West Fraser’s yard in Quesnel. West Fraser Mills photo

West Fraser monitoring Northern B.C. forest health – including spruce beetle

“We are delivering 200,000 to 400,000 cubic metres of timber per year from open market sources”

West Fraser Mills in Quesnel is well aware of the significant outbreak of spruce bark beetle in northern British Columbia – Prince George and Mackenzie – that has seen the infestation increase from 150,000 hectares in 2015 to 340,000 ha in 2017.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) is closely monitoring the current spruce beetle outbreak in the context of climate change – warmer, drier summers and milder, warmer winters.

It has resulted in the absence of a cold snap in early winter to kill off the spruce beetle population, which is also on the rise in other areas of the province.

The ministry has extended its ground surveys to better gauge the spread of the spruce beetle.

Ground surveys have been included in northeast B.C. and the Robson Valley this year.

Here at home

Stuart Lebeck, West Fraser woods manager, says there are some patches of spruce beetle-attacked trees in the area.

“Today, the spruce beetle in the Quesnel area is considered endemic. Spruce bark beetles are always present in spruce forests.

“In the last few years, we have noted spruce bark beetles in the west and the east of Quesnel.”

West Fraser routinely does flyovers in the area forests to check on the forest health, Lebeck says, adding “we are not just to look for spruce beetle infestation specifically.

“We are looking for any damaged forest. Wind-damaged blowdown [trees that have been knocked down by wind storms] and bark beetles.”

Blowdown plays an important role in the spruce beetle outbreak, because the larvae feed on the cambium layer between the inner bark and the wood of dead, down and dying spruce trees.

However, the tree has to be recently dead, because after a year, the beetles can’t use it.

There were large blowdown events in the Mackenzie and Prince George areas (Ground Zero for the Omenica outbreak) and they provided the perfect habitat for spruce beetle.

It’s not unusual for spruce beetles to reach a population threshold and then move from dead, down and dying trees into healthier, standing green spruce trees.

READ MORE: Spruce beetles definitely alive and well in Cariboo, pockets of infestation

Beetle spread

Because it can take 13 to 18 months for distressed spruce tree needles to change colour, significant blowdown can be an indication of a bark beetle habitat change.

Planes are not the only thing flying in the air, as Lebeck notes spruce beetles have a spring flight.

“It is temperature driven – tied to after the snow melts from around the trees. The beetles emerge from May to early July from their host tree to find another host tree.”

How far are the spruce beetles able to fly?

“It depends on winds. They do not fly very far on their own necessarily.”

Fibre supply

Lebeck says West Fraser is purchasing fibre from northeastern B.C.

“We are purchasing private land timber and BCTS [BC Timber Sales] logs from the northeast. A lot of it is dead pine still.”

From there, West Fraser has to truck it to Quesnel. “We are delivering 200,000 to 400,000 cubic metres of timber per year from open market sources, mostly from the Prince George and Mackenzie areas. We can expand this amount.”

There is a mixture of balsam (and dead pine, some Douglas-fir) in with the spruce ecosystems, he adds.

Fibre access

During a West Fraser presentation at the Feb. 27 City of Quesnel council meeting, it was noted the company would like to have access to spruce in the outbreak areas, especially in the northeast.

“There are areas of very high incidence of spruce beetle infestation in the tributary to Bear Lake and the Parsnip River areas that would be logical for us to source timber from.”

Lebeck says it would be a combination of both purchasing and harvesting the fibre, with all of the work done by contractors.

He notes that in every case, the timber has a stumpage fee to the owner of the timber.

“We asked about a reforestation obligation on these areas.

“We rely mostly on B.C. Timber Sales for access to logs. BCTS does have a reforestation obligation.”

Lebeck says West Fraser hopes to get a significant amount of fibre from the spruce beetle mitigation program in the Omineca area.

“We believe we could reliably consume three million cubic metres of timber from spruce beetle-damaged stands in the Omineca to support our Quesnel log supply needs over a five-year period – if provided the opportunity.”

Mitigation planning

There are Timber Supply Working Groups in the spruce beetle-impacted areas where licensees and the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development sit at the same table to work out mitigation plans.

West Fraser has been in a working group for the past few years, Lebeck says.

He adds the group is made up of licensees and BCTS that have tenure and operating areas in the spruce beetle-impacted forests.

“West Fraser was invited to participate in this working group in the fall of 2017, and has been doing so since that time.”

Talks are ongoing, the woods manager notes.

“There is currently a lack of consensus on an action plan for the 2018/19 harvest season.”

Harvesting challenges

Lebeck says one of the challenges to expedite harvesting is there are no separate rules for any kind of large-scale sanitation or salvage harvesting.

Sanitation harvesting deals with timber that has live brood in the cambium layer, he says, adding the goal is to reduce the numbers of live beetles within the forest.

Salvage harvesting occurs after the beetles have emerged and the majority of the stand is dead.

“The regulations/rules that apply to regular harvest are the same. There are some ‘efficiencies’ for small-scale harvesting, but nothing to expedite approvals on a large-scale epidemic.”

Time constraints

Lebeck says West Fraser can definitely manufacture the dead and dying beetle-attacked spruce.

“The saw mill has the capacity to make lumber out of dead, dry species, and about 40 per cent of lumber today is from dead and/or dying pine, spruce, Douglas-fir and balsam.

“We endeavour to manufacture lumber and plywood first and there is pulp for chips, as well as sawdust and shavings for MDF….”

As for the outbreak in the rest of the province, West Fraser certainly encourages the provincial government to be aware of its ability to manufacture within an economic circle, he explains.

“We do not want to see that fibre [in the northeast] go to waste while we are being restricted from access.”

There is a time constraint for making use of the beetle-attacked spruce.

Lebeck says the shelf life for the beetle-attacked spruce is as follows: lumber, three years; plywood, six to eight months; oriented strand board, 10 years; and pulp and fuel, 10-15 years (if it is still standing).

Tree Farm Licence

At the Feb. 27 council meeting, it was noted 25 to 30 per cent of the spruce in Tree Farm Licence (TFL) #52 is dead or dying for a number of reasons – mature stands, pests and other natural occurrences.

Lebeck says West Fraser has made commitments to manage forest health in its Forest Stewardship Plans that include monitoring for forest health concerns and taking action through salvaging.

“We are continuously monitoring for spruce beetle every year, and when we identify it, we work with the province to prioritize our harvest authority to recover damaged timber and maintain endemic beetle population levels.”

Some areas are not accessible – old growth management areas, visual quality areas, caribou no harvest zones and riparian areas, Lebeck explains.

“One problem we are not able to address well in epidemics, such as the spruce beetle, is a constrained area.

“Populations are able to build in these areas with limited ability to manage and then pose further challenges in less-constrained areas of the timber harvesting land base.”

The woods manager notes the processes West Fraser has to follow in a TFL is the same process on area- or volume-based tenure.

“A cutting permit application and stumpage appraisal is submitted for approval.

“A typical cutting permit takes from six to 18 months to be ready for harvesting. This includes government review and approval time.”

Lebeck says all of the timber West Fraser harvests is counted against its allowable annual cut.

“This was the same for pine beetle.”

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