High up the Key Forest Service Road, a cut block is dotted with pink flags. The flags mark all the trees planted on a block planted by the Kalamalka Forest Research Station for a study they are conducting on the impact of climate change on forestry.
There are a number of species planted on the cut block – some of which are native to the area, others that are from elsewhere in B.C. The aim is to see how different trees will grow as the climate changes.
The impacts of climate change presents big challenges for forestry companies. Generally, it is expected it to be warmer, wetter in the fall, winter and spring, but much drier in the summer. Wildfires are expected to increase substantially.
A report on climate change by the Columbia Basin Trust outlines some of the challenges:
— Changes in forest composition as climate change impacts where different species of trees will survive.
— Increased frequency of wildfires will lead to loss of timber stands.
— Increase in invasive species and pest outbreaks.
— Shorter winter logging seasons, but longer summer logging seasons.
— Logging roads could be impacted by an increase in landslides and flooding in extreme rain events.
“Some of these climate change impacts may require adjustments in short- and long-term timber supply, which could impact the local forestry sector, with implications for dependent communities,” the report states.
The research plot on the Key Forest Service Road is located at an elevation of around 1,500 metres. 15 commercial tree species from across B.C. are planted on the site, Greg O’Neill, a researcher with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, told me later in a phone interview. It’s part of a large study taking place from central California to Alaska.
“Our objective is to grow the trees across a wide range of climates, including climates where they might not be well adapted,” he said. “The purpose is essentially to tie down these responses. When we try to relate the test site climate to the performance for each seed source we need to push them to the limit, we need to beat them up, in order to figure out where they don’t do well.
I walked through the block with Mike Copperthwaite and Kevin Bollefer or RCFC and silviculture consultant Brenda Dyck.
Each tree was flagged, and the species were marked on a nearby signpost; there is a weather station high up on the cut block. “They can monitor this over time,” said Copperthwaite. “It’s pretty elaborate.”
The site was planted in 2011 and will be re-visited in 2015 to see how the trees are growing. They will be measured, tested for insects and disease, and for form.
“We hope not only will we find out where the trees grow best but we will also find out where they are healthiest,” said O’Neill.
One of the key problems is that the climate is changing faster than trees can adapt, so species that survive in one area now might not survive there later. However, other species might thrive in that spot in the future.
“Basically what they’re saying is diversify,” said Bollefer. “Don’t do the same thing everywhere. Encourage resilience, and things like that.”
The timelines in forestry span decades – it generally takes 80–100 years before a cut block can be harvested again. According to a report by the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, by 2080, the mean annual temperature is expected to increase by anywhere from 1.8 C to 4.4 C.
“What we do today, in 20 years you probably might not have wanted to do that,” Copperthwaite said. “But you have to go with what’s going today, and diversification, and hopefully as it goes down the road it still works.”
As we walked up the cut block, Bollefer pointed out a few of the sign posts. One was marked for trembling aspen. Another had DFC marked on it, for Douglas Fir Coastal.
“This is a high elevation band for fir, but with climate change the thought is everything will move up the hillside a few hundred metres,” he said. While fir is more susceptible to frost, it is possible that as temperatures warm up, those fir trees will thrive.
“The problem is we have to get these trees to survive these first few years,” he added. “Someone in the future will ask who was the brilliant forester who decided to plant Douglas fir up here.”
On a positive note, climate change is expected to benefit cedar, which is RCFC’s highest-value species.
What about the business side?
The Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation has turned a small profit the last two years, after several years of losses.
“We’ve done a really good job at controlling our costs and making sure we’re as efficient as possible,” said general manager Mike Copperthwaite. “Where we’re not seeing the difference is the selling price of logs these days.”
Log prices are well below where they were five years ago, but they have increased slightly the past two years. The continued housing slump in the United States is the biggest factor, and its recovery has been slower in coming than expected.
However, Copperthwaite expects to pick up around 2016, when the provinces timber cut will decline due to the impacts of the mountain pine beetle. RCFC hasn’t had to deal with mountain pine beetle directly The province has allowed for a big increase in logging to deal with the outbreak, but that will mean a reduction in cuts in the future to make up for it.
“We haven’t had the prices that we probably would have if there hadn’t been so much volume available,” said Copperthwaite, adding that the downward trend in the market has also pushed down the price of cedar.
“We live and die by cedar here,” he said. “When cedar prices are good, we’re going to do well. When cedar prices aren’t good, we don’t do well.”
For RCFC, where mountain pine beetle hasn’t been an issue, a trickle down effect might be seen when the cuts come down elsewhere, thereby decreasing timber supply across the province and raising prices overall.
“I think things are improving,” Copperthwaite said. “The so-called super-cycle keeps getting pushed back a little bit but I think it is coming.”
The super-cycle he’s referring to is a boom in lumber prices that is expected to occur when the U.S. housing market recovers and combines with increased demand for B.C. timber products in Asia.
“In the next few years you’re going to see some drastic cut reductions in some of the Interior,” said Copperthwaite. “There’s going to be limited supply and more global demand.”
A few years ago a large chunk of RCFC’s Tree Farm License was set aside as caribou habitat, meaning it can’t be logged. Because of that, the annual allowable cut was reduced to 90,000 cubic-metres, from 100,000 cubic-metres. RCFC was hoping to get compensation for the reduced cut, but so far that hasn’t been coming. Of the annual cut, B.C. Timber Sales manages 12,000 cubic-metres, meaning RCFC can cut 78,000 cubic-metres of timber every year.
Recovering part of that lost cut has been an issue for RCFC, and they have mentioned taking over the demonstration forest on Mt. Macpherson. It would also give them a location closer to Revelstoke where the community would be able to see their work close up.
“It’s hard to get people up here,” said Copperthwaite. “We are a little bit removed from the community. If you were in and around the Revelstoke area, so many people use it already for biking and hiking.”
Another long-standing issue is gaining recognition for the high costs of logging in the Revelstoke area. Revelstoke falls under the Interior stumpage system, meaning rates are higher than in the similarly mountainous coastal area.
“Everything’s just a little bit more expensive here,” said Copperthwaite.
Another issue is finding people to do the work. On at least one occasion, RCFC has had to reach outside Revelstoke to find skilled operators to harvest the trees. There is also fewer technologists entering the field.
“There’s always been the talk it’s a sunset industry,” he said. “It’s always going to be the backbone of the province. It’s too valuable a resource. We have to get the word there’s good careers out here.”
One final thing Copperthwaite brought up was the talk of starting up a small mill at RCFC’s log sort yard in order to create some value-added products.
“We haven’t gone there yet but we are talking about it,” he said. “We have approached a couple of people to see their interest.”