'Dead' pine forests very much alive
Phil Burton calls this place a jungle.
It's not the tropical Amazonian rainforest or even B.C.'s temperate rainforest, but a stand of lodgepole pine located off the Pelican Forest Service Road about an hour's drive southwest of Prince George.
The federal forests researcher estimates the pines were about 30 years old when the mountain pine beetle epidemic swept through here in 2005.
The pine may be dead, but the understorey on the forest floor is very much alive today, flush with white spruce, Douglas fir, sub-alpine fir, alder, and a thick swath of green shrubs and berries.
"Quite a diversity, a jungle in here," says Burton, co-author of the book Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences. "The growth has actually increased because it's no longer shaded out by the trees."
It is easy to think of a lodgepole pine forest killed by beetles as a dead forest with no value aside from being clearcut as fast as possible for its economic worth.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
A thick, living mature pine forest is relatively sterile compared with the potential for new plant growth once the pine needles fall and allow in more sunlight.
Depending on soil conditions, once the pine trees stop sucking up water, the forest floor can become wetter and more conducive to growth of other plants.
The Forest Practices Board, a provincial watchdog agency, confirms that a post-beetle-epidemic pine forest is "not a biological desert" and can provide greater biodiversity than a mature lodgepole pine forest or a stand regenerating after clear-cutting or fire.
The board further urges that unsalvaged dead-pine forests be carefully managed, as they will "contribute significantly to future timber supplies, hydrological recovery, wildlife habitat and visual quality."
Here's one simple example of how a dead forest can contribute to biodiversity: insects feed on dead wood and, in turn, are devoured by birds such as woodpeckers, which may then fall prey to raptors.
"For everything we see as dead or as waste, other things see it as food or a resource," Burton says.
Standing dead pines can also provide shade for growth of young Douglas firs, a species of value to both the timber industry and to wildlife.
As well, dead pine can impair the ability of insects such as terminal weevils to find and attack otherwise healthy spruce trees, Burton explains.
Less certain is the future of this vibrant patch of dead pine forest: it's quite possible that salvage loggers will show up and clearcut the site, perhaps to make wood pellets for the bio-fuel industry.
If that happens, it's not just the dead pine that will disappear. As Burton notes, the forest industry tends to "not leave the living while salvaging the dead" - which means it is "standard operating procedure" for saplings, spruce and fir, along with any live pines, to be cut at the same time.
While industry focuses its salvage logging operations on stands where lodgepole pine dominates, it argues it doesn't make economic sense to selectively leave all healthy species behind.
Industry does leave trees when it suits it, however, including mature trembling aspen, since cutting one can lead to ever more saplings sprouting forth from the site.
The Forest and Range Practices Act, introduced by then-premier Gordon Campbell's Liberal government in 2004, limited the size of individual clear-cuts to 60 hectares in the Interior.
But that limit does not apply to salvage harvesting, which has no upper size limits.
In late 2005, the province's chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, issued guidelines - but not formal requirements - on the amount of forest that loggers should leave behind for wildlife, ranging from 10 to 25 per cent of the land, depending on the size of the cut.
When the Forest Practices Board did a followup investigation, it found that the logging companies had generally done a good job implementing the guidelines at the cutblock level but that no one was coordinating all those cutblocks across the larger landscape. Despite that criticism, Snetsinger says he remains satisfied with the way salvage logging has taken place in response to the pine beetle outbreak.
After a recent stay at a rustic lodge in the Chilcotin near Nazko, west of Quesnel, he said: "One might have this picture of a landscape that is sort of two dimensional - old forests or recently harvested. But that's not really the case."
Snetsinger said he observed moose and black bear, heard wolves around the campfire - and even spotted some, as they emerged from bush about 30 metres away.
"I haven't seen wolves that close to me ever in the woods, and here I was in the middle of this beetle-devastated forest," he said.
"The ecosystem isn't dead out there. If there are wolves, there's moose and deer. That's a microcosm, but I got a good sense that things aren't so bad out there. We have a resilient ecosystem."
One counter argument is that the wolves have benefited from improved access to prey due to the vast spider's web of new logging roads that have been punched into the Interior landscape.
"When I fly the Interior of the province, the end result, in my view, is very acceptable," Snetsinger continued from Victoria. "The practice of forestry is at a very high level."
Continuing my journey with Burton along the forestry backroads, he calls out our position on a mobile radio to any logging trucks that might be lumbering our way.
It is early evening, a good time for viewing wildlife in the small patches of forest that interface with the gravel road.
A beaver hauling a green bough in its mouth casts a gentle ripple across a pond. A small black bear with cinnamon-coloured fur, scared by our sudden arrival, shimmies up a mature Douglas fir. And a lynx strides out from bush, nonchalantly crosses the road, then melts back into the landscape.
Seconds later - in cartoon fashion - a snowshoe hare suddenly materializes, heading in the opposite direction. Then another, and another. Soon the road undulates with the furry prey.
"Look at what he's waiting to eat," Burton says. "We're near the peak of the hare cycle."
We also observe mature pine that should have been killed years ago by the invading beetles. Instead, they continue to thrive, just as a house might survive a tornado or forest fire while others around it are vanquished.
"Is that genetics, a micro-site, or just pure blind luck - the day the beetles flew by they found other places to live?" asks Burton, manager of northern projects for the Canadian Forest Service.
"One theory is that there's been this chemical arms race between the beetle and the pine for millions of years. Whether it's greater resin production or nasty chemicals, some pine are more resistant than others."
OTHER THREATS EXIST
Burton drives us to a radar station at Mount Baldy Hughes, where, in 2004, radar detected swarms of mountain pine beetle emerging from trees and heading up into the atmosphere to continue their spread.
"Since then, researchers hired planes and went up with big scoops to different elevations and in different directions to see how many they could catch in the air," he explains. "No matter how poor the odds, if you have millions of dispersing insects some will make it."
As we rattle down the logging road, Burton mentions that almost forgotten amid the beetle-killed pine epidemic is the fact that the region's northern forests are being invaded by at least two other pests.
The larvae of the aspen leaf miner, a tiny moth, turns the leaves of trembling aspen into "ghostly little skeletons," he said, while the forest tent caterpillar also feeds on the aspen's leaves.
On a recent drive to Vanderhoof, about one hour west of Prince George, the road was "greasy with their guts as they crossed from one side to the other," Burton says of the caterpillars.
"We don't really know why they're showing up," he says, noting that climate, a buildup of food sources, or crash of their predators are all potential answers.
"All we can say is that the infestation this year was at unprecedented levels of severity and breadth."
Whatever the cause, they are also evidence of bigger changes underway in B.C.'s Interior forests.
Perhaps, Burton says, it is time for forest managers to pay heed and develop a new model of forest management.
"Anticipate - don't think it's a catastrophe you always have to react to," he says. "Whether it's fire, wind storms, or insect attacks, all indicators are we'll see more of this. The characters will change every five to 10 years as to what the next crisis is, but we can be sure there's going to be another agent of forest disturbance and disruption, so let's just plan on it."
The new approach may also require government and industry to temper their expectations.
"We've often tried to manage it like a factory in which we can optimize production. Instead, we need to recognize it's an ecosystem, a portfolio of ecosystems that's more like an investment portfolio."
Reducing one's risk during uncertain times, he suggests, might be the wisest and safest environmental strategy.