B.C. Forest Industry: Beetlemania

Dendroctonus ponderosae. A very big title for such a small insect, but, given its effect on B.C.’s forests and economy, it befits the owner.

Dendroctonus ponderosae. A very big title for such a small insect, but, given its effect on B.C.’s forests and economy, it befits the owner.

At only four to 7½ millimetres long – on par with a grain of rice – the mountain pine beetle has established itself as the Attila of our coniferous forest. According to a March 2008 report released by the Ministry of Forests and Range and the Council of Forest Industries, the mountain pine beetle has now affected an estimated 710 million cubic metres of timber – up from 582 million cubic metres the previous year; if infestation continues at the same rate, around 76 per cent of the province’s 1.35 billion cubic metres of marketable pine will be dead by 2015. Based on those figures, $43 billion of lumber products are at risk, and the province is looking at losses in the ballpark of $10 billion in stumpage fees – all thanks to a tiny, rapacious insect.

The beetle’s presence in B.C. has been documented since 1910, though it has been part of the region’s ecosystems for millennia. While population levels have historically been kept in check by natural forest fires and cold snaps, fire suppression and warmer winters have allowed the beetle’s numbers to expand exponentially in recent decades, leaving behind huge tracts of highly visible dead, rust-coloured trees – a telltale sign of the insect’s presence. To salvage the pine that’s still usable, the provincial government has been increasing the level of allowable annual cuts in areas affected by the pest – though government and industry officials alike continue to pray for that now-mythical cold snap to stop the beetle’s spread.

In the meantime, an increasing number of people who make their living from wood have begun to shift their focus.The infected pine, tinged blue from fungus deposited by the beetle, has long been blacklisted by operations that value uniformity; consumers often mistake the stain for mould, meaning wood suppliers and builders tend to favour its blond, unblemished counterpart. However, if a beetle-infested tree is harvested before it starts to rot, the integrity of the wood is intact and only the indigo striations differentiate it from uninfected trees.

With the surge of bluestain now in circulation, creative new thinking has kept the beetle-kill wood – also known as bluestain or denim pine – from being a dead seller. “I first began using beetle-kill because it is so important to use a resource that is on the brink of such a disaster,” says Lacey O’Neill, one of a growing number of local designers and woodworkers finding beauty in B.C.’s pine beetle catastrophe. The Prince George woodworker, who uses the azure-stained product in her custom art, worries that a lot of good wood will go to waste if people aren’t shown the value of it. “I believe it is very important to send the message that the wood itself is not ruined. It is a perfectly viable material and, in my opinion, more beautiful than it was originally.”

Vancouver-based woodworker Peter Rainier, who teaches furniture design at the Art Institute of Vancouver, agrees. “I really feel that the government has an opportunity here to promote a very unique wood and they haven’t stepped up to the plate,” says Rainier. “B.C. is still in that ‘hewers of wood, carriers of water’ mentality. . . therefore, when this problem came up, all they thought about was logging all of it quickly instead of logging it and thinking about what else can we do with this unique wood. There are always silver linings to every problem, and they kind of stumbled on this one.”

While there have been a number of government-funded initiatives focused on recovering maximum economic value from beetle-affected wood, Rainier, who speaks on behalf of a number of small, B.C.-based woodworkers, says their collective impact has been negligible. Even though his first design piece – a seven-foot floor lamp carved from a cerulean-drenched slab of pine – ended up in the premier’s office, he says the lack of political advocacy toward improving public understanding of the product has fallen far short of the mark. “It’s hard for us to promote this stuff because, frankly, we just don’t have the marketing money. This wood is going to be around for a long time; we need to think about the long term.”

In places such as the coniferous Rubicon of Prince George, where the forests surrounding the city are red, dead and impossible to ignore, it makes sense to examine alternative industries. Twenty-six-year-old Kyle Roberts did, joining forces with his “Business: The Next Generation” class at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George to create a company called Blue Pine Products. When he finished the program in 2003, Roberts bought his classmates’ shares and became sole proprietor of the company, which makes a variety of home accessories such as picture frames, furniture and clocks from beetle-killed wood.

