Forest fires suggested to fight pine beetles

Alberta’s forest industry wants Ottawa to use large, controlled fires to keep the mountain pine beetle from spreading east into the rest of Canada.

EDMONTON — Alberta’s forest industry wants Ottawa to use large, controlled fires to keep the mountain pine beetle from spreading east into the rest of Canada.

Crews have reported that swarms of the tree-killing insects flew into Alberta this summer from British Columbia and the mountain parks. The province warns that the new infestation threatens the boreal forest, the forest industry, jobs and the environment.

The Alberta Forest Products Association says it’s time for the federal government to shift the fight against the beetles from B.C. — where the bugs have already destroyed one-quarter of mature lodgepole pine trees — to Alberta, where they have penetrated as far east as the Slave Lake area.

“It is my position that the federal government needs to focus on the leading edge of the beetle attack,” Brady Whittaker, the association’s executive director, said Friday.

“We want to ensure that the federal government plays an active roll in monitoring and trying to stay ahead of the beetle so it is minimized as it moves into Saskatchewan.”

Whittaker said the industry would like Ottawa to pledge at least $50 million in the first year of a five-year beetle fight in Alberta and develop a joint control strategy.

One proposal being considered is that the federal government would take responsibility for preventing the tiny insects from spreading into the boreal, which runs across much of northern Canada. Some scientists believe the beetles could start attacking jack pine forests.

Whittaker said the strategy could include using controlled fires to burn away belts of pine timber in the beetles’ path.

“It might be burning to ensure that the leading edge doesn’t migrate east. By doing prescribed burns you will minimize the flight of the beetle as it moves east.”

Alberta would deal with infected pine and would let companies cut entire stands of timber instead of removing single infested trees, Whittaker said.

Burned and harvested areas would then be replanted with lodgepole pine.

Whittaker said the Prime Minister’s Office has told the industry that Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada are working with Alberta on a new beetle plan.

“What really needs to be done is to ensure that we have long-term funding, not a one-off thing,” he said. “This is not just a provincial issue; this is a national issue. These bugs will move east.”

Allan Carroll, a University of British Columbia forestry professor, has called the new beetle migration into Alberta a “worst-case scenario” and predicts the bugs will show up in jack pine forests much sooner than expected.

Carroll said earlier this week that it would makes sense for Ottawa to shift its efforts to Alberta.

Natural Resources Canada officials were not immediately available for comment. There is no word on how much money in total the province wants from the federal government.

Conservative MP Rob Merrifield, whose Yellowhead riding in northwest Alberta is ground zero for the infestation, said Ottawa is aware of the problem and has already spent millions of dollars to try to slow the spread of the bugs.

In 2007, the government announced it would spend $200 million over three years, but most of that cash went to British Columbia.

Merrifield said Ottawa is helping to fund projects in Alberta that would allow companies to burn beetle-killed wood for electricity or use wood fibre in newsprint or other products. But he said stopping the spread of the insects is the top priority and there is no question the Harper government understands the problem.

“Now is the time to attack it aggressively. Let’s attack this like we have a forest fire.”

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