Quote of the Week

“Ten billion beetles can’t be wrong – buy BC pine”


Considering the havoc the beetle infestation is having on forestry communities this quote is probably in poor taste. It comes from a book by Calgary writer Andrew Nikiforuk called “Empire of the Beetle – How human folly and a tiny bug are killing North America’s great forests”. This book is a comprehensive look at the  historical records of beetle infestations all over the world. Although we tend to think of the current situation as a recent manifestation precipitated by climate change that is only part of the story. While climate change is a factor it is not the only one. The author also implicates logging practices and over zealous fire control. One of the hypothesis of the book is that the beetles are only doing what beetles are meant to do – manage the forest to ensure regeneration and healthy diversity. The beetles do this by attacking old an unhealthy trees to make way for new growth. The beetle is not the bad guy in the current scenario. Forestry practices, fire control and, now, climate change have interfered with the essential environmental niche that belongs to the beetle. Things are now out of balance to the point where the beetles are attacking younger and healthier trees. And, based on the historical record, there is not much we can do about it.  Clear cutting, poisoning, hormone therapy, electric shock and even music therapy (yes Martha, there is such a thing) have little effect on outcomes. In fact most measures do more harm than good. Clear cutting destroys watersheds and fish habitats and does very little to foster diversity in the forest. The piles of slash left behind harbour beetles that have nothing better to do than continue to chow down, cohabitate and multiply on the free meals left by the logging companies.  Attempts to poison the bugs end up taking a huge toll  on the beetle’s natural predators (woodpeckers and the like). The application of hormone therapy has met with some limited and diminishing success and electric shock is too impractical to consider on a large scale. Music therapy, using the beetle’s own arsenal of sounds, still sounds a little hair brained and is some what experimental. In the past the most successful interventions have been masterminded by mother nature herself. In the past a few good forty below winters have stopped  infestations cold (pun intended). In this era of climate change cold winters of the required intensity may be a thing of the past. All told the prognosis is pretty grim. There is nothing we can do but watch the destruction of the forests and decline of communities and industries as timber resources rapidly disappear. There is even a fear that now the beetles have crossed over to the east side of the Rocky Mountains the infestation could  invade the Boreal forest and, if that happens, why not go all the way to Labrador?

Need this have happened on such a scale? The urban myth is that “ground zero” was Tweedsmuir Park and an aggressive clear cut of the diseased trees in the park would have stopped the spread of the infestation. Or, at least that’s how the myth goes. It was the politicos who were unwilling to butt heads with the tree huggers and environmentalists and chose to do nothing and the result was the spread of the infestation. Well, as I said, that’s how the myth goes and, as usual with most urban myths, the truth is a little more complicated. The complete logging of Tweedsmuir Park would have done little to control the spread of the beetle. For years the beetles were  already out there across the province doing what beetles normally do.

There is a bit of déjà vu about the situation. It reminds one of the collapse of the cod fishery twenty years ago. In the immediate aftermath  of the collapse there was tremendous pressure on the politicians to open some limited fishing to ensure some livelihood for the unemployed fishermen and plant workers. It required tremendous fortitude to resist this kind of pressure. One of the heroes of the day was John Crosbie, the then Minister of Fisheries, who called “a spade a spade” and held his ground for a rational scientific approach. With the destruction of the Burns Lake Mill and one in Prince George there are calls to open the logging of marginal forest lands to try and increase inventory to enable the rebuilding of destroyed mills. The mantra once again is jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Despite the heart break and hardship that needs to be dealt with it is a call that should be resisted. As I said déjà vu. Like the cod fish the supposedly unlimited source and supply of timber has gone, or at least going, and the unimaginable is on our door step – a decline of forestry as a mainstay of the BC economy. If the cod fishery is any indication then there is a bleak prospect for many years to come. Twenty years have gone by and there is no indication that the cod fish are returning. How long does it take a tree to reach maturity? I am pretty sure it is way more than twenty years.

Two books well worth reading are:

Andrew Nikiforuk’s “Empire of the Beetle – How human folly and a tiny bug are killing North America’s great forests”.

Michael Harris’ “Lament for an Ocean – The Collapse of the Cod Fishery: a True Crime Story”.

Both of these titles are in the Cranbrook Public Library.