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The Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic: Changing the face of the BC industry

Archie McDonald, of the BC Ministry of Forests, recently reported on the industrial response to the very serious situation: increased harvesting levels, from 49.7Mm3 in 2000 to 60Mm3 in 2005, and incr...


May 1, 2006
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Archie McDonald, of the BC Ministry of Forests, recently reported on the industrial response to the very serious situation: increased harvesting levels, from 49.7Mm3 in 2000 to 60Mm3 in 2005, and increased lumber production from 10.5B board feet to 15B board feet. This has occurred between 2000 and 2005. But pulp and paper capacity has not increased, resulting in a chip surplus of 500,000ODts to 600,000ODts, and this is still growing. According to Craig Garratt, Canfor’s fibre supply general manager, some of the surplus is being transported to pulp mills on the BC coast, or is being traded to Alberta. In most cases, chip inventories in the interior are much higher than average, reflecting some of the difficulties in dealing with the oversupply.

Several BC pulp mills have implemented volume management systems to cap the maximum deliveries from their contract suppliers. These programs are placing pressure on the chip suppliers to dispose of incremental production. The International Woodfibre Report recently observed that a trial by Tembec to export cheap spruce pine fir (SPF) chips to its Marathon operation in Ontario was completed, but the 1800-mile freight costs proved prohibitive.

It is important to realize that the mountain pine beetle epidemic is not about a beetle but is, in fact, an industrial dead tree utilization issue of staggering proportions. Based on the numbers quoted, the sheer volume of dead trees available has the potential to fundamentally change the interior BC pulp and paper industry. The dead lodgepole pine epidemic poses many challenges for our industry, short- and long-term. Many of BC’s pulp and paper mills have been living with the consequences of this epidemic for several years. This is not only an interior BC issue. Several coastal operations, such as Catalyst Powell River and Howe Sound Pulp and Paper, all use significant volumes of interior BC’s SPF chips.

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“The current mountain pine beetle epidemic has come about through an unfortunate series of unrelated events which have all combined to create the perfect storm,” says Bill Wilson of the Canadian Forest Service. First of all, BC’s interior forest management regimes have resulted in an over-abundance of mature lodgepole pine. Secondly, winter temperatures in the BC interior are approximately 0.7oC above average, and more importantly there have been no extended periods of significantly cold temperatures (-20oC).

To kill the beetle, an extended cold snap of two weeks at -20oC or below is required early in the winter. As the winter progresses, the dormant beetle builds up immunity to the cold by generating glycol (antifreeze) in its bloodstream, enabling it to over-winter relatively unharmed. Consequently, the mountain pine beetle is occurring in far greater numbers. And worse, it is occurring further north and east than previously recorded (see attached map from CFS, Figure 2). In fact, the mountain pine beetle has now crossed the Rocky Mountains and is poised to accelerate its spread across Alberta.

The mountain pine beetle presently occupies a fraction of the range of all pine in North America, but this is changing rapidly. Perhaps of even greater importance, Canadian Forest Service researchers have recently shown that the mountain pine beetle can also colonize Jack pine. Given the geographic shift noted above, the implications for Canada’s boreal Jack pine forests are significant.

Just why is lodgepole pine so vulnerable? The beetle is in fact the vector or transport mechanism for the organism that kills lodgepole pine, a blue-stain fungus. The beetle enters the bark and creates egg galleries which at sufficiently high levels can girdle the tree, cutting off the cambium. But the beetle also introduces the blue-stain fungus which colonizes the moisture rich sapwood, cutting off the flow of moisture and nutrients within the tree (Figure 3). The external visible signs that a lodgepole pine tree has been attacked are pitch tubes, with a significantly increased level of wood extractives as the tree attempts to expel the beetle, and develops red foliage. These trees are described as having “red” attack and this stage is by far the most visible effect of the beetle infestation (Figure 4). Within the tree, the sapwood takes on a blue colouration and the tree dries out to below fibre saturation point within the space of one to two years. During this time, the needles are cast off and substantial checking occurs, rendering the stem of lower or no value to the solid wood processing industry (Figure 5). The dry trees are now referred to as being in the “grey” stage.

Race for solutions

In BC, the provincial response has been to re-allocate, and to increase the Annual Allowable Cut in critically affected areas. The race is on to recover as many of the valuable trees as possible before the stems dry out, and checking occurs. BC’s solid wood sector has also responded by making significant investments in plant upgrades — BC now boasts seven of the ten largest sawmills in North America. When all is said and done, the increased sawmilling capacity is projected to result in 1Mm3 of excess chip volume by 2007.

For BC’s pulp and paper industry, after an initial period of “wait and see,” the challenges have come thick and fast as the beetle has rampaged through the province. Those mills in the Williams Lake and Quesnel region were among the first affected, and for them the challenge is great. BC’s interior SPF is widely regarded as the world benchmark for pulp quality, owing to the intrinsic properties of length, wall properties and strength of the fibres.

Cariboo Pulp and Paper has been at the leading edge of this epidemic. Bob Salmons, the mill technical manager, reports “the mill initially experienced a significant increase in extractives which led to significant levels of soap production, creating major handling challenges and some effluent issues.” However, 18 months later, the mill is now experiencing a deficit of soap, well below the normal levels for lodgepole pine, resulting in a shortfall in this energy source for their power boiler. Cariboo’s chip inventory has now more than doubled due to increased harvesting and this could result in chip quality problems related to lengthy chip storage. Mill staff are working hard to minimize any detrimental problems. As the region has now switched from beetle proofing to dead tree salvage, chips are drier and the mill has experienced increased plugging of the recovery boiler. This in turn has resulted in numerous operational problems which may be related to the use of this material. Clearly, the longer term concern is the potential effects on pulp fibre strength as the standing trees continue to dry out over time. This could have a devastating effect on the region’s ability to market SPF pulp worldwide. BC’s pulp mills are working closely with Paprican (Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada) to determine the effects of the current and future wood supplies on product quality.

