There’s a war going on in the northern woods of B.C. - The Battle Against a Billion Beetles.
The decimation of B.C.’s $19-billion forest industry by the mountain pine beetle. Solution:
A three-pronged approach that tries to help the trees, the lumber and the communities at stake. In a world trained by half-hour television drama solutions and B-school case studies that make every problem seem so soluble, most people forget that sometimes, some problems are just too big to be resolved easily. Intractable and multi-layered, they require huge, complex, comprehensive multi-sectoral responses. For example, there’s a war going on in the northern woods that shows sometimes a problem is so knotty, it just can’t be conquered. From an organizational point of view, the only solution is to keep it from affecting operations too much while you grind it down slowly and salvage some learning from it. You can’t kill it – at best you can only constrain it. THE PROBLEM The war is against the mountain pine beetle, or MPB, a tiny bug no bigger than a grain of rice yet it presents a problem so monumental, it’s almost inconceivable. The MPB affects not only the province’s economy but also some 90,000 direct workers, tens of thousands of related jobs and hundreds of communities. And its damage threatens to continue until the second decade of the century. The MPB’s favourite target is the lodgepole pine, the single most common commercial tree in this province, making up 24 per cent of the total provincial growing stock. In the Interior, the lodgepole holds up half the forest industry. The MPG bores into the bark of the pine and lays its eggs underneath. Along with those teeming eggs, it deposits a fungus that plays havoc with the tree’s hydration or food system. If enough MPBs lay enough eggs, the tree’s natural defenses can’t fight off the fungus. That tree dies. Like flu seasons in the human population, MPB infestations are cyclical and have been around forever. Forestry management practices are based on this natural cycle and, before now, came to terms with this indigenous pest. In normal times and climes, the bugs are largely killed off each winter by sustained extreme cold. But these are not normal times. Over the last few years, the winter season hasn’t attacked with that long, killing cold. Whether it’s because of global warming or just a naturally occurring warm spell, the reason is immaterial. However, the result is that the MPB infestation cycle has taken off. It has become a plague. Like any growth pattern, epidemics simmer for awhile, growing slowly as they gain purchase in a population. As Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point notes, when slow accumulation eventually reaches a critical mass, it then grows exponentially. It bursts open. At this ‘tipping point’ the growth curve of an epidemic resembles a hockey stick – relatively flat – and then suddenly straight up. The MPB problem is at the hockey-stick stage. The bugs’ growth cycle began to wax in 1994 and everybody assumed it would eventually die a natural death. But it didn’t. In 2003, the cycle exploded: The area affected by MPB jumped from 89,000 square kilometres to more than 100,000 square kilometres of working forest. Thousands of square kilometres of parkland were also engulfed. The plague has been growing ever since. The math is simple and scary: If the MPB infestations continue at that rate, there won’t be a single healthy stand of lodgepole pine trees left standing. Today, more than seven million hectares, an area the size of New Brunswick, is affected. The MPB is relentlessly breeding its way across the mid-Interior, leaving a landscape of red (dying) or grey (dead) tree hulks behind. Some 283 million cubic metres of commercial wood is affected. And it’s growing fast. THE SOLUTION In the past, the MPB horde would have been unstoppable. But today, complex problem solving has evolved into its own discipline. And we’ve discovered there are many ways to tackle seemingly intractable issues. The most common is the ‘rational’ approach involving a sequence of steps: clarify the description of the problem; analyze causes, identify alternatives; assess each alternative; choose one (or several) implementation methods and launch them; evaluate the results. In 2004, all sectors in B.C. touched by the forest industry got together under the umbrella of the Ministry of Forests to apply the rational problem-solving method to the MPB plague. The perceived problem was twofold: slow the rampage and then determine what to do with the damaged trees left behind. A corollary was how to help the communities affected. The first management thrust involves preventing or reducing damage to forests in certain unaffected but susceptible areas. This ‘green attack’ approach includes the monitoring, early detection and culling of infested trees. In some locales it means removing adjacent healthy trees, a process akin to building a firebreak around a forest fire. However, it’s not a total containment policy; it’s impossible to construct a ring around the areas affected. Instead, forest managers chose the most effective spots: the most current is in the Peace River country where Alberta and B.C. are joining forces to contain the pests’ spread. The second prong involves commercial use of the affected wood (MPB attacks leave wood with a blue stain). In many ways this is a marketing problem. Forestry Innovation Investment, the Ministry of Forests’ marketing arm, is working to convince major customers such as Japan and China that MPB-affected wood, which can take as much as 18 years to degrade, is still structurally sound. The ministry is also encouraging innovative use of the wood. It has upped the allowable annual cut in some affected areas but only if the wood is used in innovative ways, such as engineered-wood products. “This may seem like a disaster, but it will advance development of engineered-wood products by a decade,” says Roger Harris, B.C. Minister of State for Forestry Operations. The third thrust manages change in the communities affected. Clearly, any B.C. Interior community dependent on forestry will have a rough ride for the next decade. In response, the B.C. government has ordered all ministries to plan change-management strategies for the affected areas, with an eye to creating new economies. For example, the Ministry of Advanced Education could encourage colleges and other learning institutions in affected areas such as Quesnel to determine how they can sell their knowledge and skills to customers in outside areas. In turn, the Ministry of Agriculture might encourage better use of affected lands. (No, grow-ops are not an option.) Harris believes that in every disaster lies opportunity: “The challenge is complex, multi-faceted, requires broad solutions and demands a multi-government approach. We can’t fix the problem but we can manage it. We do have one advantage and that’s time in which to innovate and prepare for the future. “I do believe in many ways this is an opportunity that will position B.C. as a leading economic thinker two decades out.” LESSONS LEARNED *Sometimes you can’t win. Forget the John Wayne thinking where you (almost) always win the gunfight. You just have to ‘manage’ the problem to reduce its effects. Form the ability to recognize which is which. *Stuff happens. Even the best plans can be thrown off by some unforeseen event. Sometimes it’s nature, other times it might involve a human factor, such as a sudden move by a competitor. Prepare for it: make your plan responsive and flexible. *Look for the upside. While all may appear gloom and doom, there’s usually something good that can come out of every problem. The quick, nimble and innovative keep their heads and find that something. Click here to read Tony's blog.