What to do about the pine beetle infestation

May 22nd, 2007
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We’re getting somewhat weary of the hand wringing and cries of disaster over the mountain pine beetle infestation in B.C. (which also now threatens Alberta’s lodgepole pine). There’s no question the outbreak will do economic damage – not least in the area of tourism – and will have unpleasant social and of course environmental effects.
But it’s simply no Hurricane Katrina or Mount Pinatubo.

Last week Bob Holtby and Ken Long blogged at length about how, in their view, “global warming” is neither the primary cause nor even a substantial driver of the mountain pine beetle outbreak, as widely claimed by environmental groups and routinely parroted by mainstream media outlets.

A major factor is that B.C. today has an estimated three times the acreage of mature lodgepole pine as it did 80-100 years ago. Mature pine trees are the most vulnerable to being infested, weakened and eventually killed by the mountain pine beetle.

The B.C. government’s response has included a program to salvage something from the damage by logging dead or dying stands of lodgepole pine. While this will create large areas covered with particular demographic classes of newly planted pine – which will mature at once 80-100 years from now – this still seems preferable to doing nothing. Huge areas of standing dead timber constitute a massive fire hazard, and the subsequent natural regrowth, though slower than replanting, would have a similar demographic effect over the long-term.

So what is happening now is that the allowable annual cut (AAC) of timber permitted by the B.C. government has risen dramatically to salvage what pine can still be used in the sawmills. Unfortunately, the heavy supply is heading into a very soft U.S. housing market, which means lumber prices have gone into the tank.

The AAC will fall dramatically once the salvaged wood is harvested. Then there will be a period of readjustment as surplus sawmills and pulp mills are shut down .

However, the question remains as to who is going to get what remains of the cut. Will it be allocated according to a bidding process that lets price allocate scarce resources? This is a radical concept in Canada’s forest industry, though common practice in the U.S. Or, will the cut be allocated according to government diktat – letting the suits decide? Stay tuned.

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