the 1980s, likes to remind people that forestry is a long-term business, one in which crop cycles are 70 to 90 years long.

Prior to the 1960s, he points out, companies were focused on the big, old-growth forests of the coast and smaller, interior species were considered little better than weeds. That changed when companies recognized their potential value as pulp and lumber. A similar transformation could take place as industry turns its eye to using fibre for energy, he predicts.

As that wrenching shift plays out, the trees, turning red then grey as ghosts, are a stark reminder that nothing will be the same.

That includes even simple things such as campgrounds: like the one near Lac Le Jeune where Mr. Knauff goes year after year to recharge his batteries and revel in the green trees.

Now the wind blows right through.