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August 27, 2004

Introducing . . . Denim Pine

Cascadia’s inland pine forests have been, predictably, catching fire a lot this summer. (From the safety of a boat, I came within a couple hundred yards of a giant blaze on my vacation earlier this month.) And climate change has likely fanned the flames.

But climate change’s biggest toll on inland forests, so far, has been to turn them blue – the color, not the mood or the political leaning.

Yes, trees in the inland Northwest, especially in British Columbia, are increasingly stained in azure shades. The explanation is such a perfect example of ecological interactions that, like foxes and rabbits, it might start appearing in biology textbooks.

mt_pine_beetleInland pine forests have long been kept honest by a few types of bark beetles, the mountain pine beetle (pictured) among them, which attack trees that are stressed by drought or disease. Hitchhiking on the voracious wood eaters’ backs is often a fungus. The beetles bore through pine bark to eat and lay their eggs; the fungus spreads inside the bark. Where the fungus goes, it dyes the wood in shades from cerulean to indigo. Together, fungus and beetles weed out stressed stands of trees. This gives the forests a healthy mix of ages, which makes them more resistant to catastrophic fires and disease.

These self-balancing feedback loops, of course, evolved within the bounds of the present (or recent past) climate. As Cascadia’s climate changes, the ecosystem is coming unglued. Beetle numbers are limited by, among other things, the coldest days in winter. And, though average temperatures in our region have increased only a little as yet, the extreme colds have become much less extreme. In British Columbia, for example, where mountain pine beetles are most prevalent, average year-round temperatures are up about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century. Minimum winter temperatures, meanwhile, are up more than 4 degrees (pdf, see page 6).

In places, reports the High Country News (subscription required) in an excellent feature, the winter die-off rate among beetles has dropped from about 80 percent to about 10 percent.

Adding fuel to the fire, interior Cascadia has suffered one summer drought after another in the past decade, also perhaps because of climate change. And drought has weakened the pine forests’ resistance to beetle attack. Augmenting the effects of climate, decades of forest fire suppression and clearcut logging have homogenized vast areas of forest to even-age stands of middle-aged lodgepole pine—setting the table for a bioregion-wide beetle fest.

Bark beetle numbers in the inland Northwest are up by the hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions. Talk about a population boom!

As of late last year, mountain pine beetles had spread across 25 million acres of British Columbia’s timberlands, plus millions of additional acres of parks and other protected forests. (Their 2003 extent is here. An animation showing Mountain pine beetle outbreaks in British Columbia in recent decades is here.) And beetle infestations seem to be accelerating. BC beetles overran twice as large an area in 2003 as in 2002.

In the Northwest states, beetles are also proliferating. Trees by the millions have dried out and died in Idaho’s national forests. Eastern Washington has lost a third of a million acres of lodgepole pine.

Unfortunately, there’s some even worse news: the beetles, emboldened by their success among lodgepole pines, are moving into new, unprepared hosts. In Idaho and Washington, the infestation has spread up to the whitebark pines, a high altitude species that plays a critical role in its ecosystem. In 2003, some 13,000 acres of whitebark pine died in eastern Washington, up from 1,700 acres the previous year.

Whitebark pine nuts are a seasonal food for grizzly bears. When the number of nuts is low, bears move to lower elevations, where people usually live. Research conducted in Yellowstone National Park found that bad Whitebark nut years are big years for human-bear interactions. And human-bear interactions lead to one thing: dead bears. Biologist David Mattson told the Billings (Montana) Gazette "When you have a good year with whitebark pine, the bears stay up high and stay alive. When you have a poor year, the bears come (to lower elevations) and they die faster." Beetles, in short, endanger grizzly bears.

denim_pineOh, and about the blue wood: With millions of acres of tinted trees dying in the hinterlands, the province of British Columbia has launched a marketing campaign to help sell the lumber. Their bold, lemons-to-lemonade concept? Denim Pine.

Here’s the pitch:

Denim Pine is a unique exotic wood created by Mother Nature. It can currently be found deep within the forests of British Columbia, Canada.
Only Denim Pine products guarantee they are environmentally friendly. You will also know you are buying "Green". These trees died naturally in the forest.

Can “acid-washed boards” be far behind?

(This post researched and coauthored by Matt Schoellhammer.)

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink

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Comments

I'm curious to find out if the bark beetle has any natural predators? I would think that it must.

Consequently, have their populations also begun to blossom?

Please understand that I'm not trying to belittle the seriousness of the impact climate change can have on our forests but I'm simply questioning whether or not some sort of balancing mechanism has yet to kick in. Obviously, many ecosystems simply can't catch up with the rate of climate change, which really is at the heart of the problem.

