November 10, 2006

Alberta Wants Forestry Firms to Cut Trees Threatened By Mountain Pine Beetle


EDMONTON (CP) - Alberta wants forestry companies to step up the cutting of pine trees to help deal with a massive outbreak of destructive mountain pine beetles.

Millions of the tiny insects have made their first major advance into Alberta's northern forest, settling in for the winter in up to 1.5 million trees - up from only 19,000 trees last year.

The infestation has the government and industry scrambling to try and contain a scourge that has already ruined huge tracts of timber in British Columbia.

"We are stepping up our actions to include harvesting infested and susceptible stands of pine trees, in addition to the cutting and burning we have been doing," said Sustainable Resource Development Minister David Coutts.

The rice-sized beetles have never been found so far north or so far east.

With the help of a northeasterly jet stream the bugs popped over the Rocky Mountains this summer, landing in Alberta en masse.

Much of the infestation is located north of Jasper National Park to Peace River east to Fox Creek.

Some companies have already agreed to change their production plans to harvest infested and threatened stands.

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Gary Roznowsky (NYSE:WYL) said pine forests were originally going to make up between 60 and 70 per cent of its timber harvest this winter in the company's Grande Prairie forest management area.

That number has now been increased to more than 90 per cent.

"We are virtually now going after pine exclusively," said Roznowsky, who noted the company usually harvests about 1.8 million cubic metres of wood per year in the region.

"This is crucial. We see what happened in British Columbia. Clearly we are the next front. We have to do everything we can to try and get a handle on this."

In B.C. there are already 8.7 million hectares of infected pine forests and the pests are not expected to peak for another two years.

Jim Stephenson, woodlands manager for Canfor (TSX:CFP) in Grande Prairie, said when they heard reports from residents about infected trees, they assumed it was an isolated event.

"We started doing surveys of our timber stands and were, frankly, quite shocked at the magnitude of the distribution of the beetles," he said.

Stephenson said originally, only about 10 per cent of Canfor's winter cut would have been in the infested area. Now it's to be more than 80 per cent.

The beetles lie dormant beneath the tree's bark for most of the winter, popping out around July to spread.

The bugs eat into the timber, spreading a fungus that eventually weakens and kills the trees.

Since the beginning of the problem in B.C., Alberta's strategy has been to cut and burn infested trees - the best choice for small infestations, said Dan Lux, Alberta's pine beetle co-ordinator.

The new harvesting plans will better deal with the larger outbreak, he suggested.

"By breaking up the landscape and breaking up these big, continuous stands of lodgepole pine trees, we're making those beetles work harder to be successful on our side of the border," he said.

The new pine-focused harvesting plans will not increase the amount of timber companies can cut, the government said.

All short-term increases in allowable cuts must eventually be followed by reductions in order to maintain sustainable harvesting rates.

Lux said that only time will tell whether the beetles spread can be stemmed.

"We have to continue to deal with it - not only in the short-term, but look at the bigger picture," Lux said.

"We have a lot of susceptible trees out there."