Cutting-edge research

🕔Mar 09, 2006

If you’re a forest sector worker in northern B.C., the mountain pine beetle is creating lots of work for you. But even while mills go full tilt to process beetle feast leftovers, you know this production party won’t last.

In as little as 10 years, northern B.C. communities will be dealing with a potentially nasty hangover, otherwise known as falldown: that dreaded period after the last beetle-killed timber is trucked away and before today’s plantations start to be ready for harvest some 25 years from now.

Analysts predict falldown could lower harvest levels by as much as 30 per cent. In a place like Quesnel, the socioeconomic impact would be comparable to 350,000 jobs lost in the Lower Mainland.

What to do?

While all levels of government grapple with that question, cutting-edge scientists are undertaking research to uncover the most strategic approach to logging now—so that beetle-killed forests can bounce back quicker, thereby easing falldown pain.

Dave Coates, a research silviculturalist with the Ministry of Forests in Smithers, is one. With assistance from the Ministry of Forests, the Forest Investment Account and the Bulkley Valley Centre for Natural Resources Research and Management, he and colleague Craig De Long, a landscape ecologist from Prince George, are leading a team of almost 20 researchers.

Using sophisticated computer models and very specialized skills, they’re analyzing an enormous amount of data, including photographs which measure the availability of sunlight, from almost 400 forest sites in the Vanderhoof Timber Supply Area. Their goal: to identify the critical elements which comprise beetle-killed timber stands that will be loggable in 2025 or later. The point is to be able to offer forest managers information they need to direct logging more strategically—possibly prioritizing some sites for logging, while leaving those with “good structure” undisturbed.

It was Coates and De Long who convinced B.C.’s chief forester Jim Snetsinger of the importance of this research which, according to Coates, is a good example of a necessary cognitive shift from traditional approaches to forestry.

“What we’re good at is going into an area, clear-cutting it, and waiting 80 years for a harvest. All the models, administrative procedures are based on that,” he says. “We don’t have any really good mechanism for dealing with partial cutting, or logging beetle-killed areas 30 or 40 years down the road.”

Until the work is completed in June, Coates can’t say whether the research will have significant implications for current logging practices.

Certainly, the results could inform government decisions about allowable annual cut in the Vanderhoof Timber Supply Area. If forest companies were obligated by government to prioritize logging with poorer stand structure—as opposed to the areas that are most convenient to access—planning and surveying costs could climb. This is a development that would not be welcomed by industry, which raises the question: would government actually utilize Coates’s findings if long-term benefits were expected to follow short-term costs to industry?

Science is only one source of information used by policy makers, says Coates. “Sometimes research information is important in [government] decisions. At other times, other factors are more important,” he says.

If Coates’s numerous speaking engagements at forestry-related conferences is any indication, his scientific insights into the falldown challenge are currently very much in demand, by government and industry alike. And it’s very likely it’ll be heard well beyond these expert domains, because he’s considering taking the research results to town councils in Highway 16 communities.

He invokes the Bulkley Valley Centre’s mandate, which includes providing information for informed debate, and his job as a civil servant, which is to supply relevant information to decision-makers.

“Everything at the moment is directed to maximizing short-term value [from beetle-killed trees], and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s very logical,” says Coates. “But political leaders should be very concerned about what’s going to happen in 20 to 40 years.

“The biggest implication of this, in my mind: if we learn that protecting some of this structure is important, we could dramatically reduce predicted falldown by good strategic planning,” said Coates. “That’s pretty cool.”

About Dave Coates

  • Research silviculturalist with the Ministry of Forests
  • Member of the Bulkley Valley Centre for Natural Resources Research and Management, a registered not-for-profit society based in Smithers. The BV Centre conducts high-quality interdisciplinary research on temperate, montane, and boreal ecosystems, including their human dimensions.
  • Coates’s research with Alex Woods on dothistroma pine needle blight brought international media attention to the BV Centre last fall, after its publication in the prestigious journal BioScience was heralded as one of the world’s first documented examples of the indirect effects of climate change. The Woods/Coates study has since been nominated for a 2005 Premier’s Award, and a Jim Pojar award from the BV Centre for Resources Research and Management.

© Larissa Ardis 2006