I remember the first time I saw the impact of pine beetle in British Columbia. It must have been around 1999 or so and I was driving on the number three highway through the southern part of the province with my mom. In between Manning Park and Princeton, BC there was a stand of what looked to be red-needled pine trees down in the valley just past Allison Summit.
I commented to my mother about the strange colour of that grove, standing out against all the green and she said – “Oh yeah, I read something about that in the newspaper recently. Some disease that’s infecting trees – I can’t remember much about it.”
As anyone who lives in this province knows, in less than three years, huge swaths of the forests in southern BC turned red and died, the result of decades of poor forestry practices (mono-cropped pine) and emergent warmer winters that allowed the mountain pine beetle to live year-round, with an unstoppable hunger for wood.
After I saw that first stand of dying trees, it wasn’t long before I saw the next and next stand over. By the early 2000s, the pine-beetle damage was continuous in long stretches from Hope all the way through to Princeton. From Kamloops through to Quesnel.
I was deeply involved in environmental activism at this time, and spent a lot of time out of doors – and I mourned the changing landscape deeply. Though it’s not that these were intact forests. Much of the southern province was logged right to the ground from the forties to sixties – this modern die-off was of the lodgepole pine plantings that had replaced the once mixed forests of the interior.
I’ve spent enough time in those pine plantings (including the ones around our cabin) to know that even without pine beetle, this was and is heavy damaged land. Unwell and unhealthy. Trees planted in such close proximity that they could only grow straight up, as thin as a rolled up newspaper in many cases. An understory choked by dense shade thrown by a single tree culture of that didn’t allow for any deciduous growth to provide annual nutrients in the form of leaf mulch to the forest floor. Those so-called forests were already sick; pine beetle simply finished them off.
The only answer to the crisis, according to the BC Forest Service, was to log it all again. Which has been done in many places, with replanting underway. In addition to logging, there have been numerous fires taking advantage of the dead and dry timber, which have lapped the bio-region from 2003 onward. It’s been twenty years of changing landscape in the interior south – a part of the province that I consider another one aspect of my homebase.
Forestry practices, pine beetle, and climate change are things I think a lot about when I’m up at the Link Lake cabin, not far outside of Princeton. It’s twenty years later and the damage is still evident here, even more so because this area wasn’t so ruthlessly salvage-logged due to the poor quality of the wood plantings in our area.
I’ve spent my most recent trip to the cabin reading works by Gary Snyder and Robin Wall Kimmerer – two great ecological writers – and doing work on the trails above our small cabin lot.
The skies are smoke-filled, as they are everywhere, due to massive fires from Northern BC to California. As I’m sure you all know from the news, we’re supposed to be surprised at this “sudden” turn to “Hothouse Earth” in the last couple of years, and somewhat indignant at how its ruining our summer vacations.
We’ve owned this small plot of land for five years now, and have built a woodshed, an outhouse, and a cabin on it. It’s just 1/3 of an acre in size – tiny for a rural property – but big enough for a place to land a few of us for a week at a time. We are in lake territory which means swimming in the summer and ice-fishing in the winter, not to mention hunting, hiking and snowshoeing.
Although our lot is small, we are lucky to be surrounded by a significant amount of crown land. Thousands of hectares, all of it logged flat in the 1940s and replaced with shitty pine of a single variety. There are a few reminders of the massive old-growth forests which once stood here, including two ancient Douglas fir trees which stand just inside our property line. I’m not sure why they were spared, but I am glad to have them sentinel to our existence in an otherwise blighted forest.
Up the hill from us there are a few other spared giants, but mostly the hills are a chessboard of clear-cuts and dying reforestation attempts. Despite the heavy damage to the land, there is still a fair amount of wildlife in the form of deer, moose, cougar, black bear and even the occasional grizzly. We have followed their trails up into the cuts since coming here, finding our way to disused logging roads which have overgrown to the perfect footpath width. These human and wild trails have spurred us over the last few years to do small forest work of our own kind, assisted and encouraged by the efforts of our friend Will who is eternally land-tidying and trail-building.
This is not the mindless work of taking out whole acres of trees at a time, but of selecting the deadest standing and getting them out of the way in order to clear trail and create spaces for human-use (for walking and sitting), as well as providing the possibility for wild ecosystem to re-emerge.
The approach taken up here post-logging (which was still active the first time we came to look at this land), seems to be to allow the rest of the dead pine to die off naturally, and allow clear cuts to come back in their own time with a smattering of fir trees planted on dry hillsides. While we can do little to arrest the neglect of this land by the forest companies, we have seen what a small amount of tending can do for the ecosystem over just a handful of years.
For example, the old trails we have cleared of wood debris are now littered with the hoof prints of moose and deer, in a way that they weren’t when we first came here. Animals, like humans, will always take the path of least resistance – and human assistance in trail clearing is one way to give them passage.
Likewise, the spots in which we have cleared away deadfall – so thick you couldn’t walk over it without the possibility of breaking an ankle – have come back in green groundcover: kinnickinnic, wild strawberry, lupins and grasses which now have the potential to give way to aspens and alder before more conifers take hold.
On our own property, which many of us have worked to clear selectively and by hand, we can see how the native spruce and fir have rushed in to claim the space. There is no shortage of groundwater here to feed these species, but until now they have been crowded out and starved of sunlight by the malignant pine. Slowly and surely we can see that even our puny efforts have an ecosystem impact in the right direction.
It seems a bit futile though, to write about this even in the knowledge that this land will most likely be touched by fire in the next decade, no matter the attention that we bring to it. It seems at the moment that no part of western North America will escape as each year brings a fire season more frightening and widespread than the last. “It seems” being the operative here of course – as we do not know what things will happen and in what order exactly, and we could have 50 more years before this particular patch in this particular mountain range is touched.
It’s in the absence of this knowing, this ability to predict exactly, that we insert ourselves. The less fuel available among the live trees may help save them. Work to assist wetlands up in the hills may provide a respite for animals in the event of a forest-wide catastrophe. We don’t really know what will happen or what is possible – and despair only turns me inward, so it’s outward I must look.
This passage leaps out at me as I read late in the night:
“It is an odd dichotomy we have set for ourselves, between loving people and loving land. We know that loving a person has agency and power – we know that it can change everything. Yet we act as if loving the land is an internal affair that has no energy outside the confines of our head and heart.” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Burning Cascade Head (from Braiding Sweetgrass)
It’s an incantation that I have carried with me this week as I walk, slowly up the hill, with a machete, a saw and a picnic lunch for a day of trying to tend a forest back to life. Just like in human relationships, we do not know how our love will land and what impact it will have. We have to live with that uncertainty, I suppose, which is the order of the day no matter where we find ourselves right now.