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In the wake of a plague

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Issue date: 
December 2, 2011
Publisher Name: 
Vancouver Sun
Larry Pynn
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The plan was simple: Log and sell as much dead pine as possible before it decayed or burned. But the environmental costs of the large-scale salvaging of Interior forests are still being tallied...

The province sold the epidemic as unprecedented in North American history.

Biblical plagues of mountain pine beetles sweeping across the Interior landscape in dark clouds, leaving a dead zone more than five times the size of Vancouver Island in their wake.

This was war. And the government fought back with an equally aggressive salvage-logging strategy, initially to try to stop the beetle's spread, and then to harvest as much dead wood as possible before it decayed or burned.

The result? Massive clear-cuts with no upper limits and more logging companies taking ever more timber, with industry in charge of conducting its own affairs.

It's been a full decade since the B.C. government started increasing the annual allowable cut of lodgepole pine stands by an average 80 per cent - in some areas, much higher.

The province promised that salvage logging of Interior pine forests would respect "other forest values" - the environment - but is that what happened?

A lengthy investigation by The Vancouver Sun shows that large-scale salvage logging has had wide-ranging negative environmental impacts that extend well beyond the death of pine trees due to beetle attack.

Salvage logging has hammered biodiversity on the landscape, affecting everything from smaller predators such as fishers and marten to plants such as mosses, liverworts and mycorrhiza fungus, which lives underground in the root system and plays a critical role in transferring nutrients to trees.

The removal of vast stands of forest has also increased the risk of flooding, leading to more erosion and sedimentation, which can affect everything from roads, bridges and culverts to fish and other aquatic life and even to diking systems in the lower Fraser River.

The landscape has been so radically altered that provincial forests officials have provided maps to Emergency Management BC and others showing where dead pine and salvage logging are most heavily concentrated - and where the potential for flooding is greatest.

Salvage logging also increases hunting pressure both by humans and wild predators - due to a proliferation of logging roads - while increasing greenhouse gas emissions by opening up the forest to rot and by removing the green trees that absorb carbon dioxide.

All this during a decade of provincial cutbacks that included a dramatic decline in funding for forest research - $2.5 million in 2010, down from $38.8 million in 1997.

From Vancouver to Prince George, researchers are decrying B.C.'s failure to address the cumulative impact of salvage logging and fearing there is insufficient oversight of a deregulated, "results-based" system that puts the onus on forest companies to meet government objectives.

Looking at the big picture, these researchers say the mountain pine beetle represents a unique opportunity for the province to rethink the management of B.C.'s forests in the face of climate change - a key reason behind the epidemic.

Revisit the way logging and reforestation is done, they say, and strike a better balance between biological and commercial values.

"We have to value it differently," said Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest sciences at the University of B.C. "Right now, we value two-byfours. We don't put a market value on the other things."

B.C. and its beetle-killed forests are part of a global community grappling with issues of deforestation, climate change and biodiversity.

"The whole picture has to transform, not just here but around the world," said Simard, who supports maintaining a greater natural diversity in B.C.'s forests.

And if we don't address the issue?

Kathy Lewis, a professor of ecosystem science and management at the University of Northern B.C., confirms that a diverse forest is the best way for B.C. to meet the uncertainties of climate change, and fears the public doesn't realize their importance to clean water and their ability to store carbon.

"We've seen what happened to the cod industry when people stop paying attention to the resource," she argues. "We don't want to see that happen with forestry here in B.C."


B.C.'s pine-beetle epidemic began in the 1990s, but it wasn't until 2001 - a full decade ago - that the province began ramping up the annual allowable cut in a failed attempt to arrest its progress.

Winters were suddenly warmer, improving the beetles' survival rates. Summers had become hotter and drier, potentially stressing the forests. And fire suppression had created an abundance of the mature trees preferred by the tiny creatures, which are the size of a grain of rice and carry a blue-stain fungus that finishes off the trees.

Their appetite has been prolific.

The B.C. government estimates that of the 2.3-billion cubic metres of merchantable lodgepole pine in the province, the beetles have claimed 726-million cubic metres over at least 17.5-million hectares.

