Pulp and Paper Canada

Tiny bugs, big problems: update

July 1, 2008  By Pulp & Paper Canada

Under normal circumstances, the MPB helps keep pine forests healthy and vigorous. In normal circumstances, it selectively culls out only weakened, highly stressed or overly mature (80 years plus) pine…

Under normal circumstances, the MPB helps keep pine forests healthy and vigorous. In normal circumstances, it selectively culls out only weakened, highly stressed or overly mature (80 years plus) pine trees. The targets of choice: lodgepole, ponderosa and western white pine.

To do its work, the tiny executioners burrow under the tree’s bark and lay their eggs. The larvae feed on the tender inner bark, cutting off the tree’s supply of nutrients and water. To protect themselves against the tree’s natural defenses, MPB larvae carry a fungus that cripples those defenses and leaves a characteristic blue stain in the sapwood. The onslaught girdles the tree and it slowly dies; its green needles turn red and fall off, leaving a ‘grey wood’ corpse to ultimately fall and rot.


The MPB is part of nature’s cycle of growth, death and renewal; the tiny bugs have been around for millenniums and are endemic in lodgepole pine strands in western Canada and the United States.

Kill and be killed. With no natural predator of their own, MPB outbreaks are held in check by periodic forest fires and temperature; a couple of weeks of -40C cold in the depths of winter or a vicious cold snap of -25C in early fall or late spring kills off most hibernating beetles, leaving only the few and hardy behind to continue the cycle.

But that’s in normal circumstances. In central interior British Columbia, normalcy has turned on its head. The MPB population has exploded, thanks to years of warmer winters, combined with more than a century of enthusiastic fire suppression and what federal government agency Natural Resources Canada (NFC) calls “a lack of effective control action during the outbreak’s incipient stage.” Together, these factors have created what is now Canada’s worst outbreak of MPB. (See Sidebar: Curse You, Smokey the Bear)

Since its breakout in 1999, the MPB has killed 600 million cubic metres of wood in BC. In March, the BC Ministry of Lands and Range reported that roughly 13.5 million hectares have been affected. It’s a huge a growing swatch, an area roughly the size of Greece. The province has approximately 1.35 billion cubic metres of commercial pine in its harvesting land base. If the MPB infestation continues unabated, the BC Ministry of Forests estimates 76% of this volume -almost a billion cubic metres -will be killed by 2015.

In a special May 2008 update, Russell Taylor, president of Wood Markets International, said that by 2017, the MPB epidemic is projected to kill more than 80% of all pine trees in northern BC, or about 900 million cubic metres of wood. This translates to roughly one-third of the BC Interior’s timber.

While the daunting estimates vary slightly, the overall specter hasn’t. After the kill, National Forests Canada expects annual timber harvests in the west will likely fall by 15-25% below pre-epidemic levels. It will take decades for the ravaged areas to rejuvenate.

On a brighter note, there is a lot of wood ready to harvest. Put another way, if all suitable MPB-affected wood was harvested and converted into dimensional lumber, it could build more than 15 million ‘typical’ North American homes. Given the implosion in the US housing market, that happy scenario is unlikely, but meanwhile the race to salvage and find new ways to use MPB-affected wood has sparked a lot of innovation and interest, and some very promising possibilities for the pulp and paper industry in particular. (See: Making the Pest of It All)

Use it or lose it entirely. Responding to the MPB outbreak, the BC government upped its annual allowable cut (AAC) to allow the forestry industry to increase salvage of MPB-affected wood. Since 2000, the BC industry has harvested more than 200 million cubic metres of pine. In a recent report, Natural Forests Canada (NFC) says the increased harvest “spells good times” for the western industry and forest-dependent local economies and communities. BC increased its exports of (debarked) softwood to the United States and overseas. In 2007, for instance, BC wood commanded a record 47% of total US softwood lumber imports.

Good Times Won’t Last

As the NFC report also warns, “The supply boom will be short-lived. Once the salvage is over, the province will be left with damaged forests and some tough challenges -among them an altered industry, a scaled-down workforce, changed communities and a pronounced impact on British Columbia’s economic base.”

Meanwhile, Wood Markets International says the MPB infestation peaked in 2005 with about 130 million cubic metres of pine killed. In 2008 the annual kill slipped to 90 million cubic metres and should steadily drop to less than five million cubic metres per annum by 2020. In turn, the salvage/harvest output of MPBaffected wood should shrink to eight to nine billion board feet per annum by 2020 or in line with the late 1990s output of 10 billion board feet, assuming the bugs truly do run out of trees to kill and break outs don’t occur across the boreal forests. (See Sidebar: Praying for Old Man Winter)

As Wood Markets International vice-president Mike Jahraus notes, the volume of “fresh MPB-affected timber yet to come is significant.” Coupled with the industry’s adaptability and proven efficiency in processing MPB wood, with the expected turnaround in the U. S. housing market, ETA around 2009/10, Jahraus expects the MPB-affected wood and regular wood products alike will do quite well.

Other factors such as the steadily increasing Russian tax on log exports, tightening timber supplies in North America, new sawmilling technology in the BC coast (hemlock) and in the interior (MPB wood) and rising Asian and world markets should further help BC’s position as a global hewer of wood. Woods Markets International president Russ Taylor says the outlook for BC wood production “should be rather solid for at least the next decade.”


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