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Science vs Ideology

Ralph Cartar vs Ted Morton

Given its proximity to Calgary, importance as a source of clean drinking water for a major city, importance for non-motorized recreation, and importance for wildlife habitat, we would like to see the eastern portions of K-country, that are now part of a Logging Agreement, be protected as a provincial park.  In this proposed park, forests would be shaped as they mostly have been in the past: by natural processes, not by logging.

On 2 April 2007, in response to questions in the Alberta legislature regarding protecting the forests of K-country, Dr. Ted Morton, Minister of Sustainable Resource Development, made the following statements In response to questions from Dave Rodney, MLA, Calgary-Lougheed.  Ralph's responses to each follow.

Quote 1

Dr. Morton: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I’d like to remind all members of the Assembly that clear-cutting hasn’t been allowed in this province for several decades. The current practice of block cutting respects important structural features such as watersheds, riparian areas, trails, and sensitive biological areas. I’d also remind all members that block cutting is better than the alternative, which is beetles and wildfires, which respect none of the above. Mr. Speaker, 58 per cent of Kananaskis Country is already protected. Of what’s left, only a third is available. Less than one quarter is subject to any logging . . .

Ralph: Dr. Morton claims that "block cutting"* is better than beetles & fire.  This is plain wrong.  The forests are maintained in their present condition by fire, and beetles and disease are likely to have been important over their evolutionary history. Logging does not maintain forests in their natural state, and in particular places old growth in jeopardy.  Think about it: add logging every 100 years (or 1/100 of the area every year) to fire & insects & disease, and you have a recipe for no old growth biodiversity.  So much for taking care of the “long term environmental health of our forests” (see Dr. Morton’s 3rd quote, below).

The likely success of the alternative strategy of leaving forests to the beetles can be viewed in the case of the pine forests of Waterton Lakes National Park, now about 25 years past a 7 year beetle epidemic (read the Tag-A-Tree Waterton article).  The forests in Waterton are more diverse (and less beetle-susceptible) than they were, and at no time since the beetle attack did the forests not look or function (hydrologically, recreationally) like a forest, unlike the proposed alternative: logging to remove the forest. The (majority of) unattacked trees grow faster after a beetle attack (see Romme et al. (1988; American Naturalist 127:484)), ensuring a quick regeneration of large trees after beetle attack. For a description of beetle impacts in our National Park forests, see: bookstore.cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/detail_e.php?recid=12586016

We don't welcome the beetles, but the alternative (logging) does our forests no favours.  We have a positive management choice other than logging: it’s leaving the forests to be shaped and regenerated by natural processes!

Quote 2

Dr. Morton: Mr. Speaker, that’s half true. It is true that the beetles prefer the larger diameter trees that you find in British Columbia. But if they can’t find the wider diameter trees, they’re happy to take the smaller ones.  I want all members to know that our forestry models use 15 centimetre diameter for our predictions, the same statistic that is used by British Columbia, a province that’s lost 9 out of 10 of its pine trees. Following the B.C. model, we predict similar potential losses here. We’ve already found isolated incidents of smaller trees being infected. The eastern slopes are at risk, and we intend to manage that risk in a responsible manner.

Ralph: Dr. Morton claims that BC has lost 90% of its pine trees.  This is an astounding claim, and likely wrong.  When beetles attack a forest, they can't use trees of smaller than 10cm dbh (diameter at breast height).  These small trees would easily be more than 10% of BC pine forests.  He probably meant that 90% of BC pine forests have been attacked by the beetle (in the current outbreak).  But most of these stands would NOT suffer 90% tree losses.  The key resource to support this assertion is the figures on pages 21 (fecundity) and 43 (attack probability) found at: www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/library/documents/bib96122.pdf).  During outbreaks, beetles attack trees based on their diameter. They don't use anything less than 10cm dbh.  They attack 15cm trees at a 10-25% probability, 20 cm trees at a 20-40% probability, 30cm trees at a 30-70% probability, and 40cm trees at a 45-100% probability.  Taking the worst-case scenario (the upper figures in these ranges), your average 15cm tree in K-country isn't likely to see beetle jaws.  Simply finding small trees attacked by beetles doesn't negate the above: such attacks should be rare.  The key point is this: mountain pine beetles are not likely to attack many trees in NE K-country, where I guesstimate mean tree size to be less than 20 cm (i.e., in the 20-40% attack probability range).

