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'Rapid Warming' Spreads Havoc in Canada's Forests

Red trees mark the advance of the mountain pine beetle.
Red trees mark the advance of the mountain pine beetle. (Leo Rankin -- British Columbia Forest Service)

In an attack played out millions of times over, a female beetle no bigger than a rice grain finds an older lodgepole pine, its favored host, and drills inside the bark. There, it eats a channel straight up the tree, laying eggs as it goes. The tree fights back. It pumps sap toward the bug and the new larvae, enveloping them in a mass of the sticky substance. The tree then tries to eject its captives through a small, crusty chute in the bark.

Countering, the beetle sends out a pheromone call for reinforcements. More beetles arrive, mounting a mass attack. A fungus on the beetle, called the blue stain fungus, works into the living wood, strangling its water flow. The larvae begin eating at right angles to the original up-and-down channel, sometimes girdling the tree, crossing channels made by other beetles.

The pine is doomed. As it slowly dies, the larvae remain protected over the winter. In spring, they burrow out of the bark and launch themselves into the wind to their next victims.

British Columbia is a buffet laid out before them. Years of successful battles against forest fires have allowed a thick concentration of old lodgepole pines to grow -- a beetle feast that natural wildfire would have stopped.

"It was the perfect storm" of warmer weather and vulnerable old trees, coupled with constraints that slowed logging of the infected wood, said Douglas Routledge, who represents timber companies in the city of Prince George.

At the province's Ministry of Forests and Range in Quesnel, forestry officer Pelchat saw the beetle expansion coming as "a silent forest fire." He and his colleagues launched an offensive to try to stop or at least delay the invasion, all the while hoping for cold temperatures. They searched out beetle-ridden trees, cutting them and burning them. They thinned forests. They set out traps. But the deep freeze never came.

"We lost. They built up into an army and came across," Pelchat said. Surveys show the beetle has infested 21 million acres and killed 411 million cubic feet of trees -- double the annual take by all the loggers in Canada. In seven years or sooner, the Forest Service predicts, that kill will nearly triple and 80 percent of the pines in the central British Columbia forest will be dead.

Pelchat is now spending his time trying to plan recovery through replanting. In this area, a mature pine forest takes 70 years to grow.

Meanwhile, the beetle is moving eastward. It has breached the natural wall of the Rocky Mountains in places, threatening the tourist treasures of national forest near Banff, Alberta, and is within striking distance of the vast Northern Boreal Forest that reaches to the eastern seaboard.

"If that beetle is allowed to come any further, it will absolutely devastate our eastern slope forests," said Coutts, in Alberta. "If we're not prepared, it's going to infest all Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and then northern Ontario in 20 years. This is the battlefront."

Ironically, Quesnel is booming now. The beetle has killed so many trees that officials have more than doubled the allowable timber harvest, so loggers can cut and haul as many dead trees as possible before they rot. The icy roads are choked with giant trucks growling toward the mills, loaded with logs marked with the telltale blue stain fungus.

In town, two sawmills and the plywood and pulp plants of the largest company, West Fraser Mills, are "running flat-out," with shifts round-the-clock, said Tom Turner, a manager there. He walked the catwalks of a sawmill as whirling machines below grappled and twirled the offloaded trees. Computers sized up each log, instantly figured the best cut, and shoved it at furious speed through giant disk saws and planers to produce lumber that rail cars would carry to home builders in the United States.

West Fraser is spending $100 million to upgrade the mill. Other companies have added shifts and proposed new plants to make chipboard or wood-fuel pellets. Property values in Quesnel are rising, rents are up, the local shopping center is flourishing again and unemployment has dropped, said Nate Bello, the mayor of Quesnel.

But the boom will end. When what people here call "beetlewood" is removed or rots out -- and no one is sure how long that will take -- the forestry industry "will be running at about half speed," Bello acknowledged.

He sees his chief challenge as figuring out how to convert Quesnel from a one-industry town to something with a more diverse economic base. He and city officials talk of attracting retirees and small, computer-based businesses, and even of luring tourists to the area, despite the stark industrial tableau of sawmills and pulp plants.

Some people in town say those are quixotic plans. "This town is going to die," scoffed Pat Karey, 62, who spent 40 years at the sawmill. Other men in the Quesnel cafe -- "Smokers Welcome" said the sign in the window -- nodded in assent.

"A mill job is $20 an hour, or $30 with benefits. The jobs they are talking about bringing in are $8-an-hour jobs," said Del Boesem, whose runs a business dismantling heavy logging machinery.

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