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Out of the Frying Pan

One year ago, I wrote a feature for Alberta Venture about the mountain pine beetle’s arrival on the province’s eastern slopes

May 1, 2007

by Jeff Gailus

The June 2006 cover story, headlined “Keeping the Bugs at Bay,” was my attempt at an honest and balanced exploration of the challenges facing Alberta’s beleaguered forests. Unfortunately, the province’s so-called pine beetle management strategy is anything but.

The consensus from virtually everyone I interviewed was that the beetle had something to teach us about our relationship with our forests. More than a century of aggressive fire suppression has left us with vast stands of aging pine trees, the preferred habitat of both loggers and these black, rice-grain-sized insects. Further, the spectre of climate change has eliminated the one thing that could actually keep the beetles at bay: long, cold winters.

The lesson the scientists, especially, told me was that we need to rethink how we treat our forests and start managing them as complex ecosystems rather than crops raised, like wheat, to be cut for profit. Even David Coutts, the head of Alberta’s decidedly pro-industry Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development, conceded to me that “it could be that we need to manage our forests differently.”

It could be. But it isn’t so.

In the past 12 months, the Alberta government has begun implementing a pine beetle management strategy that could see up to 80% of the province’s pine forests clear cut within the next 20 years. This strategy, outlined in an SRD interpretive bulletin called “Planning Mountain Pine Beetle Response Operations,” is not so much a pine beetle strategy as an accelerated timber harvesting strategy, designed to get the trees before the beetles do. Despite the fact that the province has already spent millions of dollars over the past five years trying to stop it, and plans to spend millions more, there is no evidence that clear cutting can reduce the spread of mountain pine beetles. What we do know is that the current policy could have disastrous social and environmental impacts.

The majority of Alberta’s forests, which are supposed to provide a variety of social, economic and environmental benefits to Albertans in perpetuity, will be cleared within two decades. In their stead will exist vast areas of clearcuts and hundreds of kilometres of open and unregulated roads that will adversely affect the long-term health of local economies, wildlife habitat, fisheries, water quality and quantity, and climate regulation. Weyerhaeuser biologist Luigi Morgantini has said publicly, for example, that “the pine liquidation as stated in the SRD directive ultimately will result in an age-class distribution that will not be compatible with maintenance of current [threatened] caribou herds.” Moreover, the road construction associated with this pre-emptive strike will “be a serious problem,” says University of Alberta biology professor Mark Boyce, for a threatened grizzly bear population.

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As bad – or worse, depending on your perspective – will be this approach’s impact on forest-dependent communities. Accelerated rates of logging will likely create a short-term explosion in jobs, which will be followed by a long-term bust that will leave these communities in social disarray.

Are the impacts of a strategy with little chance of success acceptable? According to SRD’s own directive, they are: “Given the high impacts of a mountain pine beetle outbreak,” it says, “Alberta is prepared to accept increased impacts on other resource values/stakeholders to reduce the risk of an outbreak.”

A forest management policy with such drastic repercussions demands a comprehensive environmental impact assessment that would analyze its long-term economic, social and environmental impacts. Such an assessment would include an honest look at the best available science to see whether the current proposal would actually achieve its goal, how it would affect Albertans and their environment and whether the public is indeed willing to accept the anticipated impacts.

The overwhelming scientific evidence and recent public polling (as well as my own research) indicates that the answer is “no” on all counts. If Premier Ed Stelmach wants to convince Albertans that he is committed to governing “with integrity and transparency” to implement a “sustainable land use approach that balances economic, environmental and social concerns,” then he’ll take another look at this plan.

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