Opinion

Federal government must act on national pine beetle problem

Alberta is the frontline of a pine beetle epidemic that threatens to decimate forests from coast to coast. It's time for the federal government to step up the fight.

'Once a population begins expanding, they present a threat to forests for hundreds of kilometres downwind'

It's time for the federal government to "step up" in the fight against mountain pine beetle, says the Alberta Forest Products Association.

Alberta is the frontline of a pine beetle epidemic that threatens to decimate forests from coast to coast.

If you've been to Jasper National Park recently, you have seen the widespread devastation. Large swathes of mature pine in the park are red and dead.

If decisive action is not taken soon, this sad scene will be replayed in forests throughout Canada.

Pan-Canadian approach needed

On Monday, the Alberta legislature unanimously passed a motion, sponsored by Edmonton-Manning MLA Heather Sweet, urging co-operation with the government of Canada to tackle this problem immediately.

Co-operation is the right approach. For too many years, pine beetle has been seen as a provincial problem.

First it was a B.C. problem. Now it's an Alberta problem. With pine beetles already entrenched in areas east of Lac La Biche, it will soon also be a Saskatchewan problem. And with a continuous band of pine throughout Canada's boreal forest, the epidemic will surely spread beyond Saskatchewan all the way to Canada's East Coast.

It's time to stop taking a one-off approach in each province. That just leads to the problem showing up on the doorstep of the next neighbour to the east.

A valiant effort

Over the past decade, Alberta has invested over $500 million to help stop the beetle. The government of Saskatchewan has recognized that it is the next province in line and has wisely provided support to Alberta.

Mountain pine beetles have caused extensive damage in Alberta forests. (Ward Strong/B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations)

This funding has served both provinces very well. Although the beetle has caused extensive damage to forests in the Grande Prairie and Hinton/Jasper regions, the devastation is nowhere near what we have seen in British Columbia. In that province, there have been extensive mill closures that have proven catastrophic for forest communities throughout the interior.

Alberta's valiant effort to stop the beetle has served the people of Canada well, too. We've held back the surge for 10 years, giving communities in the beetle's path time to adjust. It's given provinces east of Alberta time to put in place plans to protect watersheds and update firefighting procedures.

If we are going to continue to perform this public service, we need some help.

A national problem

The government of Alberta has recently requested $95 million in pine beetle assistance from the government of Canada. This money would be spent over the next five years and matched with contributions from Alberta.

It's in the national interest for this request to be honoured. After all, this is a national problem.

And it's not just an industry problem, or a problem for Canadians living in rural forestry towns. It's a problem for everyone.

Aerial photograph shows a forest infested by the mountain pine beetle. (Government of Alberta)

Pine beetle has the potential to wreak havoc on drinking water supplies for millions of Canadians. Properly managed forests are critical filtration systems for water. And I've been told by water management professionals that one of their worst nightmares is large quantities of sediment and ash in a municipal drinking water supply. It is very difficult and expensive to remove.

Thus, a pest that kills trees and heightens fire risk is a real threat to cities like Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg whose drinking water originates in pine forests.

And then there's our air quality. Pine beetle can be a significant factor in forest fires. Fires in B.C. during the summers of 2017 and 2018 caused air quality alerts and emergency room visits in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, and many other cities.

Residents in remote Indigenous communities in northern B.C. were even less fortunate. They had to be evacuated.  There is a real health and safety imperative at play here.

Not going away

Our beetle problem is not going away any time soon. Pine beetles are a bit like a marching army. Once they are allowed to build a critical mass, they use it to spread even further. This is precisely the situation in Jasper National Park, where the beetle population has exploded.

It's only a matter of time before the beetles use this beachhead to expand. And once a population begins expanding, they present a threat to forests for hundreds of kilometres downwind. In fact, beetles from the invasion of Jasper have been found in Edmonton's urban forests.

The key

The key to the beetle problem involves taking decisive action as soon as populations begin to materialize. Populations need to be tracked aggressively, older pine stands in the beetle's path need to be thinned before they become infested, and single infested trees must be felled and burned.

This has been the Alberta approach for more than decade and it has worked. The problem is that it's expensive and it's no longer reasonable for Alberta to shoulder all of the burden.

Not without precedent

There is precedent for federal assistance with these types of problems. The government of Canada did provide a small assistance package for Alberta when the beetle first arrived, but that commitment ended more than 10 years ago.

More recently, $74 million was provided to Atlantic provinces to deal with a spruce budworm outbreak. Given the potential consequences of a nation-wide pine beetle outbreak, we need federal funding here in Alberta, too.

It's time for the government of Canada to step up to the plate so that this important work can continue.

About the Author

Paul Whittaker

Paul Whittaker is president and CEO of the Alberta Forest Products Association.