Replanting Dying B.C. Forests

More than half of the province’s pine forests have been decimated by beetles and fire, and at least two million hectares of Crown forest need to be restocked. The province doesn’t have the money to do it. Can private investors and innovations in tree planting fill the gap in time to save the forest industry?

B.C. lumber | BCBusiness
Planting 200 million seedlings a year, it would take 10 years to replace B.C.’s beetle-killed trees.

More than half of the province’s pine forests have been decimated by beetles and fire, and at least two million hectares of Crown forest need to be restocked. The province doesn’t have the money to do it. Can private investors and innovations in tree planting fill the gap in time to save the forest industry?

The clusters of red pines dot the view from Kelowna’s Knox Mountain Park, the unnatural colour standing out against the earth’s green skin like an ugly rash. The trees appear to be huddling for shelter from the wind, but in reality their main predator is no larger than a grain of rice – the mountain pine beetle.

The mountain pine beetle epidemic reached its peak between 2005 and 2008, but there are still areas, like Kelowna, that are just starting to see the effects, which can take more than a year to show. Since the 1990s, the mountain pine beetle has killed more than eight million hectares of forest in B.C.’s northern and central interior. Catastrophic wildfires in 2003 and 2004 have added to the devastation in the forestlands, burning 490,000 hectares. These events have not only changed the province’s environmental landscape, but have altered the way reforestation companies do business.

The trickle effect from the insect damage, low timber prices and decreased demand from the U.S. housing sector have also combined to wipe out 23 saw and veneer mills throughout B.C. since 2005, according to BC Mountain Pine Beetle: Evolving Impacts & Opportunities, a report published in April this year by Vancouver-based industry consulting firm International Wood Markets Group Inc. And it’s not over yet.

Image: Greg Dean
Pine beetle devastation at Deka Lake in the Cariboo.

A report released in June this year by the Forest Practices Board – B.C.’s independent forest industry watchdog – says up to two million hectares of Crown forestland could be left “NSR,” industry shorthand for “not satisfactorily restocked.” Earlier this year, B.C.’s auditor general John Doyle also handed down his own report, which accuses the provincial government of neglecting its forests and says existing management practices are insufficient to offset a trend toward future forests having a lower timber supply. According to another report released this year by the B.C. government, the beetle epidemic has now killed an estimated 710 million cubic metres of commercially valuable pine timber, or 53 per cent of the sellable pine in the province. The report predicts that although the damage is slowing down, that number will increase to 58 per cent by 2017.

Right now, the majority of the province is in cleanup mode, assessing what areas can be harvested for timber and assigning money to replanting efforts, but forestry consultant and International Wood Markets Group Inc. president Russ Taylor says B.C.’s forestry industry is in for a rough ride in the next decade. “We’re just trying to keep mills going,” says Taylor, but the beetle-damaged wood has a limited shelf life because it is so dry and brittle. “You just can’t run a mill on a straight diet of this wood. We’ve lost 23 and we know we are going to lose some more.” Pine timber production is expected to max out in by 2014, which means more mill closures and forestry job losses are imminent, says Taylor.

The crash of the U.S. housing market crippled timber prices and demand, but since 2009 both have started to recover, explains Taylor. Currently, timber prices are around US$275 to US$280 per thousand board-feet, a unit of measure used in North American timber markets equal to 1,000 feet of wood having a thickness of one inch. That price compares to approximately US$150 in late 2009.


Image: Adam Blasberg
Pine harvester Ron Sanders.

So timber prices are up and demand is recovering, but the problem remains: a huge swath of Interior pine forest has been decimated. In the short term, that means lots of overtime for people like Ron Sanders, owner of Sanders & Co. Contracting Ltd. The Merritt-based timber-harvesting business has been operating in the province for more than 50 years and employs up to 65 workers in peak harvesting season. He and his crews are working at a feverish pace to try to harvest the viable pines killed off in previous seasons by these insects before the rot sets in and there is nothing left to work with but pulp.