As The Sun discovered during its research, salvage logging of those beetle-killed forests has created vast clear-cuts that would loom abhorrent on the face of our local Coast Mountains, but remain far less obvious on the relatively flat Interior Plateau.

The cuts tend to be in the hinterlands, where forestry is king and the environmental impact of salvage logging has received scant attention from the news media or urban-based environmental groups.

Salvage clear-cutting is not restricted to dead pine trees, either, but takes healthy, more commercially valuable species of trees with greater biological importance.

Other species such as spruce and fir represent about onethird of the merchantable harvest in areas of the Interior being salvage-logged for lodgepole pine. That figure does not include any immature trees and brush (smaller than 12.5 centimetres in diameter at breast height) in the understory also wiped out by clear-cutting.

One clearcut visited by The Sun about an hour southwest of Prince George spanned at least 5,000 hectares - an area 12.5 times the size of Stanley Park - with relatively little retention of forest for wildlife.

It resembled a vast dry plain, due to its sandy soils and the small amount of large wood left behind for smaller creatures.

Incongruously, the site was lit up by a rainbow. No pot of gold here.

The mountain pine beetle swept through this stretch of Crown land in 2003. Two years later, in 2005, it was timber giant Canfor's turn.

"It was logged as one big progressive clearcut," said The Sun's tour guide, Phil Burton, a senior researcher with the Canadian Forest Service and co-author of the book Salvage Logging and Its Ecological Consequences.

"As a whole, it's a pretty massive footprint," he said. "Anything that eats grass would enjoy this habitat. But anything that needs escape cover, if it's sitting out there it would have a hard time getting by. If you're a bird looking for a place to perch or nest or forage for dead insects in bark or logs you wouldn't find much here."

Invasive plants such as Canada thistle and bull thistle, a noxious weed, are more likely to make inroads in the opened landscape, perhaps arriving with cattle grazing on the clearcut, he added.

By removing green trees and vegetation along with dead pine, the site now generates more greenhouse gas emissions, in direct contrast to a provincial policy to reduce them.

Green trees and foliage represent a sink because they absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, explained Art Fredeen, a professor and acting chair of the ecosystem science and management program at the University of Northern B.C. Decomposition of a forest creates greenhouse gas emissions. Selective logging of forests - taking the dead pine for lumber and leaving the live trees - is one way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. "We see that as a real potential ... but the common mode of harvesting is clear-cutting," Fredeen said.

Mark Feldinger, senior vicepresident of forestry and environment for Canfor, the largest pine-beetle harvester in B.C., said in response that emergency management zones were created with "large openings" as part of a government effort to attack the beetle and try to reduce its spread across the Interior.

Canfor's logging of this particular site was "consistent with government objectives," he emphasized.


The aftermath

A five-part series on the lingering effect of the mountain pine beetle infestation and the strategies used to fight the pest and salvage as much wood as possible.

TODAY: Pine beetles, salvage logging and the environment

Saturday: Inside a 'dead' forest

Monday: Flooding and the effect on ranchers

Tuesday: The bite of salvage logging on ecotourism

Wednesday: The struggling forest industry

To appreciate the evolution of those objectives, one must understand the dramatic change in forestry policy with successive governments over the past 16 years.

In 1995, Mike Harcourt's NDP government introduced the Forest Practices Code, "prescriptive" legislation that detailed how logging should take place in B.C. It generated industry complaints of excessive red tape and costs.

Allowable cut ramped up

In 2001, the province began ramping up the annual allowable cut in an attempt to arrest the beetle's spread, rates that increased in coming years as B.C. tossed the notion of sustainable harvesting out the window.

"It was treated very much as a fire is treated, 'We have this problem and we have to deal with it,'" said Marvin Eng, manager of special investigations for the Forest Practices Board, a government watchdog.

In 2004 - three years after logging rates increased - Gordon Campbell's Liberal government replaced the Forest Practices Code with the "results-based" Forest and Range Practices Act.

