Reviewed by Anna Roik
For thousands of years forests have matured, faced a natural disaster, lost a large percentage of trees, and started the cycle again. But in just over 100 years, industrial logging and governments have nurtured a bark beetle infestation that could completely destroy pine and spruce forests across British Columbia and North America.
Bark beetles, like the Mountain Pine Beetle, are extremely effective at forcing forest renewal. North American pine and spruce show centuries of evidence of bark beetles. However, historical infestations did not reach the levels seen over the last 30 years. Something has changed, and so far attempts to slow bark beetle deforestation have failed.
The explanations behind the intensity and length of the current infestation are what make Empire of the Beetle an urgent read. Andrew Nikiforuk illustrates how the natural role of bark beetles as useful forest manager was transformed into an enormous social and ecological problem with far-reaching implications. Nikiforuk explains that a major factor behind the epidemic is that forest renewal by natural disturbances does not occur on a time scale that works with the forest industry model of cost minimization and wood volume maximization. It can take several hundred years for a forest to completely renew after a disturbance, but companies cannot afford to wait that long.
So, the major players in the story of the bark beetle epidemic are familiar ones: a demand for wood products, government and industry greed, mismanagement due to misguided science and forestry practices, and climate change.
Nikiforuk focuses much of Empire of the Beetle on the situation in British Columbia because the scale of infestation here is one of the largest in North America. Forest companies in BC over the last 100 years have focused on growing millions of acres of large-diameter Lodgepole pine while suppressing the regular fires needed for both renewal and bark beetle population control in order to protect their investment. Inadvertently they set up the forests for bark beetle invasion. Aging large-diameter trees are most susceptible to death by bark beetle as they cannot produce enough resin to fend off attackers. The forest industry now finds itself in direct competition with bark beetles. Its response along with government—combined with other factors—only exacerbated the problems.
The BC timber industry is huge. Until 2004 it accounted for 40 per cent of the province’s exports and was responsible for $14 billion in revenue. Tens of thousands of people were employed directly or indirectly. Forest companies have controlled up to 92 per cent of the province’s mature pine forest, waiting until it is just the right size to be logged. Bark beetles began increasing their numbers in the mid-1980s, with estimates of pine and spruce lost to bark beetles numbering in the millions of acres by the late 1990s. Thousands of jobs were lost as logging operations ceased and mills closed. Cities faced an exodus of residents as they moved away to find work elsewhere.
As panic set in within the forest industry and government over lost revenue, Nikiforuk cites reports saying it would be best ecologically to let the bark beetles renew forests and restore a healthy diversity of tree species. But this advice was ignored as it would have meant companies losing money. Selective logging was also rejected as too costly.
Instead the BC government removed restrictions, allowing companies to clearcut—salvage log—the land as they tried to get back every last cent. It also made the government appear benevolent as it created tree-felling jobs, saying it was better to turn negative into positive because letting nature take its course “was not an option.”
Clearcutting the forests was disastrous. Entire watersheds were damaged, increasing flooding in downstream communities and affecting fish stocks. Over 100 rural and First Nations communities were unsettled and faced with economic hardship as trees disappeared. And, as logging trucks traveled to mills, damaging roads and highways, they also created along the way mini bark beetle infestations. Clearcutting also has the dubious distinction of causing a net gain in carbon dioxide release as no vegetation is left to absorb carbon.
Climate change, resulting from burning fossil fuels, has allowed the bark beetles to continue eating their way through North America’s forests. Historically, extremely cold winter weather (below -30C) was a major factor keeping bark beetle populations checked. Since the early 1980s average winter temperatures have been increasing, with the last cold winter able to kill bark beetles recorded in 1986. Where at one time up to 80 per cent of the bark beetles were killed off each winter, today up to 80 per cent of beetles survive.
Warmer temperatures due to climate change have had other effects favourable to bark beetles. As aging trees are vulnerable to bark beetles, even more so are aging drought-stressed trees. Warmer summer temperatures have allowed bark beetles to change their life cycles from two years to one year, with some reproducing more than once in a year. The result is more bark beetles attacking aging, drought-stressed forests. As warming continues, trees are able to grow at more northerly latitudes, and so the bark beetles’ range is extending northward towards the boreal forest.
This description of the adaptability of bark beetles is one of the most frightening parts of Nikiforuk’s book. Not only are they reproducing faster, they can also collectively switch to a new tree species when they eat all of “their tree” instead of decreasing in number as expected. Bark beetles understand the need for rapid diversification in order to survive better than humans seem to, and this is an important message in Nikiforuk’s book. Concentrating large tracts of land in the hands of a few forest companies and park systems whose goal is to maintain a constant production of trees, gave the appearance of control of nature when in fact it created a system so huge that it would inevitably crash.
Even now government and industry are having difficulty admitting that they are not in control. A series of hearings this past summer indicated that there are no plans to reevaluate how the timber industry manages forests. Nikiforuk interviewed David Jorgenson, a selective logger, who thinks it is time for government and industry to turn over forest management to BC communities. He says the community has to live with the consequences of decisions relating to forests, and they would know what is best for them. Communities could develop a diverse economy driven by their needs instead of having a company president in a far-off city making decisions.
Empire of the Beetle is, essentially, an anti-capitalist book about how the economic interests of forest industry and government led to policies and practices that left BC’s forests and the communities depending on them defenseless in the face of collapse. Yet after spending an entire book detailing the how and why of forest destruction, Nikiforuk makes only the most subtle critiques about those most to blame and suggestions of how to move forward—instead of saying outright that the capitalist system produced the problem and is undermining solutions.
While bark beetles are not the biggest environmental threat, they are an example of the interconnections found in nature, of how changes to climate can cause changes in other areas that lead to their destruction. Right now the capitalist system is the greatest barrier to making the necessary changes to reverse these environmental threats. Environmentalists and activists need to continue to wage a campaign against climate change, but also fight against the system that puts profits before the health of entire forests, watersheds and communities.