British Columbia’s Forests Minister Doug Donaldson took a helicopter tour over the Cariboo region earlier this month – a landscape ravaged in turn by pests, fire and drought. Last summer, 19 wildfires converged here on the Chilcotin Plateau, 60 kilometres west of Quesnel, to form one of the largest wildfires recorded in B.C.
“I believe in the resiliency of ecosytems, that is my scientific training,” said Mr. Donaldson, a biologist who worked in the forest industry. But as far as he could see, the charred landscape offered little indication of life. In places, the firestorm consumed even the soil. “It’s comparable to a moonscape,” he said. “It’s daunting.”
This region has endured an unprecedented series of disasters in recent years, and besieged residents could be forgiven for scanning the horizon for signs of another horseman of the apocalypse. “We’ve had three for sure, we’re hoping the fourth doesn’t come,” Quesnel’s mayor Bob Simpson said. Last week, he was busy putting the community on flood watch as the snowpack swells the Fraser River.
In early May, Mr. Simpson invited the Forests Minister to visit because he believes there is a way forward for his forest-dependent community, as British Columbia’s laboratory for adaption. He put together a think tank of industry experts, academics and researchers to work out solutions. He is now preparing a report to Mr. Donaldson that will lay out a plan that would see the region used as a test bed for reformatting the province’s approach to forestry, from forest management to the manufacturing of forest products, in the face of climate change.
“There is an idea that we are under assault on that land base, but we had presenters say, you can get some relief if you manage that land base differently,” Mr. Simpson said. “We need to build resilient forests.”
In a report in February, the chief forester noted that the 2017 wildfires in B.C. affected over 1.2 million hectares, the largest impact on record (in about 100 years of record-keeping) for a single fire season. Most of that – about one million hectares, was in the Cariboo region. The fires consumed or damaged almost one-quarter of Quesnel’s timber supply.
That is on top of the devastation wrought by the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic, and sustained drought conditions that had led to fire bans in April – remarkably early. “We just cringe now when we see lightning,” Mr. Simpson said.
Now, a growing fir beetle infestation that somehow eluded last year’s wildfires is putting the remaining timber supply at risk.
“There isn’t a tree species or a plantation that isn’t under stress due to increasing maladaptation to the current climate,” Mr. Simpson said. Never mind whatever climate changes are coming.
Mr. Donaldson agrees that change is needed. The region’s pulp mills and wood-manufacturing facilities have been fed a diet of pine beetle-damaged wood, which is now running out. “The challenge is that much of the last decade and a half, the industry has been predicated on an endless supply of cheap fibre,” he said.
The forest minister, who also toured the local mills, was impressed by the understanding from industry about the need to retool, but acknowledges that his government has to adapt too.
“In the present, our job is to ensure we are sustainably harvesting … and to ensure that all the wood that is harvestable is being used as effectively as possible,” he said. There is barely enough timber available now to meet the province’s legal commitments to its major forest license holders, which means he will have some difficult decisions ahead on how to distribute harvesting rights.
But that moonscape he visited is also a blank canvas to lay out a new forest, a new ecosystem that can withstand whatever climate change may throw at it.
Mr. Simpson said the tweaks and adjustments offered by government so far are insufficient. “What we’re really looking for is some kind of unprecedented response from the province to the unprecedented challenges we’re being confronted with.”