Monday, October 22, 2007

Slow progress on coming pine beetle disaster

The news is getting and grimmer on the pine beetle front. Yet the crisis still doesn't seem to have really captured the political and public attention it deserves.
It's difficult to grasp the scale of the economic problems ahead. B.C. has never experienced anything like it. Only the collapse of the east Coast cod fishery offers a comparable disaster.
The province has released its latest report on the update, with yet more bad news.
The timber killed by the pine beetle appears to be losing its value as lumber faster than expected, reducing the amount that can be salvaged. And there is some evidence the beetle is attacking more of the younger trees that were considered safe from destruction.
Here's the problem.
The Interior forest industry is running flat out now to harvest pine trees before they're dead and worthless. The government has offered cheap stumpage and bumped the annual allowable cut.
Last year, about 46 million cubic metres of timber were harvested for saw logs. That's about 25 per cent more than before the beetle disaster. The Forest Ministry report said that rate could last about four years, until the timber is gone. The annual allowable cut will be reduced to about half the current levels.
And the harvest will be one-third below the amount of timber being cut down and sawed into two by fours and other lumber back in "normal" times.
There will still be forestry, using other species, pines that survive and young pine trees reaching maturity. But for 50 years -- almost two generations of workers -- the traditional industry will be at half its current levels.

The impact will vary by region. But in the Quesnel area, for an example, the timber supply will be cut by some 35 per cent. About 75 per cent of the 12,000 jobs in the region are linked in some way to the forest industry. That means about 3,100 jobs at risk -- one in four employed people in the community. A similar economic disaster in the Lower Mainland would mean a loss of more than 400,000 jobs within a period of a few years. (And, I expect, it would mean a lot more government action.)
That kind of job loss creates a chain reaction. People have to leave town, so stores and other businesses suffer. The forced sale of houses hurts property values. Schools lose students. It's a nasty spiral.
At the same time the government released its forests report, it issued a progress report on efforts to come up ways to help the affected communities deal with the economic crunch.
So far, the province has been more successful at ensuring the wood gets logged than at dealing with the long-term crisis.
The progress report isn't that reassuring.
There's a big replanting push. The report talks about funding for research on ways to use the damaged wood and efforts to find new markets. Bizarrely, it goes on at length about the fact that pine-beetle wood will be used for the roof of the Olympic speed skating oval.
The government is also gathering geological information to try to lure mining companies into the affected areas. It hopes the wood can be burned to generate power and is looking at encouraging farmland.
But the rate of progress is slow --the report talks about a six-parcel agricultural pilot project. And the report's section on "Maintaining strong communities" is a little surreal. It talks about the LocalMotion program to fund bike paths and about Spirit Squares -- hardly at the centre of economic renewal.
There is more going on.
The federal government has put up $36 million for economic diversification. The Northern Development Initiative Trust has set aside $32 million for economic renewal programs and community and regional groups are at work.
But the crisis is just a few years away and the challenge enormous. And so far, the urgency of the crisis just doesn't seem to have hit home.
Footnote: The other big questions are around what will happen with the massive reforestation effort. There's concern about the threat the beetle might pose to trees as they mature and concern about the effects of global warming on the forest during the 50 years the trees will take to mature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The picture may be even grimmer:
- They've been replanting pine, only to find the beetle is now attacking these young trees as well
- It's not just pine forests under attack--other bugs that attack other key forest species have also been exploding due to recent mild winters. Though the spread has been less dramatic, the devastation from these other pests eventually could be right up there
- Massive beetle-kill clearcuts will significantly increase flash flooding and erosion, threatening downstream communities during spring floods, further stressing endangered ecosystems, wildlife & fisheries, and intensifying summer droughts.
- Mining and agriculture need lots of water--in the arid interior, many rivers and creeks are already over-subscribed...

Government's short-sighted response has focussed on maximising short-term returns, with lip-service to diversification and these other mega-challenges over the long-term.

It's a frighteningly "perfect" example of why governments, industry and citizens all need to start reconsidering "business as usual" and getting dead serious about climate change and the environment.