Pine beetles on the march

EDMONTON — The Alberta and federal governments hope another $25 million will help contain a massive swarm of tree-killing mountain pine beetles before they spread farther east.

EDMONTON — The Alberta and federal governments hope another $25 million will help contain a massive swarm of tree-killing mountain pine beetles before they spread farther east.

Another wave of the tiny bugs, which have already destroyed about one-half of British Columbia’s marketable pine timber, flew deep into Alberta this summer. Some are now within an hour’s drive west of Edmonton.

There are worries the insect scourge could also devastate forests in Alberta, where small communities that depend on forestry are already suffering from the economic downturn.

“Many children in British Columbia in the forest communities won’t see a mature pine forest — if they’re 10 today — they won’t see it until they are 45 or 50 years old,” said Ted Morton, Alberta’s minister of sustainable resource development. “We don’t want that to happen in Alberta.”

The bug money will be used to hire crews to detect, cut and burn infested trees, which turn red and die from a fungus the beetles carry.

Monday’s announcement includes $10 million in federal cash and brings Alberta’s total anti-beetle budget to $35 million. That’s down about 10 per cent from last year.

Morton said money is tight because of the recession, so Alberta has to focus its spending on the leading edge of the infestation, mainly north of the Yellowhead Highway west of Edmonton, near such communities as Grande Cache, Whitecourt, Edson, Swan Hills and Slave Lake.

Experts warn that if the infested lodgepole pine trees aren’t removed, new beetle swarms could fly ever eastward and possibly jump species, infecting jack pine forests that run across the country.

“This is no longer just an Alberta issue. It is a national issue,” Morton said. “We want to keep it out of the boreal forest.”

Conservative MP Rob Merrifield, whose Yellowhead riding in northwestern Alberta is infested with the beetles, said the federal dollars will help create badly needed jobs.

Merrifield, who likened the beetles to a dangerous forest fire, said it’s important to respond quickly to the threat.

He warned that the Alberta and federal governments must not make the same mistake British Columbia made a decade ago before the bugs devastated pine forests there.

“We are in the zone and there is a lot of nervousness out there,” Merrifield said.

“When you sit back and not attack this as aggressively as you possibly can, it can get away from you.”

Alberta’s $9-billion forest industry employs about 38,000 people. Many are in small communities where the local mill is a major employer and provides much of the municipal tax base. Experts estimate about six million hectares of pine forest is at risk of beetle attack. The Alberta Forest Products Association was hoping more money would be earmarked for the beetle battle, but it applauded what money is coming from the governments.

But Brady Whittaker was blunt about the chances of stemming the tide of black bugs.

The best that governments and the industry can do, he said, is contain the beetles until extremely frigid weather kills them off or they run out of trees to infest. “Money is not going to stop the beetle. Mother Nature will stop the beetle if we can control it, slow it down, and the good Lord gives us some very cold temperatures.”

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