“It’s an easy product to sell. Once people see the wood and hear the story, they approve of the product,” says Roberts, who has been building supply contacts in Asia. He says the bluestain pine is welcome in Beijing’s interior-design market. “This wood is pushing people to be more creative, and I think there is going to be a lot of positives to come out of it. When people actually see it, you can tell that they think it’s pretty cool.”

Due to the enormity of the pine beetle situation, it confounds woodworkers that the commodity isn’t separated from unaffected wood to improve accessibility. Bluestain is still mixed in with regular pine at hardware stores and lumberyards, where artists and customers pick through it. Those in the know go straight for the pigmented material, looking for unique patterns the same way they would look at grain in a high-end hardwood. As there is no price differential for the blue lumber, which is sold as a visual grade product, it falls to the buyer to select the pieces with the bluest character.[pagebreak]

The City of Richmond decided to use more than one million board feet of pine beetle lumber in the roof of its new Olympic speed-skating oval. Incorporating bluestain in the design fit well with the building’s overall green strategy, which conforms to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. LEED guidelines promote environmentally sustainable building performance in a number of areas, including materials selection. Using the salvageable beetle-kill pine in the roof allowed the builders to utilize and promote a crisis commodity in a highly public structure.

“Part of the original 2010 bid was to use B.C. wood products as much as possible,” says Ted Townsend, senior manager of corporate communications for the City of Richmond. “In coming up with the idea for the wood roof, we wanted to go with the pine beetle wood because the facility is going to be seen by millions of people worldwide as well as by all the people here for the Olympics. It’s a good way to showcase pine beetle wood as a viable construction product.”

In the small town of Comox on Vancouver Island, Steve Roscoe is surrounded by thousands of board feet of carefully selected bluestain pine from around the province. As co-owner of Woodland Flooring Co., a company focused on the sale and promotion of sustainably harvested local wood, he is something of a woodlot expert, able to quickly discern what kind of pine will sell. He has just returned from a trade show in Vancouver, where curious onlookers embraced his beetle-kill product. “People always love it – they’re fascinated by the story and by the look of the wood,” he says, adding that over the past nine years this public interest has proven to be his most consistent business ally. Roscoe says any mistrust of the product stems from a lack of understanding. “Some people think it’s going to be full of bug holes . . . but when you’re doing flooring you have to have something that has performance to it too.”

According to Roscoe, the problems with bluestain pine aren’t with the finished product, but stem from high cutting costs in certain regions. The wood is expensive to fell in wet-belt areas such as the coastal ranges, where high precipitation levels speed up the rate of decay and intensify the need to cut before the wood becomes unusable. Companies working on Crown land and paying associated stumpage fees can expect to reap only 20 to 30 per cent recovery on the trees in wet areas but up to 65 per cent in dry-belt areas such as the Chilcotin region near Williams Lake. “You have to evaluate each of the areas to know what you’re going to get from the lumber,” says Gary Desrosier, quality control manager for the Council of Forest Industries. “The older it gets, the less recoverable lumber you will get. If it’s in a dry-belt area, bug-kill wood can stay alive for 20 years and you can still get lumber out of it – otherwise it turns useless pretty fast.”

The pine beetle and its voracious appetite may seem an insurmountable challenge in the forestry realm, but, as in any market, when demand outweighs supply, the numbers are bound to fall. Experts have already estimated an end is near, if only because the beetle has eaten its way through the majority of pine across B.C. and will have little to sustain it in the future. The dead trees will be left to decay or be harvested; either way they will fuel fires, the ecosystem or the small-but-thriving bluestain market. Although industry giants will never make back the billions in lost profits, creative thinking by small-scale producers such as Rainier, Roberts and Roscoe has proven the possibility of life after death.