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Saturday, June 13, 2009

The demise of Lodge Pole pines in BC

Lodge pole pines, which clad much of the interior of BC, are disappearing. The villain in the piece is a fungus which is transmitted by a beetle.  The beetle and the fungus were always there but harsh winters once knocked the beetle back sufficiently to keep the damage at a tolerable level. If you read Three Against the Wilderness by Eric Collier, in the years from the 30's to the 50's, the temperature regularly fell to around 50 below or less; below the measuring ability of a mercury thermometer. With the demise of pines the woods are changing.

Fall colours in the Chilcoten

As the pines die, poplars are springing up. In a recent trip to BC in the fall, the woods, which formerly would have been dark green, were yellow with the changing leaves of the poplar trees, interspersed with the rusty red of dying pines. This must look like a horrible fungus to the people who make their living from the pine forests. One of two things can be done.

The people of BC can either try to find a way of getting rid of the beetle or at least keeping it under control or they can see what they can salvage from the situation. Getting rid of the beetle seems to be a very hard ask and if past experience with similar problems is any indication, will probably involve the spreading of vast quantities of insecticide over the woods. Not a nice prospect. So before looking at possible solutions to the demise of the existing forests, what are the likely results of the take over by Poplars.

The poplars are probably only the pioneer species. In the fullness of time, other tree species will spread as well. No one can be sure what the natural succession will be but at the very least it will be 'interesting'.

Soils under evergreen trees are generally pretty sour and unfavorable to many herbs and shrubs. Pines even have the ability to kill off other plants. A pine extract developed in New Zealand is used in an organic herbicide. Soil under deciduous forests by contrast are rich and sweet due to the yearly production of leaf mulch and encourage a wide variety of under-story plants. These plants provide food for a wide variety of animals. The woods are likely to become much more ecologically diverse and much more productive as deciduous trees replace evergreens.

With the spread of deciduous trees there will be food and building material for beavers. With the beavers come a whole range of benefits. The people of Williams Lake, right in the heart of the pine forests, know all about this. In the 30's Their own Eric Collier began to rebuild the beaver dams by hand in the head waters of Meldrum Creek and in the 40's obtained two pair of beaver which multiplied and took over the work. The benefits both to his area and for downstream farmers were huge.

Water flowed year round in the creeks instead of mainly in spring, Animals and plants returned, trout and salmon came back to the streams, forest fires greatly decreased. Cattle had sweet water to drink instead of muddy bogs to get stuck in and die. What sort of industry could come out of such an environment.

Eco tourism. Much of the world depends on tourism to top up their GDP. With a hugely enriched environment, the interior of BC could greatly expand this part of their economy with horse trecks, photo tours hiking and so forth.

Hunting. It is likely with increased forage that ungulate populations (deer, moose etc.) will increase and with them the population of wolves, Mountain Lions and bears. Trophy hunting could play an increasing part in the economy of The Chilcotin.

Fishing. If the experience of Eric is anything to go on, the fishing will improve immeasurably when there is a large healthy population of beavers in the area. This also attracts tourism and provides recreation and food for the locals.

Maple Syrup. And how about an experimental planting of sugar maples. The weather should still be harsh enough in the Chilcotin to accommodate the life cycle of these trees. Perhaps Williams Lake could give Eastern Canada a run for their money.

Fur Trapping. Who knows if fur will ever become PC again. If so, beaver dams breed masses of muskrats which have beautiful fur. One warning, though. Leave the beavers alone. They are the goose that lays the golden egg.

Lumber. This may seem a strange suggestion since the lumber industry is disappearing. But how about investigating which trees could be planted that can be used for pulp and which other types of trees could be grown for lumber. It is long term investment but a farmer might plant a few hectares of oaks, black walnut or other prime timber, for instance, and keep them pruned as New Zealanders do with Pinus radiata to make clear wood. Oak will always command a high price and this could be a farmers retirement fund. There must be many other species of valuable trees that would prosper in the new climate of the interior of BC including varieties of nut trees. How about an experimental planting of every species of tree that could conceivably be of economic benefit in the area. Trees already planted in private gardens may already give an indication of which species prosper in the area.

There will be many other opportunities from the change that is occurring. The trick is to find them.

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