“We’ve already doubled our production,” he says. “But when it ends we’ll just have to adapt.” Pine trees make up almost 90 per cent of Sanders’s annual harvest, so once these are gone his crews will look at harvesting fir and spruce as an alternative. But Sanders fears it won’t be enough, and worries there will no viable timber left in his work area within the next 18 months.

“There’s lots of pressure on us to reduce costs and it’s such poor quality timber that we are really stuck,” says Sanders. “It’s a very interesting, difficult struggle. We’re working for nothing,” he says, adding that he is unsure he can keep his company going at its current capacity without the pine supply.

In the longer term, the viability of the Interior forest industry depends on replanting the harvested and damaged trees, a responsibility that falls on B.C.’s silviculture industry – the branch of forestry tasked with the cultivation of trees – and its more than 6,000 tree-planting workers. The industry is comprised of tree planting, prescribed burning, ecosystem restoration, survey work, beetle probing and other forest-tending practices.

Traditionally, there was a symbiotic relationship between tree harvesting, or logging, and the silviculture sector: an area would be selected for harvesting, the trees would be cut, these areas would be identified for replanting and a reforestation company would be contracted.

But Dirk Brinkman, owner of Brinkman & Associates Reforestation Ltd., says his business has been turned on its head as a result of the mountain pine beetle not only today, but in the way companies like his will have to approach logging and reforestation well into the future. “There’s this sort of stratagem around future harvesting now. We used to do our harvesting plans within the context of healthy forest cycles and managing on a sustainable forest ecosystem basis. Now we’re really making our harvest plans by trying to anticipate [tree] mortality from events caused by the beetle.”

Brinkman formed his company in 1970, and since then it has been responsible for planting more than 900 million trees. Its 1,000 employees and $30 million in annual revenue make it the country’s largest silviculture business, but it is just one of the more than 200 registered tree-planting employers in B.C. tasked with replanting the more than two million hectares of Crown forestland designated as not sufficiently restocked.

Being in the business for more than three decades, Brinkman has seen his share of ups and downs in the forest industry, but he believes the effects of the mountain pine beetle have created the greatest threat to the province’s reforestation and its ecological environment.

“What we are seeing is the consequence of 20 warm winters during which the beetle population didn’t get its usual haircut – meaning freezing – when 80 per cent or 90 per cent of the population ends up freezing with only a small percentage surviving, and the natural predators, like woodpeckers and so on, balancing everything out,” says Brinkman.

B.C. was first hit with this most recent infestation in the mid-’90s and since then the province has tried spraying, chopping and burning the infected trees, and none of these approaches has worked to slow the damage. The beetles keep on marching across the province and have now started to show up on the other side of the Rockies in Alberta.

It’s not just the role of silviculture outfits like Brinkman’s that is under reconsideration; the entire provincial strategy of regenerating B.C.’s forests is now up for discussion. Although shortcomings in the province’s reforestation efforts have been brought into sharp focus by the beetle epidemic, it’s by no means an entirely new concern. The worry back in the 1950s and then again in the ’80s was that Canada’s forests, particularly in B.C., were becoming a “silviculture slum,” a term coined by Art Bickerstaff, a Canadian forester for more than three decades. Part of his job was to tour and assess Canada’s forestry operations throughout the ’50s and ’60s, and he developed the term to express the neglect he was seeing in the areas of conservation and reforestation by industry and government. But it’s nature that is adding to the concern now, and Brinkman notes conditions are far worse today.

“This isn’t a silviculture slum. This is more like a silviculture war zone,” Brinkman warns. Many in the silviculture industry, including Brinkman, believe the two million hectares of insufficiently restocked forestland identified by government surveys and the province’s chief forester is a conservative estimate and that it could be five million hectares or more since not all the damaged trees have been identified.

