If today’s news isn’t bad enough for you, take a look at the recently released Timber Supply and the Mountain Pine Beetle Infestation in British Columbia – 2007 Update. While the 2003 version spoke of 4.2 million ha affected in 12 management units, the 2007 version counts 13 million ha affected in 20 Timber Supply Areas (TSAs) containing almost 90% of the province’s mature pine available for harvest. If you’re wondering just how big that really is (I was), it’s the same land area as the Maritimes. For our European readers, that’s three times the size of Denmark.
To grab as much valuable fibre from this area as possible before it rots or burns, the AAC in 10 of the TSAs has been boosted by 45%. Still, even in the boom year of 2006 (booming at least as far as BC Interior mill production goes), the actual harvest missed the mark by 16%. It’s a huge task.
More importantly, there is growing concern that the wrong trees are being harvested in many cases. Wrong at least as far as short-term salvage and mid-term prosperity go, with too much spruce and fir, or green pine in the mix. These may well be the right trees as far as sawmillers are concerned, since life is tough enough for these troubled souls already, with border barriers, vanishing markets, and a loonie worth $1.07 in US pesos. Add to that a large volume of salvaged beetle-kill pine, and many mills just can’t make it work, despite significant re-tooling to handle this new smaller, more brittle, fibre. Dead pine hits production, lumber recovery, and profitability hard, especially at today’s stumpage rates and lumber prices.
So I’m not surprised to get calls from loggers saying they are taking too much spruce, and not enough dead or dying pine. Interior mills are for the most part run by public companies with shareholders, the next quarter, and investment outside BC to think about. They are trying to get a log mix that will maximize production and hopes of at least breaking even. Yet given the clear scenarios presented in the new beetle status report, it’s more than a little surprising that the BC Ministry of Forests and Range is playing along.
Between Two Evils
Bad or worse is essentially the choice presented in the 2007 update, which outlines two possible scenarios for the next 50 years. Which comes true depends on how and what we log over the next five or six years.
Scenario one involves maximizing pine salvage (affected stands with 70%+ mature pine) between now and when the epidemic peaks in 2012, when over 1 billion m3 will be affected. It would see high AACs in the 20 affected TSAs start dropping in a few years, to hit the pre-uplift level (“normal”) of 37.2 million m3/yr in six years, and then slowly drop over the following five years, so that by 2018, the harvest would be over 25 million m3, or 33% below the “normal” level. It would hold steady there for about 40 years, before starting to climb again. Not ideal, but a paced decline that would no doubt be manageable through mill consolidation and the development of new industries, with biomass for bio-energy getting much attention of late.
The second scenario is less forgiving. It assumes harvesting priority switching to target stands with less than 70% pine, and the result would be a stark 45% drop below the “normal” AAC by 2018, or over 5 million m3/yr less than scenario one. Once again for illustration, it helps to put these cold numbers in perspective. According to Natural Resources Canada, BC’s 87 million m3 harvest in 2005 sustained 80,000 direct jobs. My crude math tells me that a loss of 5 million m3 means the loss of 5,500 direct, well-paid jobs, almost all in remote communities.
It’s not all black and white. The vast forest fires that many expect to strike these dead pine zones may make many of the report’s calculations pointless. Nor is it an either/or choice, with different regions following different tactics depending on when the beetle struck. The report authors assume that current strategies are closer to scenario one than two, although calls from loggers, especially in the Prince George area, contradict that.
Certainly, the province’s timid salvage stumpage policy does little to encourage companies to maximize the harvest of dead and dying pine. There may be a valid reason for the current pricing policy, but when fear of the US lumber lobby drives forest policy, there are few winners on this side of the border.
Given that industry and government behaviour over the next five years will affect the employment options of close to 10,000 British Columbians (direct and indirect) over the next 50 years, it behooves those with the power to use it quickly and wisely.
Scott Jamieson, Editor