Pine beetles' march across B.C. is a catastrophe in slow motion
Unemployment among forestry workers and amount of denuded timber harvest land will rise dramatically over next 20 years, a report says.
It's funny. You can read that pine beetles have denuded and killed an area of B.C. forest land equivalent to the area of California and New York combined, but it doesn't sink in.
It seems impossible. Sheer hyperbole.
But drive the circular route through Hope, Princeton, Merritt, Cache Creek, Lillooet, Pemberton, Whistler as I did this past weekend, and you can see it.
Kilometre after kilometre of trees stripped of needles and tinder-dry.
It's heartbreaking and frightening.
We're in the middle of a slow-motion disaster that, unlike the Gulf oil spill, Hurricane Katrina or the floods in Pakistan, is unfolding in years, not minutes and hours, weeks and months.
If you can't go and see it for yourself, look at the forest ministry's series of maps ( www.for.gov.bc.ca/hre/bcmpb/cumulative/1999.htm)that show the beetles' 15-year march east across the province, munching everything in their path.
This catastrophe is happening so slowly that for many of us the only tangible evidence of it are the two architectural centrepieces of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Yet the blue-stained beams of the Richmond oval and the showcase walls in Vancouver's convention centre are among the few bright spots.
Over the years, there have been lots of stories chronicling the beetles' massive destruction, changes to allowable annual cuts, mill closure and layoffs. The most recent reported that in the next 20 years, an estimated 28,700 forestry-related jobs will be lost, 68 per cent of the mature pine stock dead, 20 per cent of the total timber harvest land base denuded.
Fast-track harvesting of blue-stained beetle-infested wood has fuelled mills and brought workers back. With as much as 75 per cent of B.C.'s lodgepole pine needing to be cut before 2024 when the beetle-inflicted damage will make it useless, innovative new products are being made from the dry, cracking timber.
The end of the pine-beetle epidemic was heralded last September by Pat Bell even as he admitted that he's likely the first B.C. forest minister in the province's 130-year history to worry about running out of trees.
In retrospect, Bell may have been optimistic. More recent reports have suggested that damage in the Okanagan, Cranbrook and Boundary regions is not expected to peak until 2014. The problem is that there's nothing we can do. We are not defeating the beetles. They are simply running out of food and moving on.
Like all disasters -- man-made or natural -- this one is fundamentally reshaping the economy. Left in the beetles' wake are unemployed forestry workers, their worried families and allied businesses on the brink. Some communities may not survive.
Tourism, which has rescued some resource towns in the past, may not be a saviour this time. What happens when people begin to realize that a billion trees are dead and that "Super, Natural B.C." is no longer a lush forest, punctuated with mountains, ranchlands, lakes and urban areas?
And with a billion trees dead and tinder-dry, it's small wonder that 70 per cent of the province is rated at an extreme fire risk and even Vancouverites can see the smoke.
At the beginning of this week with 282 fires burning, B.C. had already spent $107 million. The only wonder is that the B.C. government chopped the firefighting budget to a decade-low of $51.7 million in what can only have been an act of political window dressing aimed at keeping the projected deficit at $2.8 billion.
It's not just forests and humans that are affected. Grizzly bears and salmon are among the species at risk as their habitat disappears.
There remain a stubborn few who argue about the cause of climate change, but the pine-beetle devastation is one of its effects. Without the usual winter cold, the beetles flourished.
And now, whether they are burning or simply decaying, the province's forests are net contributors to greenhouse gases.
Far from reducing our carbon footprint, the dying forests have been slowly seeping greenhouse gases since 2003.
Federal researchers recently reported that between 2003 and 2009, B.C.'s beetle-killed wood released 74 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent into the air. That's more than the province's combined emissions from human activity and nearly double the 38 megatonnes from the controversial Alberta oilsands.
The beetles may be gone, but so many questions linger.
What will B.C. look like at the end of this? What trees will grow in the devastated forests? Which communities will survive the migration of an estimated 11,500 forestry-dependent families?
Generations have thrived on the abundance of trees. We've marketed our province as Super, Natural B.C. and -- more presumptuously -- The Best Place on Earth.
But, who will we be if there are no trees?
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