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Forest service marks its 100th year under scrutiny

David Reid, B.C. Forest Service manager of seed production, holds a kilogram of Douglas fir seed selected through generations of tree breeding at the provincial tree orchard in Saanich. Matched to regional climate, elevation and soil conditions, its market value is $4,000. - Tom Fletcher/Black Press
David Reid, B.C. Forest Service manager of seed production, holds a kilogram of Douglas fir seed selected through generations of tree breeding at the provincial tree orchard in Saanich. Matched to regional climate, elevation and soil conditions, its market value is $4,000.
— image credit: Tom Fletcher/Black Press

VICTORIA – B.C. Forest Service staff shared a cake with former ministers and deputies at a ceremony at the legislature Monday to mark the service's 100th anniversary, before politicians resumed their bitter debate about the state of the province's forests.

NDP forests critic Norm Macdonald said the recent auditor general's report highlighted the need to update B.C.'s forest inventory, 70 per cent of which is out of date. But he said last week's B.C. budget reduced spending on forest health over the next two years.

Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson replied that his budget includes a $10 million fund for this year to update the Crown forest industry in priority areas, particularly those affected by the mountain pine beetle infestation in the B.C. Interior.

Thomson said that effort responds to Auditor General John Doyle's recommendations on upgrading the forest inventory. But Thomson rejected Doyle's conclusion that industry-led reforestation of logged areas has been done cheaply and reduced species diversity, making the forests more vulnerable to pests or disease.

Forest service seed orchards select the best stock for each elevation, soil and climatic zone, providing seed to forest companies responsible for replanting logged areas, Thomson said. The forest service has two seed orchards near Vernon, one near Salmon Arm, one near Prince George, on in Saanich and a research station at Cowichan Lake where scientific tree selection began in 1912.

Brian Barber, director of the ministry's tree improvement branch, said in an interview it is in forest companies' interest to plant the best tree stock available for each site, as quickly as possible after harvesting. Strong, fast-growing trees outpace underbrush more quickly, saving money on brush treatment and meeting the companies' legal obligation to establish "free growing" trees on Crown land.

Barber said the broad areas of lodgepole pine susceptible to beetle kill were created in part by decades of forest fire suppression, which allowed stands to live longer and become more attractive to beetles. But their origin goes back far beyond 40 years of intensive replanting activity.

"The mountain pine beetle epidemic occurred via a large food source, available because of fire suppression," Barber said. "But those are trees that regenerated naturally following fires that were set by settlers, and by people doing mining exploration in the early 1900s."

Alvin Yanchuk, senior scientist in the tree improvement branch, said research continues to determine if the latest beetle outbreak across western North America was a result of long-term climate shift, or simply a string of warmer winters that allowed them to multiply and spread.

"This beetle is one of the thousands of bark beetles around the world," Yanchuk said. "There's a handful that go epidemic, and we happened to have them when we had the right conditions."

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