John Betts, executive director of the Western Silviculture Contractors’ Association, says even if the industry accepts the province’s estimate, it would take 10 years to complete the reforestation, at the current planting rate of 200 million seedlings a year. But this would only fill in the beetle-damaged areas, not the regularly harvested forests, explains Betts. He explains that replanting both harvested and beetle-killed forestlands “would mean a doubling of the industry.”

And while there’s plenty of work for silviculture companies down the line, Betts worries that simply replanting the lost trees won’t be enough. “As far as saving the industry is concerned, that won’t be achieved solely by reforesting the NSR,” says Betts. “But maybe this is a turning point,” he adds. “What is the post-mountain pine beetle economy going to look like? I’m saying it’s going to have to be a restoration-based economy.”

He suggests that changing the way the province looks at its forests from a business perspective might be the lesson to take away from problems we are seeing today. Varying the species selected for reforestation, trimming back in-growths to reduce fuel for future forest fires and harvesting trees not just for the timber, but as a forest-management measure are all ways to help minimize the long-term effects. “So you don’t log to produce logs; you log to produce an effect on the landscape, which is different than what we are doing here,” explains Betts.

Also, both Brinkman and Betts agree there is a great opportunity to increase the production of forest-based biomass and use up the affected timber as small bioenergy producers can acquire wood fibre and logging debris not seen as commercially viable for primary harvesters. Wood fibre waste could be used on a greater scale to produce bio-ethanol, bio-oil, wood chips and hog fuel, a substance made up of ground-up wood and bark, which can be burned as a heat source. Not only would this provide a new source of energy from trees and debris that harvesters don’t typically want to deal with, but it cleans up the smaller trees and the scraps on the forest bed that could easily act as kindling to future forest fires.

But Betts says it’s still up to Mother Nature to restore the balance and that the forestry industry can just try to patch the holes and focus on never letting this situation happen again. “There are strategic things we could do to mitigate the worst consequences, and then let’s hope that nature is forgiving and maybe it doesn’t go up in smoke as fast as I’m worried it will.”


Image: Hans Peter Meyer
The 6,000 tree planters who work for 200
registered tree-planting employers in B.C. are
tasked with replanting more than two million-
hectares of Crown forestland.

It’s clear the province has a crisis on its hands as the mountain pine beetle is destroying one of its largest industries, and silviculture companies are doing their best to tame the fallout. So what’s the government’s plan for replacing all the trees and saving the forest industry?

Currently, total annual spending for reforestation across the province is $225 million through the Forests for Tomorrow program, according to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. This program was specifically designed by the government as part of its beetle management strategy and is charged with selecting areas in need of replanting and allotting funds to that effort.

Minister of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson says that of that $225 million, “about $190 million comes from industry, and part of that includes B.C. Timber Sales.”

B.C. Timber Sales is a provincial program founded in 2003 and designed to set the benchmark for the cost and price of timber sold from Crown land. The program also manages about 20 per cent of the wood the province permits to be harvested annually. According to Thomson, “The BCTS program does site surveying, preparation for planting and other maintenance and that work is part of that $190 million.”

Under the Forests for Tomorrow program, provincial law requires logged areas to be reforested and managed for multiple years until the young forests are well established, also called the “free-to-grow” stage, which typically takes anywhere from 14 to 20 years. This means that in areas where affected timber is being salvaged, those tasked with reforesting will be planting ecologically suitable, native species to grow in their place.

At the peak of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in 2007 to 2008, the B.C. government invested just over $21 million to reforestation; by 2013 the amount is expected to increase to $32.3 million.

Thomson says the amount of money the province spends each year on reforestation is determined by an inventory, which identifies areas in need of replanting due to beetle damage and harvesting, and that under provincial legislation much of the onus for reforestation is on the timber-harvesting community. In short, the companies that are involved with the harvesting side of the industry, particularly sawmills, are in charge of looking after the restocking of the trees in these areas, and are responsible for contracting out the reforestation work to companies like Brinkman’s.

