Climate Change, Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, North America

ENVIRONMENT: Pine Beetle Kill No Longer Just Dead Wood

VANCOUVER, Canada, Mar 10 2009 (IPS) - The sheer magnitude of the devastation left by this tiny beetle is shocking on its own.

New 2010 Olympic Oval roof made from salvaged "pine beetle" wood.  Credit: Holly Pyhtila/IPS

New 2010 Olympic Oval roof made from salvaged "pine beetle" wood. Credit: Holly Pyhtila/IPS

“The pine beetle kill”, as it’s known to British Columbians, refers to the millions of hectares of trees left for dead in the wake of the voracious insect. Forestry officials in Canada’s westernmost province estimate the volume of wood lost to be around 620 million cubic metres – roughly equivalent to 15 million logging truck loads.

According to a B.C. Ministry of Forests report, roughly half of the province’s pine trees are now destroyed by the bug, with the most extensive damage occurring in the central Canadian Rockies, where two-thirds of the region’s lodgepole pine forests have been transformed into a sea of orange needles.

The beetle’s environmental impact is just as impressive, as the death of billions of trees normally involved in capturing carbon have instead released carbon. Canadian Forest Service scientist Werner Kurz estimates the beetle’s devastation will release almost a billion megatonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2020, equivalent to about five years of transportation sector emissions from Canada.

This tiny but destructive mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae, is about the size of a grain of rice and lives most of its life under tree bark, favouring the province’s most commercially harvested tree – the lodgepole pine – as well as ponderosa and western white pine.

The eggs are deposited under the bark, and emerging larvae cut off the nutrient and water supply while feeding. The beetles also introduce a distinct blue stained fungus that holds back a tree’s natural defences against the attack, delivering a lethal larvae and fungus combination.

The current outbreak of mountain pine beetle in Canada’s largest lumber exporting province is 10 times larger than previous outbreaks and is the largest North America has ever seen.

Experts agree two factors have allowed the invasive beetle to take root in B.C. – fire suppression and climate change. Suppression of fire for logging has left more trees standing than would naturally occur, and unusually hot, dry summers and mild winters have lead to the epidemic.

Researchers with Natural Resources Canada agree historically frigid Canadian winters have kept the mountain pine beetle at bay, but the past decade hasn’t produced cold enough temperatures to kill off the insects. A winter low of -40 C for a sustained period or a sudden cold snap in early fall or late spring of -25 C is needed to end the outbreak, but mild winters have decreased the winter mortality rate from the usual 80 percent to less than 10 percent.

Because of the reduced wood supply, forest companies have laid off thousands of workers, mills have closed and government officials are scrambling to figure out how to deal with the crisis. Fears are now mounting in the neighbouring province of Alberta, where a battle is mounting to prevent the eastward expansion of the beetle.

The worry of both the pulp and paper industry and conservationists is that the pest will spread east on a diet of jackpine, a close relative of the lodgepole pine, as the beetle has shown a taste for it. Billions of jackpine trees are at risk, as their boreal forest home stretches across a massive northern eco-region from Alaska to Newfoundland.

In B.C., the task at hand continues to be dealing with the downed timber, and until recently, beetle-infested trees had to be harvested within two or three years of attack to retain their economic value, but new uses for the dead standing timber now make harvesting possible even 20 years down the road. Logging the dead timber is also critical in decreasing the risk of higher intensity forest fires and of massive areas of blow-down with increased environmental disturbances.

B.C.’s chief forester Jim Snetsinger says “the infestation continues to grow, and much intensive work is being put into those susceptible pine stands to recover as much economic value from them and get them regenerated with healthy forests as quickly as possible.”

British Columbia has a plan to replant forests killed by the insect, but it would simply take too long. The government’s “Forests For Tomorrow” programme replants about 10,000 hectares a year. At that rate, it would take 1,500 years to replace the 15 million hectares of pine already decimated by the infestation.

While the beetles march on, some innovative industries have sprung up to make use of the dead timber covering the mountainsides. Designers and contractors have embraced the potential environmental kudos earned by building with the pine beetle wood before it rots.

The new 2010 Winter Olympics Speed Skating Oval’s roof is almost entirely made from “pine beetle” wood. Completed in December 2008, the showcase arena boasts a spectacular roof built with over a million board feet of “pine beetle” wood.

B.C. Forests and Range Minister Rich Coleman proclaims that “with B.C. wood and B.C. innovation we can do almost anything and the Olympics are the perfect opportunity to show off that creativity and ingenuity. The Oval will be a highly visible facility giving us the opportunity to market B.C. wood products to a worldwide audience.”

A student researcher at the University of Northern B.C. has also come up with an exciting new use for “pine beetle” wood. Sorin Pasca, a master’s degree student, found that wood attacked by the mountain pine beetle works as “an excellent ingredient for producing concrete,” made by mixing cement with water and wood chips.

Pasca explains that “normally cement repels organic materials such as wood, but for some reason it sticks to lodgepole pine and this compatibility is even stronger when the tree has been killed…or enhanced, by the mountain pine beetle.”

Pasca originally looked at the compound as a replacement for drywall or gypsum board, but now sees all kinds of additional applications, from flooring to countertops and tiles.

“It’s a beautiful product that combines all the structural advantages of concrete with the esthetic quality of wood,” he said. “You can drive a nail into it without pre-drilling, and cut it with regular working tools. The compound is water-resistant and stronger than many similar products on the market.”

As eco-friendly product sales grow, so do the uses for “pine beetle” wood. Trendy new companies are pushing the blue-stained wood as a sign of your “green-ness”, selling unique blue “pine beetle” siding, flooring, furniture, trim, paneling, and picture frames.

At the moment, sales can’t begin to make a dent in the amount of “pine beetle” wood already dead and waiting, but researchers agree there’s at least a 15-year window to harvest what’s on the ground now.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists ­- for Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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