The act limited clear-cuts to 60 hectares in the Interior, but it didn't apply to beetle salvage logging - which had no upper limit on the size of clear-cuts.

Environmental protection was not forgotten during the transition to results-based forest management. The Forest Planning and Practices Regulation set out environmental objectives for values such as soils, timber, fish and wildlife, biodiversity, riparian areas, water, visual quality and cultural heritage resources.

But the responsibility for meeting those objectives fell to the forest companies.

"Government made a conscious decision to give up on land stewardship," asserts Fred Bunnell, professor emeritus of forest sciences at the University of B.C. "The notion was, 'Give all that to the forest companies.'"

Bunnell headed a scientific panel for sustainable forestry practices in Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s.

Earlier this year, he served as lead author of a comprehensive report for the Canadian Forest Service on the "ecological consequences" of large-scale logging of B.C.'s pine forests.

The report found that the pine beetle and subsequent salvage operations influenced "all major habitat" types, and made recommendations related to protection of streams, the need to retain tree species other than lodgepole pine and to plan areas to be reserved from harvest.

Ultimately, however, the collective impact of such largescale harvesting of a landscape hit by pine beetles is unknown.


The province knew there were serious environmental troubles in the forest at least by 2004, when the Forest Practice Board's Eng - then a provincial landscape ecologist with the Forests Ministry - produced a technical report warning of potentially "significant negative effects" of salvage operations and the need for better planning at the landscape level (10,000 to 100,000 hectares).

Acting on Eng's advice, the province's chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, issued professional foresters with seven pages of "guidelines" that provided direction for retaining trees for wildlife.

Snetsinger noted "there is significant uncertainty" about the environmental effects of the 80-per-cent increase in harvesting in the Lakes, Prince George and Quesnel timber supply areas, particularly in regard to biological diversity and hydrologic function.

"Accordingly, I believe caution is warranted."

The chief forester recommended that more trees be retained for wildlife as the size of cutblocks increased: 10-per-cent retention for cutblocks smaller than 50 hectares; 10 to 15 per cent for 50 to 250 hectares; 15 to 25 per cent for 250 to 1,000 hectares; and 25 per cent for areas bigger than 1,000 hectares.

Across the larger landscape - the big picture - he said logging plans should, in part, cover "as many years as possible."

They should "recognize that retention levels may vary by landscape ... in order to retain areas of non-pine species" and should consider the "full range of values for conservation," including visual quality, winter range for animals such as moose and deer, and wilderness tourism.

Consistent with the government's new results-based system, Snetsinger did not make his wishes mandatory.

"Though this guidance is not legally binding, it is important for me, as British Columbia's chief forester, to share my thoughts on this important resource management issue with other forest professionals."

So, did the timber companies follow the chief forester's guidelines?

In a report released in November 2009, Eng, now with the Forest Practices Board, found on average trees were properly retained within smaller cutblocks, although "it remains to be seen" whether at least some of those retained trees would be cut later amid the frenzy of logging activity.

But he found no one was minding the big picture, addressing the collective impact of all those contiguous cutblocks.

Some of the cutblocks were recent pine beetle logging, but others dated back three decades to a time before the 1995 Forest Practices Code, when clearcuts did not contain wildlife patches.

Put it all together and you have a significantly altered landscape, multiple patches of logging that were authorized without consideration of the greater overall impact.

More than half of the harvest since 1978 is now in patches larger than 250 hectares and more than one-third in patches larger than 1,000 hectares, the board found. Incredibly, at least seven harvested patches, amalgams exceeding 10,000 hectares - 25 times the size of Stanley Park - have emerged, the report found.

Eng warned in his 2009 report that the opportunity to reverse the situation "may be lost without quick action."


Did the province respond swiftly in the face of such a recommendation?

Two years after the board's findings, the ministry now plans to meet with licensees in Quesnel on a Forest Management Plan pilot program related to issues such as species diversity across the landscape.

"It's not something I've given up on," Snetsinger said. "It's just a very difficult thing to do."