“The big question in all of this is the mountain pine beetle impact and how much needs to be replanted, and much of that we are still working through,” says Thomson. Still to be resolved is “whether those areas are going to need to be harvested or not, and whether those areas will become the responsibility of the companies through harvesting or whether ultimately there will be some responsibility on the part of the government.

“We give, annually, about $34.5 million in the Forests for Tomorrow reforestation program, and that provides for the planting of approximately 22 million trees per year and the plans call for planting levels to remain at around those 20 million trees per year for the next five years or so,” adds Thomson. This is up from the 15 million or so trees planted annually that the province has financed in the past few years, according to the Western Silviculture Contractors’ Association.

But Thomson notes that restocking the trees in these damaged areas isn’t always possible, either for environmental or monetary reasons, so about 20 per cent of these forests will be intentionally left unplanted.

Image: Hans Peter Meyer

In an innovative approach to solving the funding problem, the province is in the process of launching a yet-to-be-named program that invites private-sector companies to invest in tree-planting in exchange for carbon credits. James Sandland, whose unwieldy job title at the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations is “manager of carbon solutions, climate adaptation and bioeconomy,” explains that if the program succeeds, everyone wins: private investors get credits that can be traded in the emerging market for carbon offsets, their investment creates jobs in the silviculture sector and the province’s forests are replenished.

The ministry released a request for proposals – the first stage of the procurement process – in January this year, with the intent of targeting a project for May. “But the timelines for that were way too tight, so we weren’t able to get anything done,” explains Sandland. The current plan, he explains, is to issue another request for proposals, probably in September, then allow a few months to vet applicants.

Sandland explains that the province’s forests have shifted from a net sink of carbon – meaning it absorbs more carbon than it releases – to a net carbon emitter. The goal is to restore the balance, he says, and the province simply doesn’t have the money to do it on its own. “It’s going to take a lot of time and it’s expensive to do and the province has nowhere near the resources to reforest it on our own,” Sandland says. “So what we are trying to do with this program is to collaborate or partner with private-sector investors to try and target some of these stands for restoration, and it’s challenging.”

Finding investors will be difficult, Sandland admits: “There’s no regulatory reason for them to do it. They do it as part of corporate social responsibility. That’s who we are targeting: those kinds of businesses and other players that want to improve their carbon footprint.” According to Sandland, there are other projects out there that would cost a company $5 to $10 per carbon offset – the equivalent of one metric tonne of carbon dioxide – whereas this reforestation project would cost about $15 to $20 per carbon offset.

The feasibility of selling the carbon credits in B.C.’s forestland is still unknown and the effectiveness of carbon-trading schemes on combating climate change has been long debated by environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation. On its online discussion about the success of carbon offsets, the foundation is not optimistic about the long-term impact these projects will have on climate change, noting, “Although quite popular, offsets from tree-planting projects are problematic for a number of reasons, including their lack of permanence and the fact that these projects do not address our dependence on fossil fuels.” The foundation goes on to report that global warming itself is putting pressure on ecosystems and that if there isn’t a push to curb overall use of fossil fuels, no amount of tree planting will help because the forests will eventually die off as the climate continues to warm.

If a carbon offset project is going to work, the ministry will have to prove it is worthwhile to its investors, and that involves something referred to in the offset world as “additionality” – proving a carbon-offset project goes beyond business as usual to ultimately provide greater revenue to the investor’s business. And that might prove to be the downfall of the carbon-funded reforestation project.

“We can’t really subsidize projects to make them cost-competitive, and it begs the question of additionality of offset,” says Sandland. Despite its obvious pitfalls, there has been serious interest in the project from the private merchant bank, Forbes & Manhattan, as well as several pension funds back east, notes Sandland.

While he says he is confident this program has real potential, he admits it’s off to a slow start as it was initially tested earlier this year, but with disappointing results.

He adds: “We’re learning as we go.”