Mountain pine beetle and fire forge next generation of woodlands in British Columbia's Cariboo region; The Vancouver Sun begins tracing the journey of a single log with the help of West Fraser

VANCOUVER, British Columbia , September 14, 2013 () – On the Eastern edge of the Chilcotin Plateau, in a landscape dotted with the tangled and blackened stems of trees killed by the mountain pine beetle, forester Eric Kashkan has a decision to make that will decide the future of this stand for the next 200 years.

If he feels the company he works for, West Fraser Timber, can get even one two-by-four out of these blackened snags, then it is worth sending a logging crew in, cutting what remains of the standing timber, and replanting the site - beginning the cycle of renewal.

If not, nature could take centuries to re-establish a new forest.

As he steps out of a helicopter into this bleak landscape 65 kilometres west of the Cariboo town of Quesnel, he takes in what was once a lush pine forest. It is now open to the sky, littered with snags and dead trees, many lying shattered in pieces on the ground.

The wind has toppled these pines after their roots, which had anchored them in the mineral-rich soil of the plateau, died. Others are hung up at crazy angles, caught as they fell in the limbs of the few live trees, often breaking the crowns and branches of the survivors in the process. Still more remain standing, their bare limbs etched in dark relief against a grey sky.

Kashkan expected this, having flown over the site previously on a timber reconnaissance.

"The rule of thumb when doing a timber 'recky' is that everything looks better from the air," he said, noting that at least the blueberries are thriving, now that the canopy is dead and they are exposed to the sun.

"That's good for the bears." Kashkan is standing at the epicentre of a struggle as old as the Cariboo itself. The forests that spread like a thick, green rug over the land at the end of the last glaciation evolved through what foresters call disturbance-based ecology. They are part of a cycle of creation, destruction and renewal that is almost Biblical in its scope.

Developing a plan It is here that we begin our story of one log, tracing its life in an ecology shaped by glaciers and endless cycles of pests, fire and rebirth, growing in a mostly uniform-aged stand until it is identified by foresters from West Fraser who have been developing a plan to harvest the site and return it to a productive forest.


It will be cut by loggers, trucked to one of the world's largest and most modern sawmills in Quesnel, and broken down into basic products that everyone knows and uses. But we are largely unaware of where these products come from, who the people are that make them, and how many different uses there are, in fact, for a tree. Our tree becomes lumber for the recovering U.S. housing market, pulp destined for China - where it becomes packaging for consumer goods shipped back to us - or plywood for Canadian home builders. Its bark is burned for energy to fuel the industrial machines that create useful consumer goods. Some of that energy is sold to BC Hydro, and could be powering your laptop or re-charging your smartphone.

Even the sawdust is gathered up and sent to an engineered wood-products plant, where it is moulded under pressure into fibreboard. It ends up in kitchen cabinets, door frames and home furnishings that will be sold up and down the west coast of North America.

Our tree comes from what foresters call the sub-boreal pine spruce zone, a unique combination of biological, geological and climate factors that have shaped this land since the last glaciers receded 10,000 years ago.

The Cariboo-Chilcotin Plateau rises 1,000 metres above sea level, sloping from west to east. It was formed millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions and lava flows that filled the ancient basin between the Coast Mountains in the west and the Cariboo Mountains to the east. The last glaciation left a thick deposit of mineral till across the plateau, rising and falling in long, low, undulating hills called drumlins, oriented to the north and south.

On the east side of the Fraser River, where a wetter climate is suited to spruce and fir as well as pine, the destruction caused by the mountain pine beetle was about 25 per cent or less of the forest. It is this part of the plateau where our tree grew. West of the Fraser, where pine dominates in the rain shadow of the Coast Range, the forest is mostly dead. If not replanted, fire will likely follow, scouring the land but also uncovering the mineral-rich soil where the next generation of seedlings will take root. Pine seeds that have lain dormant in the ground will later sprout when exposed to the heat of the sun.

Dynamic relationship

"You get this abundance of regeneration, especially on the drier sites where there is not too much vegetation competition, because you have many years of seeds stored in the cones," Stephen Mitchell, associate professor in the department of forest sciences at the University of B.C., said in describing the dynamic relationship on the Cariboo-Chilcotin Plateau between pine, the beetle and fire.

"You have a huge seed bank. It generates en masse, very high density, often tens of thousands of stems per hectare, hundreds of thousands per hectare at times.

