Careful With That Axe

Gordon Lehn loves few things better than roaming the gravel roads and walking the wooded foothills of southern Alberta. But it was back in his office last year, in front of the computer, that the veteran forest manager realized the trees he oversees faced crisis. Lehn is woodlands manager for Spray Lakes Sawmills, a family-owned company with about 450 employees and contractors based in Cochrane, Alta., a small city just west of Calgary, and his forest-modelling software had churned through the complex environmental interactions to deliver a stark message: Southern Alberta's lodgepole pine were at "high" susceptibility to a mountain pine beetle infestation. A massive outbreak in neighbouring B.C. - producing maybe a trillion beetles - was wafting over the Continental Divide and settling across part of the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Worse, the icy winter that usually keeps these destructive creatures at bay in Alberta's pine forests had taken a break over the past couple of years. "I thought 'Holy smokes,'" Lehn says, recalling his moment of discovery. "We have the right climate, the right pine species and the right tree age for a major infestation. And we're right in the beetle's path. We have a problem - and it's big."

Almost every time he goes into the woods these days, Lehn sees more infested trees. It's a potentially ruinous threat for his company, but the issues go far beyond that: Pine trees account for over two-thirds of southwest Alberta's forest. Lehn says the beetle could go after 80% of them. And if it's not stopped here, it could be taking future meals right across Canada's boreal forest.