How the BC Beetle Kill May Affect You


How the BC Beetle Kill May Affect You

The BC beetle kill means changes are on the horizon for lumber harvesting, processing and pricing. 

The ongoing softwood lumber trade dispute between the U.S. and Canada has received a lot of media exposure over the past year, and that’s not likely to abate any time soon. What hasn’t received nearly as much attention, but which will probably have a more significant impact on lumber supply and costs over the long-term, is the mountain pine beetle infestation that occurred in British Columbia (BC) over a decade ago.

As the U.S. housing market ramped up in the early 2000s, so too did populations of mountain pine beetles in the BC interior. A string of above-average-temperature winters allowed the population to explode, and at their peak in 2004 they infested over 59 billion board feet (Bbf) of timberlands. Albert Nussbaum, director of Forest Analysis for the BC provincial government, noted at the April MSR Workshop that “from 2001 to 2013, beetles killed fifty-four percent of the trees in BC that could have been turned into sellable logs and timber.”

In an effort to extract the maximum value from those dead trees, the BC government dramatically increased the allowable annual cut (AAC). The shelf-life of trees killed by beetles is 12-15 years, so the trees must be harvested relatively quickly, while they are still useful for commercial purposes. As a consequence, it’s been clear for quite some time that lumber supply out of BC will eventually drop, but only recently has the BC chief forester begun to release actual AAC levels and effective dates.

Nussbaum said the central interior of BC will witness the most dramatic drops in AAC levels:

  • From 1.15 Bbf (2010-15) to 636 Mbf (by 2020) in the Williams Lake area.
  • From 1.5 Bbf (2010-15) to 680 Mbf (by 2020) in the Quesnel area.
  • From 4.1 Bbf (2010-15) to 2.5 Bbf (by 2020) in the Prince George area.

These are anticipated averages; official Quesnel and Prince George numbers are expected sometime in June. In most cases, the reductions will likely be in effect for the next 50-70 years as the timberlands are replanted and grow back.

Assessing total timber supply, Nussbaum noted, “BC currently harvests roughly 30.7 billion board feet. By 2025, it is expected BC will be cutting 20 percent less, around 24 billion board feet.” What those numbers hide is the reality that much of the mid-term timber supply is located farther north, away from existing processing mills, and that the stands of trees tend to be located on steeper ground. Both factors will make lumber more expensive, as it is harder to harvest and will need more transportation before processing.

In addition, the new areas of timber supply contain a larger mix of lower-value tree species. That means a significant change is around the corner for the component manufacturers who have been relying on the SPF 2400 lodge pole pine this region provided.

It’s not yet clear exactly how the market will respond to the dramatic decline in SPF coming out of BC. It certainly motivated companies like Canfor, Interfor and West Fraser to invest in mills outside of BC (primarily in the U.S. South where lumber production capacity increases are anticipated to be most viable). The bottom line is that a 50-70 year drop of around 20 percent in the traditional harvest coming out of BC will cause further changes to the North American forest industry between now and 2025. Timber companies operating out of BC will continue to make significant adjustments, and lumber consumers in the U.S. will see the lumber supply mix shift as other regions increase capacity to meet market demand.

About the Author: Sean Shields has been managing editor of SBC Magazine since 2010 and is also director of communications for SBCA. He has focused on helping CMs grow market share since joining SBCA in 2004.