"If the cone opened right at the time of the fire and released the seed, the seed would be burned and killed. It's the charring, the fact that the trees are killed and the site is exposed to the sun and heats up after the fire, that releases the seeds.

"These really are stands that are adapted to fire."

Pine is the pioneer species, the first to re-establish after disturbance. As it grows, its limbs form the next canopy, providing shelter for fir and spruce.

"Pine acts to some degree as a nurse, it helps to keep the frost off spruce and fir during the early regeneration years because it grows faster and forms a canopy over top. It matures earlier than the other species typically do. It begins to slow down by age 50 or so, whereas spruce and Douglas fir will keep growing relatively quickly out to age 70 or 80 or more."

Beetle infestation

Walking through the stand of dead pine, Kashkan, 32, explained what had happened to the forest where the helicopter dropped us. It is a story he knows well. His knowledge comes from the experience of living in this land. He was born in the Cariboo, and went to university 120 kilometres to the north in Prince George, where he earned his degree in forestry. He married a girl from Quesnel and when his day job ends, he returns home to work on the family ranch. There is little about him that was not shaped by the place he comes from.

The beetle infestation was not the first time this site has been destroyed, he points out.

"This stand would have been initiated 100 years ago," Kashkan said. "Probably a fire would have initiated this stand. It would have come through this area. It would have prepared the site, exposed some minerals in the soil, opened up some cones in the crowns of the trees or some cones accumulated on the forest floor. It provided a lot of seed and a lot of seedbed, so this dense forest of lodgepole pine was established within a few years of that fire coming through.

"So we have this vast area of evenaged lodgepole pine. Now, 100 years later, the disturbance is that the beetle has come through and targeted the same stand. It has killed the largest members of the stand. The smaller ones are soon to follow.

"The culmination of all this is the stand tipping over and hitting the ground."

Left alone, the site would develop into an alder forest before gradually returning to pine.

"This is kind of where we come in, rather than leave this stand for 200 years, to seed in on its own and for this wood to all settle," Kashkan said.

Even though the lumber recovery rate is low, Kashkan noted that West Fraser Timber intends to log and clear the site, replicating the effect of a fire. Before the tree planters arrive, microsites for each seedling will be prepared by piling the mineral-rich earth in small mounds to ensure the new trees have dry roots and a competitive start over other vegetation.

The goal, Kashkan says, is to create a new forest within 40 years.

It is one of the most commonplace objects in the world: a piece of wood. Made from a tree, grown by the sun and the soil. Our ancestors burned it to keep warm; later they fashioned it into boards for shelter. Our province was built around it, yet we take it for granted. There is probably no product like it in the world, renewable and endlessly fascinating to those who know it - from scientists researching its nano-structure to those who harvest it, sell it, buy it and use it.

"From the guy fi ring up a feller buncher in the B.C. Interior to a carpenter actually putting a nail into a house somewhere in the United States, there are more variables along the way than anything I can think of," says Keta Kosman, publisher of the trade magazine Madison's Lumber Reporter. The story of a log, and the people whose lives it touches, deserves to be told.

For me, this remarkable story begins in the Cariboo, on a vast plateau covered in mineral till left behind by the glaciers, where a forest has evolved through endless cycles of beetle attacks, fi re and regeneration.

Our goal is to trace a log from its source in a stand of timber to the end users of the products made from it. We cent red our story around the city of Quesnel, headquarters of the largest lumber company in North America: West Fraser Timber.

To tell this story, I walked the stark pine beetle-killed landscape of the Chilcotin and accompanied foresters on a timber cruise of mixed forest with its own set of insect problems on the eastern banks of the Fraser River. I joined a logging contractor east of Quesnel whose spring harvesting season had just begun, and toured West Fraser's fi ve wood processing plants at Quesnel. We have called this series The Journey of a Log. In fact, it is many journeys of more than one log through different landscapes. What unites them is the people whose lives revolve around the Cariboo's timber wealth.

The Journey of a log

TODAY: THE FOREST The cycle of destruction and renewal that defines our landscape.

MONDAY: THE HARVEST Getting timber out of the woods takes months of planning.

TUESDAY: THE COMMUNITY More than lumber or money, the industry is ultimately about people.

WEDNESDAY: THE TECHNOLOGY How sophisticated computers turn dead pine into valuable product.

THURSDAY: THE PRODUCTS From plywood and pulp to fibreboard and energy.

FRIDAY: THE FUTURE Science reinvents the oldest building product on the planet.

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