Fletcher: Last stand in B.C. forests pine beetle battle

The B.C. government’s own watchdog cut through the noise with a devastating audit of the state of Crown forests.

As MLAs resumed their raucous legislature arguments over a municipal auditor-general, the B.C. government’s own watchdog cut through the noise with a devastating audit of the state of Crown forests.

Auditor General John Doyle’s survey of the province’s vast forest comes at a critical time. A team of forest ministry experts is examining the situation at Burns Lake, to see if the Babine Lake Forest Products sawmill can be rebuilt, after a tragic explosion and fire on Jan. 20.

Babine was one of a string of high-volume mills along Highway 16 in northwestern B.C. that have been working their way through the enormous stock of decaying pine that surrounds them.

The “shelf life” of these trees is estimated to extend to 2019, but that’s a best-case scenario. In reality the expanse affected by pest and disease is much more complex.

The B.C. government touts its Forests for Tomorrow program that started in 2005 with a boost of federal funds to restock B.C.’s burned and beetle-killed forests.

More than 14 million seedlings are to be planted this year and up to 21.5 million next year.

Total planting is about 200 million trees this year, most done by industry as a condition of Crown timber licenses, as has been the practice since 1987.

Is it enough, in this era of climate shift, massive die-off and fires? Doyle says no.

“We noted a significant gap between the total area replanted by the ministry and the total area suitable for replanting,” the auditor writes. “The ministry has not indicated how this low level of silviculture investment reconciles with its legislated mandate to achieve long-term timber benefits and to maintain or enhance future timber supply.”

And he criticizes the quality of industry reforestation, describing a tendency to choose “the least-cost, least-risk approach to meet reforestation regulations, which means planting lower-cost, faster-growing species.” Species diversity and adaptation are what is needed.

Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson has watched pine, fir and spruce beetles chew through his region, march east through the Kootenays and now the north and west. He says the Burns Lake situation brings into focus the biggest problem identified by the auditor: the poor state of B.C.’s forest inventory.

As much as three quarters of it is out of date, some by decades. Much of it is based on aerial photographs rather than on-the-ground assessment by foresters. Species have shifted.

And at a time when climate factors have caused the most rapid changes in the 100-year history of the B.C. Forest Service, budget cuts and reorganization into a natural resources ministry have taken their toll.

Even with the most recent appraisals completed last summer for four forest districts, including the Burns Lake district, the ministry still can’t say if there are enough logs available to rebuild Babine.

Simpson says the industry knows the answer. Two of the world’s highest-capacity sawmills are at Houston and Vanderhoof, on either side of Burns Lake, and their huge salvage log supply is degrading and running out. A political intervention to “save” the Burns Lake mill would only take shifts away from others.

An alternative would be to make Burns Lake a proving ground for bioenergy, to deal with the huge mass of trees that will never make lumber.

Finally, a bright note for Burns Lake. The people and the economy are adapting. A job fair in the village offered entry-level as well as skilled positions at the Houston and Vanderhoof mills. There are more positions on offer at the Mount Milligan and Huckleberry mines and Enbridge, which has gas, solar and wind projects on the go.