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Lessons learned from the mountain pine beetle epidemic

Everything you need to know about what government and industry are doing with the opportunities presented by the mountain pine beetle

Mar 9, 2012

by Max Fawcett

Stanford Blade’s name sounds better-suited to a superhero than an employee of the Government of Alberta. And for the people who work in Alberta’s forest products sector, Blade is a kind of superhero. As CEO of Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions Corporation, an agglomeration of government-funded research programs created on January 1, 2010, he is leading an effort to save the industry from the scourge of the mountain pine beetle.

Photograph Alberta Sustainable Resource Development

Blade is looking for ways to help the industry diversify, both in terms of the products it produces and the strategies it uses to sell them. “We think about everything from sustainable production to ecosystem services and what the bio-economy turns into, now and in the next five to 10 years,” he says. Already, the industry has made considerable progress in adapting to its challenges. “If we would have said five years ago that Alberta-Pacific [a lumber company that once produced only two-by-fours] would have a green methanol production facility as part of its operation at Boyle, that just wouldn’t have been in the cards,” Blade says. “But people keep thinking more and more about how they can use that biomass in interesting and profitable ways.”

One of the best at that is Whitecourt’s Alberta Newsprint Company. In 2008, it was part of a $28-million research project that tested sensor technology and equipment modifications aimed at making beetle-kill wood usable in newsprint production. Other innovative applications of beetle-kill pine include burning it in order to produce energy and refining it to produce biochemicals and biofuels.

Ironically, the lumber made from beetle-kill pine that builders are starting to use with greater frequency – over a million board feet of it was used to make the roof for the Olympic speed skating oval in Richmond, B.C. – isn’t an economically viable option in Alberta because there isn’t enough deadwood here. “There aren’t large stands of dead timber like you’d see in British Columbia, where thousands of hectares have been consumed by the beetle,” says Pat Guidera, the director of forest technologies for Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions. “Here, there’s not enough of the primary product to encourage the development of a secondary sector.”

And if there were, Albertan companies would face some structural disadvantages that companies in B.C., ground zero for the mountain pine beetle epidemic, don’t have to contend with. “We’re landlocked,” Guidera says. “You can’t make enough money at it to make it pay – but B.C. can.”

The good news is that the war against the beetle, in Alberta at least, appears to be turning. If and when it’s won, Blade thinks the industry will look back on the experience as a turning point, one that encouraged it to think bigger – and smarter. Rather than focusing just on solid wood, pulp and paper, the industry and its government partners will continue to pursue diversification of supply and demand. “What are we going to be producing 50 or 100 years from now? We’re certainly not going to be least-cost producers,” Blade says. “The industry’s going to be driven by technology and produce some of those key, almost niche, products.”

Beetle Juice

Why bluestain lumber is bad for the sawmill business

Pine beetle under bark
Photograph Alberta Sustainable Resource Development

Trees that have been attacked by the mountain pine beetle are considered a lesser source of timber for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there’s the bluestain that’s left behind after an attack and is one of the causes of the tree’s death. While it is aesthetically intriguing (more on that in a moment), its unusual look makes it unappealing for many industrial customers.

More importantly, the fungi reduce the moisture content in the affected logs, making them more brittle and therefore difficult to mill effectively. Any breakage, whether it occurs during the harvesting, transportation or milling, leads to the production of shorter, less-valuable lumber lengths.

The decreased moisture content can also affect the costs of milling, both through the increased energy output needed to process them (less moisture means more friction, which can wear on cutting blades) or increased downtime associated with jamming and breakage. If they’ve made it this far, the beetle-affected logs can also break or develop value-destroying checks and splits during the kiln-drying and planing process.

Even if they make it through to the end, they’re priced at a substantial discount when compared to unaffected lumber due to concerns about the wood’s durability.

Been There, Done That

Creative solutions to bug blight

In B.C, where the beetle epidemic began, the volume of dead pine is substantially greater than in Alberta. As a result, their forestry sector has had more time, opportunity and need to deal with the dead and dying trees before they lose all commercial value. Here are a few ideas.

Denim Pine
The distinct blue streaks that run through beetle-affected timber may not be appealing to large-scale users, but it has attracted a cult following. In fact, it has its own brand: Denim Pine. In the early 2000s Quesnel resident Lynn Pont decided there was an opportunity contained within the unfolding disaster. She registered the Denim Pine Marketing Association as a not-for-profit group and promotes the product and the independent builders, woodworkers and craftspeople that use it.

In 2007, graduate student Sorin Pasca of the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) developed a material that used a blend of beetle-kill wood chips, cement and water. The hybrid floor tile can take a nail or screw without predrilling and can be cut without specialized blades or woodworking tools. He called it Beetlecrete.

It has more commercial potential than the average research project, too. A UNBC study found that customers in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Prince George were willing to pay more for a product like Beetlecrete if it was better for the environment and the local economy in which it was produced than a comparable but lower-priced equivalent.

Thermally Modified Lumber
Beetle-kill wood may not be useful for traditional construction and building purposes, but a company in Abbotsford, B.C., named SEESIn Wood figured out a way to get it up to standard. Thermal modification, which subjects the wood to steam and high temperatures, negates virtually all of its undesirable qualities. The process increases the wood’s durability and stability, while the darkening that’s a natural byproduct of the process masks the blue stain left by the beetles. In the end, what’s left is a product that is structurally and aesthetically similar to cedar and can be produced at a lower cost.


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