Mitigating the effects

To its credit, the BC pulp and paper industry has taken ownership of this issue, by recognizing that it will be a key part of the utilization solution. In close collaboration with Paprican, an industry-wide set of strategic research priorities was developed which is now being rapidly and carefully addressed. The Mountain Pine Beetle Initiative (MPBI) is a $40M federal funding program for the period 2002-08 directed at mitigating the ecological, social and economic effects of the epidemic. The MPBI was designed to mitigate economic impact through informed adjustments to utilization, marketing and social license, and of great importance, the integration of salvage wood into existing capital plant through the determination of characteristics of post-beetle timber. Although the federal government has no jurisdiction over the working forest, it has recognized that off-setting future reductions in fibre quality, not fibre supply, is the critical issue. After an extensive series of consultations throughout 2002 with affected stakeholders,
including Paprican, a series of strategic research initiatives were developed for the various sectors. For pulp and paper these consultations have resulted in a carefully developed program and in collaboration with industry, Paprican has been leading the research. An extensive series of projects has been conducted to address the key issues identified. The Paprican research portfolio consists of the following active projects:

* Assessment of the economic (pulping and pulp quality) effects of increased lodgepole pine in SPF chip mixtures.

* A wood and fibre deterioration model for mountain pine beetle infested trees.

* Evaluation of chipping options for beetle-killed pine to maintain wood and fibre quality.

* Quantifying the effects of extractives from mountain pine beetle-attacked lodgepole pine for pulp and papermaking.

* Overcoming the brightness ceiling for mechanical pulps prepared from blue-stained lodgepole pine chips.

* Kraft pulp and paper mill utilization options for grey-stage wood.

While research is ongoing, and there is much still to do, preliminary results look promising. Firstly, evaluating the effects of the increased pine content in the SPF furnish was of immediate interest due to the targeted harvesting of infected pine trees. Prior to the outbreak of the MPB epidemic, the SPF mix generally consisted of 30% spruce, 65% pine and 5% fir. These days the SPF mix is approaching 90% pine. Of the three species, pine, which generally grows at lower elevations, exhibits longer, coarser fibres and would therefore be expected to produce pulps with lower tensile strength. Therefore, it was of great interest to determine whether the increase in pine content would affect productivity and product quality. The results of this research program have confirmed that BC’s world benchmark SPF kraft pulp quality will not be adversely affected. This is a very important finding in the context of maintaining existing markets.

It was also of interest to determine the impact of blue-stained wood on pulping and pulp quality. The blue-stain fungus does not affect wood structure, it simply discolours the wood. Early on it was determined that this had no effect on the kraft process but there were significant cost implications for the bleaching of thermomechanical and chemithermomechanical pulps, particularly those bleached with hydrosulphite. The increased chemical demand to a given brightness was also compounded by the observation that the presence of blue-stain results in pulps with a compromised maximum brightness. An extensive series of trials is now underway to develop process improvements to reduce the costs of bleaching these pulps. In addition, Paprican has developed an on-line sensor technology which can quantify the extent of the blue-stain. This is providing information that is critical to minimizing the bleaching chemical levels required to achieve target brightness.

Adjusting to reality

Without a doubt, the question everyone across the entire forest products value chain is asking is “How does the length of time since tree death affect product quality?” The answer is not simple. This issue is defined as “shelf life.” How long can we expect to use this fibre source before it deteriorates irreversibly? For the pulp and paper industry the question is “How will pulp strength profiles change over time?” This is a very challenging question to answer.

BC’s lodgepole pine occurs across a wide range of climatic conditions, from wet to very dry, and each location will exhibit a varying response to stem dryness and the potential inoculation with decay fungi. The University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), Paprican, and JS Thrower consultants, and the CFS MPBI have been cooperating on this issue. It is evident that external tree characteristics in no way determine the extent of deterioration of the stem, so work is underway to develop guidelines for grey-stage wood based on intrinsic wood quality. Wood quality assessments are notoriously expensive and confounded by the need to assess large sample numbers in order to account for tree-to-tree variability. Paprican’s state-of-the-art wood and fibre quality analysis EvaluTree facility has been put to good use in answering the shelf-life question. Using a combination of SilviScan, near-infrared, electron microscopy and fibre analysis, the preliminary results suggest that in up to five years post-beetle attack, lodgepole pine trees can be utilized for pulp and paper applications without any detrimental effects. The caveat is that these are preliminary findings and more extensive sampling and pilot scale pulping trials are planned in the coming months.

BC’s forest products industries are facing the single largest ecological disaster they have ever faced. They have taken a strong leadership position and are working through the host of issues that the mountain pine beetle epidemic has thrown at them. Their has been little assistance except for carefully managed federal research funding which cannot be directed at mill operation assistance. The resilience of the pulp and paper industry, and the determination of the people operating the mills during this time of crisis in wood supply and markets, speaks to ultimate success in this fight against the mountain pine beetle infestation.

For more information log onto the CFS website: http://mpb.cfs.nrcan.gc.ca or contact Paul Watson at Paprican, 604-222-3237.P&PC

Dr. Paul Watson is the program manager for Fibre Supply and Quality at Paprican in Vancouver, BC.