2011-10-29

Empire of the beetle

Anyone who has driven through central BC recently knows what mountain pine beetles can do to a forest. Huge swaths of dead trees now blanket entire mountainsides in red. British Columbia's bark beetle outbreak was unprecedented, and it didn't take long before the insects began dropping in on Alberta.

While there's a temptation to think of mountain pine beetles as a BC problem that has begun to seep into Alberta from next door, Andrew Nikiforuk makes clear in his new book, Empire of the Beetle, that nothing could be further from the truth. While bark beetles are a natural, healthy part of forest ecosystems, in recent decades outbreaks have been growing in severity and the insects have started popping up in areas where they have never been seen before. In the 1990s they wiped out more than 200 million trees in Alaska before crossing the border into the Yukon and wreaking havoc with an ecosystem that had never seen them before. In the 2000s they hit Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The outbreak in BC may be close to home, but it is far from an isolated incident.

Nikiforuk spent two years crisscrossing the continent in search of bark beetles and the people whose lives they've changed. While government and industry are quick to tally the economic costs of lost timber, it soon became clear that the true impact is on the psyches of ordinary people. In Alaska, a couple who built their home amongst a cathedral of towering Sitka spruce packs up and leaves, heartbroken by the loss of their trees. In central BC, school children begin colouring the lodgepole pines in their drawings red rather than green. An artist organizes a touring exhibition of work commemorating the lost forests which sees visitors leave in tears. The financial costs may be huge, but the communities that have been affected by bark beetles need far more than economic help.