As timber supply drops, focus shifts to old growth

John Rustad, Nechako Lakes MLA, diffuses public concern about the province's approach to managing the mid-term timber supply

An estimated 18.1 million hectares of forest land in B.C. have been affected by the  mountain pine beetle.  In response

An estimated 18.1 million hectares of forest land in B.C. have been affected by the mountain pine beetle. In response

Ten years from now, more than half of the province’s merchantable pine is expected to die from the mountain pine beetle (MPB) epidemic.

Smaller than an apple seed, the beetle has killed almost half of the pine in the Lakes, Quesnel and the Vanderhoof forest district.

“It’s a very impressive force of nature,” said Dr. Dezene Uber, an ecosystem science and management professor at the University of Northern British Columbia who has studied the insect extensively.

Since the MPB epidemic began around 1999, the provincial government has spent nearly $1 billion on counter-infestation initiatives, with millions going towards preparing forestry-dependent communities for a post-beetle economy.

In May 2012, a Special Committee on Timber Supply was appointed by the province to make recommendations on how to deal with timber losses in the central interior.

According to the special committee’s report published in August 2012, in 15 years, when beetle-killed pine is no longer salvageable, the province’s supply of mature timber is expected to drop by an amount that would sustain approximately eight mills in the central interior.

“The anticipated decrease,” the report says, “will have significant negative economic and social impacts on forestry-dependent communities and present major challenges to the industry.”

But misinformation has been circulating over how the province intends to manage the mid-term timber supply, according to John Rustad, MLA for Nechako Lakes, and chair of the special committee.

Earlier this month, Rustad diffused public concern that the province was going to enter growth management areas (OGMAs) as a means of mitigating harvest shortages.

“Our report was very specific in saying that we would be not doing that,” he said.

Only when a community expresses interest in harvesting OGMAs – where timber harvesting is generally avoided – could a potential exception be made, he explained.

Even then, the area would be subjected to a science-based review process and followed by public consultations with stakeholders and First Nations.

“Ultimately it would be a decision made locally. It wouldn’t be something that would be initiated by the province,” he said.

Not all old growth forests are protected from logging, and some marginally economic stands will inevitably offer short-term solutions to what is forecasted to be a long-term shortage of mature timber in B.C.

Of the province’s 55 million hectares of forests, about 25 million hectares is considered old growth forests, 18 per cent of which are protected, according to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

In October 2012, the ministry created a new action plan focusing on reforestation, forest inventory, fuel management and silviculture.

Under the plan, the ministry will begin assessing high-priority sensitive areas in the Lakes in early 2013 to find out if proposed changes to land use objectives would affect underlying values – the protection of habitat, water quality, fish and wildlife, recreation, tourism and spiritual and visual-quality values – and, if so, to what degree.

“It has been suggested that because of the damage the MPB has caused, some of these ‘sensitive areas’ are no longer serving their original intended purposes. For example, if all the trees are dead in an old growth area, then it’s not really an old growth area any more,” said Vivian Thomas, communications manager for the ministry, in an email.

“However, some wildlife habitat areas, although affected by the MPB, still serve an important wildlife habitat area and would need to be kept as such.”

As the timber supply continues to decline, the ministry is being pressured by communities and industry to relax environmental constraints for harvesting in certain areas to retain jobs and prevent economic hardship in forestry-dependent communities.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Burns Lake, where in January 2012, the Babine Forest Products mill, the pillar of the economy there, was destroyed by a fiery explosion. Two people died, 44 others were injured and more than 200 jobs were lost.

To support the construction of a new mill, the ministry has offered the community a license to harvest a significant amount of marginally economic timber, which would help keep a new mill operating for many years to come.