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Pine beetles part 3: A flood of problems for ranchers

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Issue date: 
December 7, 2011
Publisher Name: 
Vancouver Sun
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Watching the pine beetles kill off the Chilcotin's vast stands of lodgepole pine forest was bad enough for cattle rancher Randy Saugstad.

But he argues the greater concern is the way the B.C. government has allowed salvage logging to take precedence on Crown forests at the expense of other land uses and the environment.

Pointing to a clearcut on the hillside in the distance, he laments: "It's like a gold rush mentality. They have an insatiable appetite for this wood."

A thunderstorm boils up on the horizon as we travel aboard his all-terrain vehicles alongside Twinflower, past a farm gate for 14 horses, to the edge of a pond rippling with wildlife.

Yellowleg shorebirds wade for insects and a muskrat dives below the surface. "I've seen a mallard with ducklings, too," Saugstad says matter-of-factly. The only problem with this serene picture is that it shouldn't be here: this is supposed to be productive hayfields, not rendered unusable as wetland habitat for wildlife.

"We've never fertilized," he says of the swamped hayfields. "We take what crop grows. It's very productive land, it's been here a hundred years and always survived."

Noting the pond peaked at a depth of one metre last spring, Saugstad blames his predicament on clearcut logging - as old as the 1970s and compounded, more recently, by salvage logging for beetle-killed pine.


Across the Interior, altered hydrology is just one of the problems ranchers encounter during salvage logging, says Kevin Boon, general manager of the 1,200-member B.C. Cattlemen's Association.

Removal of natural forest barriers can encourage cattle to roam farther afield, making them more difficult to manage and putting them at risk of mixing with other herds and of being exposed to wild predators.

As an example, cattle might normally avoid a mature pine forest because it offers little to eat; all that changes as the death of pine trees and salvage logging open the landscape up to a flush of new grass.

Resolving the problem is not cheap at a cost of $10,000 per kilometre for fencing.

Large-scale logging is also blamed on reducing biological diversity, while increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

But flooding, for farmers, is a major concern - and there is no question salvage logging increases the risk of floods.

Even dead trees help to intercept snow and return it to the atmosphere through evaporation, thereby reducing the overall amount of snow to reach the ground. They also provide shade to slow the spring melt.

And, even in a forest of dead pine, there are living trees, including spruce and fir, that continue to absorb water.

Clearcutting these stands increases the risk of flooding downstream, along with greater siltation and erosion.

A study by the Forest Practices Board - an independent government watchdog - at Baker Creek, west of Quesnel, showed the mountain pine beetle increased the flood risk by 60 per cent, increasing to 92 per cent after salvage logging and representing a "major shift" in hydrology.

A 2011 report for the Canadian Forest Service - largely a synthesis of previous studies - concluded: "As the total area salvage logged increased, peak flows also increased and generated an associated increase in flood frequency ...."

The report, headed by Fred Bunnell, a forest science professor at the University of B.C., noted that logging as little as 30 per cent of an area "could induce significant changes" and that "in snowmelt-dominated streams, peak flow is much more sensitive to logging at higher elevations."

While the report found that retaining non-pine species could help reduce the flood risk, it found logging dead pine stands increased both the total amount and rate of spring snowmelt over what would have occurred otherwise - an effect that lasts about 15 years.

A pine beetle hydrology report, prepared for the Canadian Forest Service by staff in the Ministry of Environment and University of Victoria, says the Interior Plateau - including the Salmon River, Mahood River, and parts of the Nechako and Stuart drainages - is at the greatest risk.


Tolko Industries Ltd., the private forests company that salvagelogged about 300 hectares in the hills above Saugstad's ranch, argues that it takes great pains to consult not just with ranchers, but with first nations and other users of Crown land on how they might be affected by logging and "to seek resolution or at least to mitigate their concerns."

Noting the Forest Practices Board has not found fault with Tolko's actions, Tom Hoffman, the company's Cariboo region woods manager, argued that everyone in the Interior must appreciate that climate change and the mountain pine beetle have altered the landscape - and the people who live and work there.

"I believe Mr. Saugstad has water issues, but it's not unique to him," he said. "It's ubiquitous. Talk to any rancher or forester or anyone who builds roads, they'll say the same thing."

Tolko also counters that it undertook several measures to specifically mitigate the effects of harvesting on Saugstad's ranch, such as forest buffers along the creek and tributaries, deactivation of roads to restore natural drainage, a bridge to restrict access into the watershed, seeding, and improved retention of non-pine.

