Forestry-based economies at risk

Bone chilling temperatures, well-tuned, razor-sharp chainsaws and hours spent freezing on a snowmobile. These are just a few of the experiences I’ve encountered in the long days and hard nights’ battle against the mountain pine beetle in Alberta.

The province of Alberta has been fighting that beetle since an in-flight of the bug was brought in from British Columbia in 2006.

The week is tougher than most jobs in our huge nation, and it sometimes seems to be a losing battle. But every winter, people like me go into the woods to fall and burn as many infected pine trees as we can.The destruction to the Alberta and British Columbia’s forest range is devastating due to the mountain pine beetle.

Photo courtesy of WineCountryInn/Wikimedia Commons

A lot of money for a bug

The government has spent roughly $300-million on that effort, with $30-million spent in 2011 alone. Most of the money went towards the removal of around 130,000 infected trees — each of which could potentially infect 5 others.

This past year $40-million was given to control the beetle, and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development spokesperson Duncan MacDonnell estimates the number of infected trees will again be above 100,000. Alberta’s forests are estimated to be worth about $8-billion, so protecting as much of them as possible is an obvious choice.

To do so, certified fallers run their whining chainsaws for almost every daylight hour, falling and bucking as many trees as they can. Then someone piles the logs and burns them. I have never felt like more of a grunt worker than when lifting hundred-plus-pound pieces of wood, grunting with each lift, and putting them in a pile.

“Buck’em and chuck’em” is a popular saying among piecework forest workers like myself.

At night I couldn’t stop eating, loading on the calories for the next day — a couple of beers in the shower adds some extra. I’d plop down onto bed like a block of Jell-O, shutting off my screaming muscles. I would sometimes ask myself, “Is it worth it? Are my blood, sweat and beers all for nothing? Can we stop this beetle?”

Slowing down the rapid spread

In British Columbia, that doesn’t seem to have been possible. I lived in Kamloops B.C., attending university while the beetle was still in full swing there. I have seen the horizon to horizon sight of red, dead trees. I helped my uncle cut down infected stands outside of Kamloops — property that his family has had for almost 100 years.

Allan Carroll, who teaches in the departments of forest services at the University of British Columbia, was working for the Canadian Forest Service when the bugs were crossing the B.C. border.

As a member of the Spread Control Overview team, he helped advise the Alberta government on how to best control the beetle.

“Any effort spent at removing beetles is going to be seen as a detectable slowing of the population,” Carroll says.

“Whether or not you are able to reach the level of slowing you need to cause the population to collapse back to a sub-outbreak state is an altogether different issue. In B.C., it was not possible. But in Alberta at this point in time, it still remains a possibility.”

My muscles felt a little better after hearing that. At least the fall and burn work wasn’t a complete waste of energy — both the trees’ and mine.

Carroll compared the beetle epidemic to a department store credit card with an insane interest rate. If the interest is never covered, than the amount owing will always be growing.

“You can’t necessarily get at it and handle the entire amount owing in a single year,” he says.

“You’ve got to keep at it year after year, and the more you can pay down the higher the rate of decline will be in the balance.”

Carroll adds, “If Alberta is able to keep up the level of commitment that they have been investing to date, there is a very real possibility that they can cause the population to decline back below the out-break level.” 

Suffering the consequences

Not only would jobs like the one I did be at risk if the pine forests of Alberta were to meet the same fate as their relatives in B.C., but also entire communities rely on the forestry sector to make a living.

Brock Mulligan, director of communications for the Alberta Forestry Products Association told me that they are very aware of the threat the mountain pine beetle has on Alberta’s environment, and economy.

“From a forest health perspective and from an economic perspective, it’s essential because there are about 50 communities around the province that are dependant on the forest industry, and having significant challenges in your forest definitely impacts them.”

Government spending is always controversial, especially when that government reports a deficit. Some groups might argue that funds could be used elsewhere, and other groups argue the opposite.

MacDonnell says that they have always received the amount that they have asked for, and they will make their request for funding for 2013 in the coming months.

“We’re holding the line south of Grande Prairie,” he says as if we’re actually talking about a war. “The leading edge just east of Slave Lake hasn’t moved in the last couple of years.”

So I can sleep at night, tonight. But tomorrow is another day and with it, it brings potential climate change, which could influence the spread of the beetle. It could bring the possibility of another in-flight over the next four or five years, and the chance that the government could cut funding to the beetle control program.

The battle of beetle year 2012 is over, but the war wages on.

jthompson@cjournal.ca

Watch this informative NASA video about the mountain pine beetle