Dr. Morton claims if beetles can't find big trees, they'll take smaller ones.  This may be partially right, but the costs of them so doing is that they're a reproductive dead-end.  They won't make any (or many) babies from attacking small trees (see page 21 of bib961222.pdf cited in the previous paragraph).  So no epidemic can roll along when beetles attack small trees.  Beetles outbreaking in our forests are likely to be locally produced (their fat reserves won't allow long dispersal distances in the big numbers needed to overcome local tree defenses).  So if tree losses to beetles are predicted to be similar here in small-treed K-country to big-treed BC (see Morton's statement above), what is causing this? Our trees are smaller than BC trees.  Why does Dr. Morton expect them to meet a similar fate? The beetles necessary to drive an outbreak can't easily be locally produced by attacking 15cm trees (given the biological constraint that no SRD minister or beetle can overcome: small trees produce few beetles).  Any locally produced beetles must follow a tree size-based attack strategy to ensure their reproductive success (see tree size statistics from previous paragraph).  So finding some small tree size as being vulnerable to beetles, and then claiming that all trees of this size and larger will be attacked, is pessimistic to the extreme (and ignores our rich understanding of the biology of the beetle).  Dr. Morton appears to be making this exaggeration.  Given the scale of the exaggeration, and the clear obfuscation about the known impacts of tree size (on attack probability and beetle fecundity), one wonders about the real motive for the logging is.

Quote 3

Dr. Morton: Mr. Speaker, this is a simple question of risk management. You can look at what’s happened in British Columbia, where they’ve projected to lose 90 per cent of all their pine trees by 2010 or 2012, and you can see what doing nothing does. We believe that responsible logging, responsible forestry is the answer. This is trying to balance long-term environmental health versus short-term aesthetic values. We will make the responsible choice, which is the long-term environmental health of our forests.

Ralph: Dr. Morton's last response above is about the nobility of managing the forests for long-term environmental health.  We need to ensure the long-term environmental health of our forests.  Logging doesn't do this.  Almost by definition, leaving forests to natural processes (beetles, fires, diseases, etc) does.  Looking at the Waterton example, coupled with the meta-analyses showing that no insect outbreaks in any forest have been successfully managed (www.xerces.org/Forest_Pest_Myths/Logging_to_Control_Insects.htm), suggests that the way to protect water quality & quantity, recreational habitat, and wildlife habitat is to let nature take its course.

Foresters sometimes raise the red herring about fire susceptibility of beetle-killed trees. We don't know what this susceptibility is, but research is now under way in BC to study it.  In the meantime, it may be that forests with beetle-killed trees have a brief period of increased fire risk (the 2-3 years when their needles are red), but the evidence may even support the converse (see the study by Bebi et al. 2003; Ecology 84:362).

Overall, then, based on the BC experience, we have reason to view with extreme skepticism the idea that beetles will have the same impact on our meagre K-country forests as they have had in BC, and that removing our forests by logging is an appropriate response to the beetle threat.  This simply ignores the high social and economic value of these forests for water quality, recreation, tourism, and habitat.

*Block cutting ia a forestry term [www.kruger.com/Forest/English/09320harvesting.asp] that means "a harvesting pattern used to keep an area of forest between two harvested areas that is at least equal to the harvested stand.  Dispersal of the cuts favours maintenance of wildlife habitat, mainly that of the moose, and preserves forest landscapes".  Dr Morton's NOT proposing this kind of cut for K-country.

Back to the block cutting reference


bcecRalph Cartar is the President of the Bragg Creek Environmental Coalition