Beetle maniacs attack B.C. forestry

A beetle infestation plagues B.C. pine producers.

Ordinarily, when a government boosts the timber harvest, forestry companies rejoice and environmentalists are, well, less than pleased. But having zillions of tiny tree-killing insects crawling around makes the situation in British Columbia's central interior decidedly unordinary. In 2004, mountain pine beetles infested seven million hectares in Canada's largest lumber-producing region, where lodgepole pine often makes up more than half the harvest. And the B.C. government predicts that with so many of the area's pine trees over 80 years old–and thus less able to withstand beetle attack–80% of the mature pine could be killed by 2013.

To salvage trees killed by the pine beetles, the province's chief forester has allowed for a 27% increase in the area's annual cut. The challenge for forestry companies now is how to convince customers to buy wood that had once been infested by beetles. After all, their handiwork can't be hidden: the beetles carry a fungus, which ultimately kills the tree and also stains the sapwood permanently blue. Though, thankfully for the squeamish, buyers aren't likely to see any live beetles in the blue lumber; by the time the tree appears dead, they have usually moved onto the next victim.

Customers might see this bug-killed wood as either mouldy and inferior or unique and potentially artistic. But some of B.C.'s larger manufacturers of pine furniture, panelling, doors and other finished wood products don't seem to be interested in finding out. “The volume demand just hasn't yet emerged,” says Doug Routledge, vice-president of northern operations at B.C.'s Council of Forest Industries. Thus far, only companies too small to need the umbrella association's services boast of blue-stain pine in their finished wood products.

Selling only pine furniture, from pine cut only from B.C.'s central interior, Canwood Furniture Inc. has no plans to sell any made from the blue variety. The Penticton-based manufacturer, which processes several million board feet every year, cuts its timber into thin strips before assembly. As a result, bedroom sets made from the stained pine might come out looking “something like a prison uniform,” says vice-president Bob Bird.

Like most on the value-added side of the industry, Canwood can pick which timber to buy. Quesnel-based C&C Wood Products Ltd., however, logs its own trees “smack dab in the middle of the beetle kill area,” says general manager Rick Hawkridge, so it must find buyers. Because “you aren't going to sell 20 or 30 million feet of this stuff in the marketplace,” explains Hawkridge, his wood-panelling company offers the blue-stain wood at a discount. Thankfully, C&C has also found a willing market in California box manufacturers who sell to fruit and vegetable shippers clamouring for cheap containers.

Many B.C. forestry companies that deal primarily in planks (such as two-by-fours) echo the C&C approach of selling the stained pine where colour doesn't usually matter, such as the construction industry. Thanks to a 2003 report by Forintek Canada Corp., the industry's wood-products research institute (“beetle-transmitted blue-stain has no practical effect on strength”) questions of quality no longer plague producers when selling in North America. For example, Canfor Corp., Weyerhaeuser Co. Ltd. and West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. all bundle their blue-stain pine into their regular SPF (spruce pine fir) product in the domestic market. The overseas market, however, can still be a tough sell. “The Japanese have always wanted the clearest, whitest, purest lumber for their homes–even when that lumber is behind the wall,” says Bill Downing, CEO of the BC Wood Specialties Group, an association that helps market value-added wood products. A knotty problem, for sure.