But Eng said nothing much has changed in the last two years. "As my father used to say, 'The mills of the gods grind slowly.'" Forest Practices Board chair Al Gorley, a former regional forests manager in Prince George, supports Eng's conclusions.

"If all I'm looking at is this block, reasonable things were done. The problem is, when you add all the blocks up, it paints a bigger picture and a more important different picture," he said.

"There was guidance from the chief forester to coordinate and look for proper ways to protect biodiversity over the landscape, but the implementation of that one was hit and miss."

Gorley called on the province to "get on with" landscape level planning with defined objectives that "are not so general that they can't be enforced."

He also wants the province to pass new legislation, if necessary, to restore power to district forests managers to intervene on key issues - including disputes with other users of Crown land and conflicts between various licensees on the landscape. With so many new logging companies on Crown land, "there are no real rules about where they can harvest, so they just look for the wood and they're stepping on the toes" of traditional operators.

Eng likens the lack of coordination of logging across the landscape to a person who receives his paycheque in $10 bills. "If you put that in your pocket and go around deciding what you're going to do with each bill, by the end of the month you haven't got anywhere because you've just got a bunch of individual decisions." Bunnell agrees coordination is lacking under a system that puts companies in charge of forest management.

He also believes the province's ability to inspect and enforce compliance in the forests has been compromised by a lack of funding, including cuts to forestry research.

"The government used to plan large areas, but they don't do that any more," he said. "It all falls to the individual companies. It has to be coordinated, but that's gone, it got in the way ... There is no vision for the forest resource."

Industry, too, would like to see provincial changes in light of the vast changes pine beetles and salvage logging have had on the Interior landscape.

Doug Routledge, vice-president of forestry and northern operations for the Council of Forest Industries, says the province needs to take a comprehensive look at various land-use plans on Crown lands. A whole range of forest values are at play, he said, including objectives for wildlife habitat, forestry, water resources, and parks and protected areas.

"As a province, we haven't done a good job of maintaining those land-use plans in light of change, and one of the changes is the mountain pine beetle epidemic."


Mark Feldinger, senior vicepresident for Canfor, the largest harvester of beetle-killed pine in B.C., said there is always room for improvement, but he feels the overall industry and government response has been satisfactory given the unprecedented epidemic that swept the Interior.

"You have a fire burning and you try to rally the troops and let's all figure out how to do this together," Feldinger said. "Do I think it's perfect today? No. Do I think it's functioning reasonably well? Yes. Professionals out there on the land base ... are using appropriate judgment."

As for the chief forester, he remains unconvinced that changes to the system are necessary.

Snetsinger said he "always knew that the landscape level was going to be a hard piece to deal with" because it required the various licensees to cooperate on areas to be harvested or set aside.

"It takes time and effort and money to do that kind of collaboration and planning. But I was hoping that would be something they'd try to do," he said.

"There is no legal objective for landscape-level planning. We didn't bring this into law. Could it have been better with landscape-level planning? Well, maybe. But at the end of the day, I think licensees have done a good job doing what the government asked them to do, which was salvage the timber and start the process of forest renewal."

As for calls to give the district forest managers more power over plans - along with a role in dispute resolution - he said they do some of that now.

"They used to be able to say yes or no to a cutting permit or forest development plan. Now if the plan meets the requirements under the act and licensees do everything they're supposed to do ... it is more likely to be in the approval mode than not," he said.

And district managers can still become familiar with the issues and stakeholders on Crown land, he said, and "play that intermediary role ... in aiding and resolving conflict."

As for legislation: "It would be something you'd have to look at very closely. I don't know that I've seen enough analysis to jump to that conclusion."

While the province reduced the harvest rate of pine beetle in areas of the Interior earlier this year, rates continue to be higher than they were before the epidemic arrived.

"We always knew these rates weren't sustainable," Snetsinger said.

Far less certain is the full impact of such unsustainable logging practices on the greater environment and its breadth of plants and animals - and how damaging one part of an intricate web of life affects the whole.

As Bunnell, the research guru, warns a seemingly content forest sector: "We're going where we've never been before - and it's all inter-connected."


Extpub | by Dr. Radut