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Alberta’s plea to halt pine beetle’s spread turned down by Ottawa, documents show

The mountain pine beetle, which kills trees by laying eggs under the bark, is projected to kill 58 per cent of British Columbia’s pine trees by 2021.

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Ottawa rebuffed a request from Alberta to help stop the spread of a destructive, tree-eating pine beetle – one that has ravaged B.C.'s forests and that Alberta warns could cross the prairies and reach Ontario.

Newly released documents show Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen wrote the federal government on Jan. 3 asking it to restore funding to fight the mountain pine beetle in Canada's National Parks, including Banff and Jasper, which lie along the B.C.-Alberta border. The beetle has spread through B.C., where it's projected to kill more than half of all pine trees, and is now spreading across Alberta. Ms. McQueen noted the "massive influx" was now spreading through the Parks and Alberta, and had been detected 50 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border.

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But Parks Canada axed funding for fighting the beetle in 2009, a decision Ms. McQueen wrote that she is "troubled by." "Parks Canada no longer has a strategic plan in place to manage populations or treat infested trees," she wrote. In Jasper National Park, in particular, 1,400 new infected trees had recently been found, she wrote.

"The continued spread of mountain pine beetle is a significant threat to pine forests across Canada," Ms. McQueen wrote. "… Achieving success requires financial support from the Government of Canada."

Three months later, she received a reply from Peter Kent, the federal minister with whom she'd also been closely working to hammer out an oil-sands monitoring strategy. Mr. Kent dismissed her request. Instead, Parks Canada is using "prescribed fire to reduce susceptible forest" areas, he wrote. "Parks Canada will continue to work with its provincial partners on inter-agency prescribed fire initiatives," he wrote in the four-paragraph letter. He did not specifically address the request for funding.

In the meantime, Alberta is partnering with Saskatchewan and Ontario to fight the spread of the beetle, Ms. McQueen wrote. Saskatchewan had previously announced funding, saying that "working with Alberta provides our best chance of preventing this insect from becoming established in our majestic northern forest."

The beetle kills a tree by laying eggs under the bark, and the larvae then slowly kill the tree, according to information published by the B.C. government. The province projects the beetle will kill 58 per cent of the province's pine trees by 2021.

The beetle was detected in Northern Alberta along the B.C. border in 2001, threatening to spread through the boreal forest. Warmer-than-average winters help the spread, which also increases fire risk – the infested trees dry out, and become more flammable. Fire, in turn, is what Ottawa is relying on to kill the beetles, Mr. Kent wrote.

The letter from Ms. McQueen was sent to Mr. Kent, federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Ms. McQueen's counterparts in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Mr. Kent's reply said he was writing on Mr. Oliver's behalf. The correspondence was released under Canada's Access to Information Act, and was among communication between Ms. McQueen and Mr. Kent this spring.

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The letters came at a time when top bureaucrats in each department were speaking frequently about the oil sands, as were the ministers themselves. Mr. Kent wrote to Ms. McQueen on Feb. 11, discussing the oil sands while not addressing the January letter or the pine-beetle issue. Ms. McQueen wrote back again on March 18 agreeing to the terms of the oil-sands deal, and again on April 16, urging Ottawa not to close the Experimental Lakes research area in Northwestern Ontario. It was two days later that Mr. Kent wrote back, rebuffing the beetle-funding request.

Josh Wingrove is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa.

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