Few events offer as compelling an example of what climate change may mean for British Columbia as does the mountain pine beetle and its impact on our forests.
In the aftermath of the beetle attack, more than one billion dead pine trees are now spread across a swath of the province equal in size to England.
The outbreak has stunning implications for both our economy and the environment. Yet judging from the planned sessions of the annual Truck Loggers Association conference in Victoria this week – where both BC Premier Gordon Campbell and Forests Minister Pat Bell will speak – the pine beetle catastrophe scarcely merits passing mention.
The Premier’s talk promises to “captivate” delegates with stories about the “new face” of forestry, while Pat Bell will participate on a panel on “changing global demand” for forest products.
While no one should discount the need to lift our forest industry out of its economic doldrums, the risk in doing so is that we put the cart before the horse.
Without massive, sustained tree planting efforts there is no foundation for a healthy, diversified forest industry. Nor, for that matter, can BC make a dent in its greenhouse gas emissions, which are actually far higher than those routinely reported, precisely because of those billion-plus dead pine trees, which are now releasing their carbon stores back into the Earth’s overheated atmosphere. Those emissions don’t at present count in the province’s emissions tally because, in theory, they are “offset” by the carbon stored in new trees. Which takes us to the nub of the problem. Are we planting enough?
For obvious reasons having to do with the dollars needed to embark on a ramped up reforestation effort, neither the Premier nor the Forests Minister is eager to talk about this. But there is no questioning the need. This past fall, the Ministry of Forests quietly posted a PowerPoint presentation on its website that for the first time presented a more accurate picture of what the true reforestation challenge is. The document noted that a very large area of land – an estimated 700,000 hectares – was “missing” in previous government calculations of how much pine beetle-attacked forest was in need of replanting.
This effectively doubled the estimated area, bringing the grand total to more than 1.4 million hectares, an area of land six times larger than the entire Capital Regional District. Significantly, this estimate barely scratched the surface of the true scope of the reforestation challenge, as it addressed only those forests attacked by pine beetles, not those damaged by other pests or devastating forest fires.
In the face of this growing unfunded public liability, the province has yet to deviate from its embarrassingly modest Forests For Tomorrow program, which projects planting only 17.5 million to 20 million seedlings a year.
Commercial tree nurseries across the province are reporting some of the lowest orders for planting stock ever seen. Meanwhile, the federal government, which announced a few years ago that it would spend $100 million annually over ten years on pine beetle-related investments, stopped its annual installments after just two years. Worse yet, much of that money never made it into actual tree-planting programs, but instead was diverted into airport runway expansions in Prince George and highway upgrades. The provincial government has said almost nothing about the federal funding withdrawal, perhaps out of a fear that highlighting the federal government’s broken promise would call attention to its own lackluster response.
The sad thing in all of this is that there are realistic opportunities to lay the foundation for healthier forests and a healthier forest industry, all centered on the valuable role that our forests and forest products play in storing atmospheric carbon. It was precisely that role that brought three of the province’s leading environmental organizations and all three of its forest industry unions together last week to release a new study that calls on the province to take concerted steps to address climate change through a range of actions, including planting more carbon-storing trees on lands in desperate need of reforestation.
There are solutions to the mess our forests are in. If we want healthy forests for tomorrow, we must invest in them today.
Ben Parfitt is resource policy analyst with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of Managing BC’s Forests for a Cooler Planet: Carbon Storage, Sustainable Jobs and Conservation, available at www.policyalternatives.ca/coolforests.