"We don't take the approach that we own the landscape," Hoffman said. "We treat everyone with respect."

While logging dead-pine forests can create hydrological problems, he said, reforestation is the fastest way to restore the hydrology. It's a case of "shortterm pain for long-term gain," he added, noting the exact impact depends on factors such as the individual site and weather conditions.

Some disagree.

Younes Alila - an associate professor in the University of B.C.'s department of forest resources management who has studied the impact of salvage logging in 1,600-square-kilometre Baker Creek - believes the only situation where salvage logging can be justified from a hydrological perspective is where the stand is predominantly pine and all or most trees have been killed by the pine beetle.

In stands of mixed ages and live trees - including pine that survived the beetle attack and other species - the understorey can have a 10-to-15-year head start over clearcutting and replanting due to increased sunlight and moisture as the pines die and the needles fall off.

"It's more economic for industry to clearcut than selectively log the dead trees. Therein lies the attempt to justify ... that salvage logging is better than leaving it behind."

Douglas Lake Ranch south of Kamloops - the largest in Canada at about 20,000 head of cattle - selectively logs the dead pine on its own property to reduce fire risk and to open up the landscape to allow movement of the cattle and to encourage growth of grass for forage.

The lesser pine is chipped for pulp or power production, and the better logs are sold to market in what is largely a breakeven operation. Other smaller trees are left intact to encourage faster regeneration.

Logging companies on the adjoining Crown range land are reluctant to adopt the same selective techniques, Boon believes, because there's no profit in it.

Alila noted the flatter Interior Plateau causes unique problems, since snow melts at the same time, unlike in mountainous regions. Clearcutting removes the ability of dead trees to intercept snow and provide shade to slow the melt.

"It's much more sensitive than steeper terrain," Alila said. "It all melts at once."

In addition, he said, erosion and sediment from the salvage logging of pine beetle stands can pose a threat to roads, bridges and culverts, and can harm aquatic life and fish, altering stream channels - even "choking" the lower Fraser River far downstream where sediments build up around municipal dikes.

While B.C.'s Forest Planning and Practices Regulation sets out water-quality objectives in terms of fish, wildlife and community watersheds, it also stipulates that such measures must "not unduly reduce the supply of timber" from B.C.'s forests.


For the record, Saugstad is not opposed to logging, only the current approach that puts the forest industry in charge of determining his future.

"I worked in logging," he says, noting his family owns a 600-hectare wood lot close by. "We're not trying to protect our viewscapes or airy-fairy stuff."

Saugstad was born and raised in the Bella Coola Valley, more than a four-hour drive to the west, where his great-greatgrandfather was among a group of Norwegians who settled in Hagensborg in the 1890s.

He used to fly helicopters in Yukon and northern B.C., including charters for the B.C. government during the controversial wolf-kill program of the 1980s.

One of the pelts from that era still adorns the wall of his log home. "We got 120 wolves that winter," he says behind a handlebar moustache.

"[The program] was working, but it wasn't socially acceptable." In 1990, he bought this 145-hectare ranch at Twinflower Creek, about 100 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake. His 150 cows and 150 calves also utilize 100,000 hectares of Crown range land extending into Big Creek Provincial Park, east of Chilko Lake, the largest high-elevation lake in North America.

Every so often, Saugstad fires up the single-engined, homebuilt Pegazair plane he keeps in a shed and conducts an aerial patrol to keep track of his cattle.

Wolves have been increasing in the Chilcotin in recent years, he argues, aided by the network of logging roads that allows ever greater access to the backcountry.

"You fly around, and the whole country, there's no place without a road," he says, accurately observing that human hunters also have easier access to game such as moose.

Those flights also reveal a landscape that is far from dead, a rich flush of plants growing on the forest floor beneath the dead pine and helping to hold back flood waters - until salvage loggers show up.

And flooding isn't the only problem. Saugstad says low stream flows last summer starved his $30,000 hydrogenerating system - which includes 2.5 kilometres of 15-centimetre pipeline that normally produces five kilowatts of electricity.

Last January, he says, reduced water meant that a pool near his house froze solid, killing off the resident rainbow trout.

"Not a one left. Frozen solid to the bottom."

Clearcutting, Saugstad argues, also helps to produce an evenaged stand of pine that will become susceptible down the road to the next wave of pests.

