January 17, 2006

Canadian Beetle Infestation Worries U.S.

GRANGEVILLE, Idaho -- Northwest loggers are worried British Columbia may be forced to harvest as much as 21 million acres of forests to stop the mountain pine beetle, flooding the market and driving down timber prices.

The infected forests in British Columbia make up an area roughly 40 percent the size of Idaho. To combat the beetles, the province is increasing allowable timber cuts 78 percent; big trouble for mills throughout the Northwest.

"They're going to bury us in the sand," said Dick Bennett, owner of Bennett Forest Industries in Grangeville.

Bennett said the timber industry won't be as hot as it was in recent years because of an expected decline in the housing and building markets.

"If you're not strong, you're out of business," he said.

The beetles are native to British Columbia and the Inland Northwest, but warm winters and an abundance of lodgepole pine are helping the insects flourish, according to a 2005 report from the University of British Columbia's Forest Resources Management Department.

Officials say the beetle outbreak is the worst natural disaster to ever befall British Columbia and a researcher at the University of British Columbia says the province has little choice but to salvage what it can.

"In this case, we have dead timber that is degrading as it sits on the stump," said John McLean, a forest entomologist. "A big effort is under way to access as much as can be handled by the system while at the same time, plant trees on the cutover lands to ensure that the new crop is established."

The infestation is the worst on record, 20 times larger than in the 1930s when 1.2 million acres were killed. Experts are expecting the epidemic to last another 10 years, or until about 80 percent of British Columbia's lodgepole pine forests are wiped out.

Duane Vaagen, owner of a sawmill in Colville, Wash., said British Columbia mills are operating as if there was a "gold rush," running three shifts a day and buying equipment from closed sawmills in the United States.

Vaagen said he expects to begin feeling the impact of a flooded market shortly.

"We're within a year of getting bit," he said.