Close-up of beetles crawling in soil. A\J

The Beetle’s Wake

Greed and stupidity make a lethal cocktail, and this industry’s been drinking doubles for a long time.

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we use it with love and respect.
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we use it with love and respect.
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

LIKE MOST PEOPLE living in the interior of British Columbia, Dave Jorgenson works in the wake of the forest industry’s response to the hurricane of the beetle. It is not a comfortable situation. But as Jorgenson puts it, “Every day offers a new set of disasters and challenges, and you have to adapt.” On a February afternoon in 2010, the lanky third-generation logger stood on a clear-cut just west of Williams Lake, off the Horsefly road. Tolko Industries, a Canadian timber baron, had just mowed down the forest, ostensibly to take out some beetle kill before it became “worthless.” Any timber not “merchantable” or the right diameter was left on the snowy ground. Before the outbreak, loggers rarely left more than 15 percent of the wood in the forest. But after the beetle, industry routinely junked 50 percent of the wood in waste piles to be burned. An industry based on minimizing costs and maximizing volume isn’t particularly careful, explains Jorgenson.

Disgusted by the wasteful practice, Jorgenson convinced the company to build a snake-rail fence with the leftovers. A log fence is not only kinder to wildlife than barbed wire but lasts longer, he says. It also controls the movement of cattle in the bush. For Jorgenson, the whole sordid beetle affair has just shed light on an old and very familiar western story: “Greed and stupidity make a lethal cocktail, and this industry’s been drinking doubles for a long time.”

One of the biggest fallouts from the beetle disaster, he says, was industry’s go-wild behavior. In 2001, about 60 percent of industry’s timber cut was composed of pine. By 2005, at the height of the outbreak, the share of pine being logged had dropped to 40 percent in some regions. In fact, only a quarter of the forests attacked by the beetle were truly pine dominant. “It’s pretty outrageous,” says Jorgenson. “Many companies were just targeting non-pine stands.”

Jorgenson isn’t impressed with clear-cutting as the dominant, cookie-cutter solution for salvaging dead pine. An industrial clear-cut typically removes everything on the forest floor, including saplings as well as young spruce and fir. The gaping hole in the forest canopy also makes standing trees around the edges more vulnerable to blowdown. High winds in the region now rip through clear-cuts downing thousands of trees around the edge. Blowdown, of course, serves as a great nursery for bark beetles.

“The bugs get in it, and you get another big red crop of trees. Every year it gets worse.”

In 2009, BC’s Forest Practices Board revealed the ugly scale of clear-cuts in beetle country. The board noted that some exceeded 250,000 acres and were on an order of magnitude greater than the largest size ever recommended by the chief forester or provincial biodiversity plans. “We are concerned about these large and very large patches because they are a somewhat unintended and largely unforeseen consequence of salvage harvesting,” the agency’s report said. In an incredible finding, the board concluded, “The ecological consequences of salvage harvesting on a spatial scale” had “no precedent globally.” The board had been forewarned. A 2001 review commissioned by the province on the costs and benefits of clear-cutting beetle kill had argued, in simple terms, that a forest renewed by bark beetles was a much smarter economic proposition than a monster clearcut designed by humans with forestry degrees. As Jorgenson can attest, such studies went unread.

Selective logging of dead pine could have prevented much of the industrial mayhem, but it would have cost industry a few dollars more. “All you see is green when I’m done,” says Jorgenson, who works only with small, custom-made equipment. “The pine is gone, and it looks like nothing was going on.” The remaining spruce, fir, and balsam grow faster and fatter. But with harvesting capacity already exceeding what the mills could handle, no big company wanted to pay a little extra to log carefully, or to protect the forest’s ability to employ communities in the future. “It was all about short-term fibre and get big or get out,” Jorgenson says. But big things like old-growth forests always eventually collapse. “These massive companies that require high-fibre flows are going to find it hard to make a go of it,” predicts Jorgenson. “There could be some serious challenges down the pipe.” A 2010 report by the International Wood Markets Group concluded that “one of North America’s largest natural environmental disasters” would soon create significant shortfalls in fibre, chips, and sawdust shavings as companies run out of green trees. The report calculated that 16 major sawmills could close and that United States would experience lumber shortages. A similar report by the Central 1 Credit Union estimated job losses as high as 20,000 by 2028 due to reduced timber harvests.

Dave Jorgenson regards the outbreak as a natural disturbance driven by the rapid extinction of cold winters. He says there were really four large epicentres, and they “all took off simultaneously.” The majority of the infestation started on timber leases owned by timber barons, so “it was unstoppable.” He remembers working in the bush and being surrounded by massive flights of beetles. “The sun was filtering through the trees, and it was like a London fog. It was surreal.”

In 2007, the logger was invited to speak at a forestry conference in Grand Prairie, Alberta – Peace River country. Alberta, a petro-state with a Texas mindset, was then removing single infested pines by helicopter in mountain hot spots in a vain attempt to prevent the beetle’s relentless march across the Rockies. Jorgenson told the Albertans that industry mostly regarded the beetle as a fantastic opportunity to obtain cheap wood. Logging corporations had little resilience and no interest in the long-term welfare of the forest or people. “You’ll never control the beetle,” Jorgenson informed his audience. “You’ll run out of money before you control the beetle. You’ll do what Nature lets you. You’re not in control.” He wasn’t invited back.

Jorgenson thinks more forests should be managed by the communities that live in them rather than by corporations “situated in Vancouver or London or God knows where else.” Unlike corporations and governments, communities have to live with the consequences of their decisions. “We are going to have to make peace with the fact that we have to make more with less. We’re running out of stuff. We had it all and ruined it.”

From the book Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests, © 2011 by Andrew Nikiforuk, published by Greystone Books, an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary-based journalist, is the author of the national bestseller Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. His latest book, The Energy of Slaves, looks at how human slavery has shaped our attitudes and values about energy. For more on Andrew visit his website at