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PLANT

Alberta bites back in beetle war


March 23, 2009
by Noelle Stapinsky, Features Editor

ARC’s sensor technology uses a computer analysis system to automatically adjust the pulping process for beetle-killed wood.
Photo: AAET

If a beetle-killed tree falls in a mountain pine forest, does it make a sound? it sure does if you’re part of the $80-billion forest industry. With the US housing market in crisis, a volatile Canadian dollar messing up with exports and plummeting lumber prices, having to deal with the mountain pine beetles noshing on forest resources is just another cruel blow.

Over the past decade, the indigenous rice-sized pest that infects lodgepole pine trees has pillaged millions of hectares of forest in BC and has now hitched a ride over the Rockies into Alberta.

To protect one of Canada’s leading manufacturing sectors and largest net exporter, all levels of government have been doling out funds for “beetle management.”

For many years, management strategies have included prescribed forest fires (very difficult to control) and sanitization harvesting (cutting out healthy pines from infected areas). But the current beetle outbreak has grown to epidemic proportions and the old strategies are falling short. Natural Resources Canada has predicted 50% of the country’s mature pines would be dead by this year, and 80% will be gone by 2013.

Seeing the devastation spread in BC, Alberta has turned to science to find a sustainable solution that will put the dead wood to use.

In 2005, the research and development of this project started with a pilot plant at the Alberta Research Council’s (ARC’s) Edmonton facility that looked for ways to preserve the economic value of the trees by processing the inferior wood for products such as paper.

The Alberta Newsprint Co., a premium newsprint manufacturer, invested almost $17 million in the project, while Alberta threw in a $10-million grant from a national Community Development Trust (CDT)—a fund set up by the federal government that among other things, assists communities reliant on agriculture and forestry sectors. Under the government contribution, partners include the ARC, Alberta Advanced Education and Technology (AAET), Alberta Forestry Research Institute and Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

“Currently there isn’t very much being done with the deadwood. Some research projects are considering burning it to create heat and power through gasification, but that isn’t fully tested yet,” says Mary Cusack, a spokesperson for AAET. “This project is one of the first initiatives making good use of the deadwood.”