A B.C. town concedes defeat to the pine beetle

Quesnel was at the heart of B.C.’s pine beetle infestation. Now its mayor is preparing for a life after forestry

A map of areas hardest-hit by the mountain pine beetle puts Quesnel at ground zero. The Central Interior city’s local forests were predominantly mature lodgepole pine, and they were virtually wiped out.

Mayor Bob Simpson—whose CV includes a stint as provincial NDP forestry critic and another as an executive—believes the disaster was the wake-up call the community needed. Rather than fight to maintain the status quo by lobbying the province to let local mills continue taking unsustainable volumes of timber from ever-dwindling forests, Simpson is preparing for what he calls a “post-forestry community.” He envisions opportunities in agriculture, for example, especially since the warming climate is expanding local growing seasons. And he sees a host of related small-business possibilities, pointing to one local operation that produces dandelion wine and tea, birch syrup and wreaths that are shipped all over North America.

That’s in stark contrast to the neighbouring community of Burns Lake, which was devastated when its Babine lumber mill burned down in January 2012. After intense lobbying from the local community, the province announced in December 2012 that it had rejigged previously announced timber-harvest plans to guarantee Burns Lake a continued supply of logs, despite the devastation of local timber stock by the pine beetle. Critics say the Burns Lake decision in essence robbed Peter to pay Paul: expanding the catchment area for timber destined for Burns Lake meant that other mills would have to make do with less—and in some cases, including Canfor’s Quesnel mill, close down entirely.

As Simpson sees it, there just aren’t enough trees to guarantee that the forest industry will remain a cornerstone of local economies. He expects that long-term, the Quesnel area’s timber supply apportioned by the province will probably settle at around one-million cubic metres a year, compared to about two-million hectares pre-beetle. “We still have three major sawmills here, two pulp mills, an MDF [medium-density fibreboard] plant and pellet plants on either side of town. The question is, how do they get fed?”

Scrambling to find enough timber to keep all the mills running is a losing game, Simpson says. “If you say to the community, We’re going to remain a forestry town, and the government steps in to do whatever it can to continue to feed your mill, you don’t have to get creative. You don’t have to have your community engage in the what-if scenarios that get you past the challenge that you have.”

The alternative, he says, is rather than lobby the province to feed an unsustainable industry, ask it for help in facing the new reality with support for emerging industries such as tourism and agriculture-related businesses. “We don’t want to be the cod fishery all over again. So stand with us, be brutally honest about what’s going to happen, and then give us the resources to re-envision our community and do things in our community that will allow us to evolve past forestry.”