However, in this instance, I would hope that some predatory animal of the bark beetle would eventually keep their population in check, with an emphasis on eventually, and hopefully not before too many forests have been destroyed.

Posted by: Dave Manelski | Aug 27, 2004 4:38:35 PM

I'm curious--when you write "draught", do you mean "drought", or is there another meaning of "draught" I'm not familiar with?

Posted by: Eric | Aug 28, 2004 10:20:50 AM

We meant "drought" and corrected the post. Thanks.

Bark beetles do, of course, have natural predators, such as wood peckers. More on them soon.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Aug 30, 2004 7:59:05 AM

Recently we received the following question regarding this post:

"I'm wondering how you arrived at your fig. Of 25 million acres of beetle affected timber when the MOF[Ministry of Forests] calculates the combined mild to severely affected areas at 4.2 million hectares (@ 13 million acres, I think).

One MOF guy I talked to gave the 2003 figs as @ 9,600,000 acres, and he said that could double by '04."

The figure of 25 million acres (10.1 million hectares, and for the record that's just over 11 Yellowtones, or about 1 Ohio) comes from the British Colubia Council of Forest Industries (COFI) Task Force annual survey through 2003. The number incorporates those acres that range from 1% to 90% attacked over the entire history of the outbreak, which is charted from 1993. It is thus the total number of acres attacked through 2003, as observed principally by aerial survey.

The most likely source for the 4.2 million hectares number is that it is the number of acres attacked by the pine beetle in 2002 alone, according to the BC Ministry of Forest's website. The other MOF number of over 9 million acres also seems reasonable, and goes with the 13 million acres from 2002 to compose part of the total 25 million acres. In short, the difference between the numbers is a qustion of the time scale measured. Of course, there are also certain necessary difficulties in accurately surveying an area three-quarters the size of Sweden down to the acre, so survey results may vary and may be revised at a later time as more work is done on the ground. Hope this helps.

Posted by: Matt Schoellhamer | Sep 1, 2004 12:13:37 PM

As an indigenous and (typically) beneficial member of the inland pine ecosystems of much of the Northwest, the mountain pine beetle does indeed have several natural predators. These include various woodpeckers, the dolichopodid fly, two species of checkered beetles, parasitic wasps, nematodes (parasites) and intestinal parastitic worms (yum!).

The problem is that while these predators help control beetle populations at endemic levels, when the population reaches epidemic proportions the research shows that they have little, if any impact.

Mostly it's a question of numbers. Under current outbreak conditions, infected forests are seeing many billions more beetles produced above average every year. The reproductive cycles of woodpeckers and other predatory birds simply aren't capable of adapting to meet that increase. Remember also that the beetle has evolved to counter a tree's defenses by overwhelming them with sheer numbers, so this is already an organism designed to reproduce as quickly and explosively as possible. Even if the woodpecker population has increased substantially, it will most likely have a negligible impact on the epidemic. The overwhelming evidence coming from both the entomologists and the ecologists is that at this point the only thing that will slow the beetle down is at least two consecutive cold winters (defined as having temperatures down to at least -20 degrees F for several weeks at a time).

Your conclusion hits the nail on the head, if global warming continues, everything we now know says that nothing will slow this beetle down.

Posted by: Matt Schoellhamer | Sep 1, 2004 2:18:34 PM

I own a small woodworking shop in Connecticut and would like to purchase some of this denium pine for some projects and put it to some good use. Does anyone have and info on how to do this?

Posted by: Ken Oakes | Jul 1, 2005 5:43:12 AM

I would like to tell everyone about our company called Blue Pine Products . Blue Pine Products Ltd. is a company dedicated to promoting the use of Mountain Pine Beetle wood. We have been in the Mountain Pine Beetle wood business for over 2 years now and have sent value added wood products to many parts of the world. We refer to the Mountain Pine Beetle Wood as Blue Pine.
I'm currently writting this email from my hotel in Beijing home of the 2008 Olympic's, a city that is booming beyond belief, were opportunities are unlimited and over 20 million people live.
I believe there is a market here in Beijing and other parts of China and in the weeks to come, my number one goal is to find a market for Blue Pine Products in Asia.

It's still under development, but please check our website at:

www.bluepine.ca

Best Regards,
Kyle Roberts

Posted by: Kyle Roberts | Sep 19, 2005 5:50:50 AM

Where could I come by some of this lovely wood for woodworking?

Quesnel, B.C. has a site devoted to this. Anyone know the way there?

Posted by: Arbee | Nov 21, 2005 5:42:09 PM