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'Everywhere the Trees Were Dead'

Fuelled by climate change, the devastating pine beetle outbreak is a non-stop forest killer, shows new doc.

By David Hains 30 Mar 2013 |

David Hains is a Toronto-based journalist who has contributed to The Grid, OpenFile, Torontoist and Xtra.

[Editor's note: In David York's forthcoming CBC documentary "The Beetles Are Coming," a helicopter hovers over the B.C. Interior, and the overhead shot reveals what looks like a lush autumnal scene. But those red trees below are dead pines, infested by trillions of mountain pine beetles over the past decade. With only a two degree annual increase in temperature, the beetles burrow under the bark of the pine tree with abandon, and the normal balance of mature trees, incoming beetles and natural wildfires is out of balance.

The documentary is based on the book Empire of the Beetle by award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. The book examines the unprecedented destruction of the beetle due to climate change.

David Hains spoke to York in a downtown Toronto café about what got him interested in the subject, how it's affecting the broader ecosystem and what can be learned from this epidemic.]

How did you first come to the subject matter?

David York: "I first came to it by being an Andrew Nikiforuk fan. I read his journalism going back 20 years. I made a film a few years ago called Wiebo's War, which was inspired by his fantastic book on sour gas. So basically, whenever Andrew writes a new book, I buy it.

"So, how this happened, I picked up the book Empire of the Beetle and by chance I had a conversation with an executive at The Nature of Things, and I was halfway through it and I said, 'Man, have you read this book?' He had heard of it, but hadn't read it, and The Nature of Things got back to me and said, 'Do you want to do this as a film?' By then I had finished the book, it was great, and two days later we were out the door."

Was it a case of needing to see it to appreciate the full scope and impact the pine beetle had?

"You know, I've always liked to look at a landscape -- water, wetlands -- and get a sense of what was going on below me from the window. Of course, that was the first experience Andrew had with it too. He was flying by Prince George a couple years after the outbreak started and saw it. He had heard bits and pieces about the Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak, but never really thought too much about it. It wasn't until he flew over it... that's when you get it."

It seems difficult to comprehend the devastation from the ground. In Patrick White's 2007 Walrus magazine article on the subject, he writes about how people who live there come up with their own theories to explain how this happened. There seems to be an almost mythological sense to the pine beetle.

"When I got there, this plague -- and when you talk about it in mythological terms, that's the word that feels right -- was almost a decade old by the time I got there. People view it in the way that you would view a great tragedy or calamity, like Katrina or Hurricane Sandy. It's a giant landscape of an event that affects everybody and is in everybody's faces in the affected areas. And that's 18-million hectares. That's the size of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI combined.

"So when we went and filmed, I looked for an area of pine tree that had been infected but hadn't turned red yet (a process which takes a year). And I had a devil of a time finding areas that we could film. Everywhere the trees were dead. We went way up to northwestern B.C. to Smithers, which should be way out of the range of the mountain pine beetle, but that's where the outbreak was fresh, so that's where we went. It's not easy to find any expanse of pine-dominated forest in B.C. that's alive."

It's a strange phenomenon when you have people in the B.C. Interior really hoping for -40 C weather in order to kill the beetles and preserve what they have.

"Insects are cold-blooded, so they're pretty tolerant of tough winters, but what they don't like are protracted three- to five-day periods of -35 C to -40 C. It's very tough for them to survive. What's most dangerous to the mountain pine beetle is an extended cold snap at the end of October or in April. Because the beetle does something extraordinary: in wintertime, the beetle's larva expels the water from its body and replaces the water with antifreeze so it is cold-tolerant in winter, and it refills with water in April. So you have a window of opportunity, but it's pretty small.

"Those cold snaps and deep colds almost never happen anymore, and the beetles grow exponentially."

Your past films have focused on institutions and their failure to address conflicts, from wars to Air India. Does this crisis fall into that category?

"The first important thing to understand about this crisis is that it's a naturally occurring battle. This will happen despite anyone's efforts to stop it. It's a naturally occurring phenomenon whose break is climate, the break is gone, and there's precious little anyone can do about it.

"The second thing is it is the first unequivocal example of a major climate change effect. Allan Carroll, the forest entomologist, looked at the climate data in 2003 and 2004 and proved without a doubt this was a climate change effect. Institutionally, that really interested me, because we're all used in the cities and in the east to thinking about climate change as something that's down the road. But in B.C. and Alberta, this climate change effect is established, is affecting a top-three industry in both provinces, and politics and business have to deal with it right now. These are the kinds of questions and dilemmas that we're all going to have to face down the road, it just happened in the B.C. Interior first.

"In terms of the response, institutions are imperfect. People reacted as best they could with the information they had. I think it's also fair to say that when looking out over the Interior of B.C. over this ocean of dead trees that were going to rot within five to eight years, the government's decision to allow the logging industry to cut them down and mill it -- that was a rational decision. What happened next was they flooded the market with cheap two-by-fours, bottomed the price out, because there was too much supply for the demand, and the financial crisis hit. They slashed the price of their own product by cutting the market, they decreased their margins to the extent that in order to feed the capacity -- they spent hundreds of millions on new saw mills -- they had no choice [but to also cut down] other species of tree, like spruce and fir. They committed to logging those other species at the same rate as the pine, and that, to me, is reckless. The impact on wildlife, on watersheds, on flooding is profound, and is only now starting to be felt."

That's something I was really curious about. Your film really focuses on the trees, but they're part of a much broader ecosystem: 85-species of mammals, tens-of-thousands of kinds of insects -- what's the impact on them?

"A recent study in B.C. suggests moose populations are down 70 per cent in areas that have been clear cut post-mountain pine beetle. If you think about it, it's pretty obvious; the moose require shelter in the winter and they just don't get it. They've got no forage, no shelter. What's interesting is these effects are all so new. We're just learning now what the ripple effects will be. But we know that in those forests, pine trees are a keystone species. They're a species on which everything else in the system depends, and taking them out is going to be really bad news."

What's to stop this beetle eventually?

"In the past, what kept the beetle population contained was the Rocky Mountains. Now, the beetles have crossed over and they're as far as the Cypress Hills on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. Beetles are now established there. It can sit there at an endemic level until climate conditions warrant a population explosion. In an era of climate change, it seems inevitable. When the epidemic happens, the beetles will spread very quickly. There's nothing to prevent [them] from crossing the northern prairies into Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and doing what it did in B.C. It's a matter of time.

"The government of Alberta is spending $350-million-a-year to try and stop this, and they're just holding the status quo. That's with good weather."

If we're resigned to this plague, what do we learn from it?

"We learn that natural forces and natural cycles are stronger than us. We learn that we're a species here just like every other species, and we'll have to adapt. That this isn't a problem we can engineer our way out of; it's a problem we'll have to adapt to. And that's salutary, in a way. Even though it's devastating, and the effects in B.C. have been awful and will be in the rest of the country too, we can learn a little humility."

"The Beetles Are Coming" airs on CBC's The Nature of Things on April 4 at 8 p.m.  [Tyee]

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