"None of this stuff is based on good science," he said. "It's based on a knee-jerk reaction by [then-premier Gordon] Campbell's government when the beetles came. The mills convinced him, 'Oh, let's salvage it.'"

A decade ago, the province began ramping up the annual allowable cut in response to the pine beetle outbreak: more logging companies, bigger clearcuts with no upper limits, and companies put in charge of ensuring their logging meets government objectives.

It's not so much a question of companies doing wrong in the bush, Saugstad observes, but a system that puts too much power into the hands of industry to determine what happens in the field.

"We need some protection from the forest service again," he said. "There's got to be some rules back in place and some oversight from the government. We can't have the fox guarding the hen house like it is now."

The province's chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, said in response that timber licensees cannot "disregard water issues" created by salvage logging, noting that the "beetle can affect the water table, there's no question about it, and the logging can affect it more. That's fair to say."


The Forest Practices Board has expressed discontent with the way the province gives industry the ultimate say out here.

In a 2010 report on Saugstad's case, the board concluded, "there is fundamental weakness in the ... system that allows one tenure holder to hold the power of decision over another tenure holder."

The Saugstad report noted about 42 per cent of the 8,500-hectare Twinflower Creek watershed had been logged, mostly in the 1970s.

Due to a "history of flooding and erosion events" on the ranch downstream, the province in 1989 - one year before Saugstad bought the property - attempted to mitigate the risk of flooding and erosion by excavating the creek to better channel the water through the property, the board report found.

Two years later, in 1991, a major storm caused considerable damage to the ranch - damage blamed on the 1989 excavation.

That history might have created an argument against further salvage harvesting - but that's not what happened.

Tolko clearcut about 300 hectares, a figure the company argues is relatively small on the landscape.

The board said in its report that the effect of clearcutting "can be higher peak flows occurring earlier in the season, compared with those that occur in a mature, non-harvested forest. These higher peak flows can affect water quality and stream channel stability."

The board said research shows that a stand of dead conifers will provide about "50 per cent of the hydrological function" of a live stand, once the conifers have lost their needles.

However, it also found that allowing a stand to die, decay and regenerate naturally will result in a slower rate of hydrological change compared with clearcutting.

Leaving it to nature "prolongs the hydrological recovery of the area," it found, adding that research on the Fraser Plateau indicates that "by 35 years, the regenerated stands will be providing a similar hydrological function as a mature stand."

The board found no research to show that "existing summer water shortages would be reduced further by harvesting" - something Saugstad insists is taking place.

The "peak flow hazard index" is a form of measurement of flood risk. At Twinflower Creek, a provincial forests official had recommended that the rating for the watershed not exceed 0.5, a moderate hazard.

Tolko, the company with logging rights in the area, estimates that the hazard level reached 0.66 after the pine beetle epidemic, increasing to a high hazard of 0.78 post harvesting.

The company estimated an elevated risk from harvesting would last about 20 years, after which conditions would be better than had the dead stands not been harvested.

The board report noted provincial legislation does not require Tolko to conduct a "formal, full watershed assessment" and that timber and ranching objectives diverged.

"The licensee's rationale for harvesting and accepting a higher risk, is based upon economic benefits and possibly improving the rate of hydrologic recovery in the watershed over the longer term.

"For the rancher, the shortterm risk is what is relevant."

Saugstad defiantly rejects any suggestion that if he stops poking his finger in other peoples' eyes he actually might get more cooperation.

Now 60, he takes no comfort in the promise that conditions will be back to normal in 20 years. Which means he's now fighting as much for the rights of other ranchers as himself.

"We're having an impact. Our views are being heard. I'm not quitting."


The aftermath

A five-part series on the lingering effect of the mountain pine beetle infestation and the strategies used to fight the pest and salvage as much wood as possible.

Friday: Pine beetles, salvage logging and the environment

Saturday: Inside a 'dead' forest

TODAY: Flooding and the effect on ranchers

Tuesday: The bite of salvage logging on ecotourism

Wednesday: The struggling forests industry


View more videos below:

Video: Chilcotin rancher Randy Saugstad shows the impact of logging above his neighbour's property in the Big Creek watershed.

Video: Multiple years of clearcutting beetle-killed lodgepole pine forests have drastically altered landscape in the Chilcotin.

Video: A small black bear seeks safety by climbing a Douglas fir


Extpub | by Dr. Radut