Mar 6, 2009

Pining for some straight talk


BC Forests Minister Pat Bell grabbed plenty of headlines this week when he said that the threats posed to resource communities by the mountain pine beetle infestation may be overstated. Stories about a rapid deterioration in the quality of trees attacked by the beetles, Bell suggested, are wrong. In fact, the minister said, he expects that many of the trees killed by the beetles will hold their economic value until 2020 or perhaps even 2026.

A longer shelf life, combined with “new” sawmill technology that allows beetle-killed logs to be scanned and rotated prior to cutting so as to avoid defects, will help to ensure that maximum value is extracted from the dead pines for as long as possible, Bell said.

Unfortunately, Bell’s optimism stands at odds with people whose job it has been to try and figure out how forest companies can economically cope with the increasing numbers of dead, defect-riddled pine logs entering their mills.

Three years ago, Igor Zaturecky, a research scientist with Canfor’s Wood Products Research and Development Centre, co-authored a paper with fellow researchers at Canfor and the University of British Columbia. The paper showed how the scientists had successfully subjected dead pine logs to special stress tests that revealed hidden defects in the logs prior to them being milled. This was big news because, as Zaturecky said, interior sawmills were even then overwhelmed with droves of sub-standard, beetle-killed logs that were wreaking havoc with their equipment.

“I’ve been in mills and seen wood processed into lumber that was full of spiral checking,” Zaturecky said in a summary report on the research project he had participated in. “In one [mill] shift there’s so much breakage and waste it’s unbelievable, and that happens over and over.”

Coincidentally, the facility where Zaturecky witnessed all the log breakage was a new, state-of-the-art Canfor mill in Vanderhoof, with the same log-rotating equipment in it that Bell now boasts about.

Asked about conditions in interior sawmills today, Zaturecky, now an independent researcher, said in a telephone interview this week that log breakage due to beetle-attack-related defects “is still a big, big issue.” And it will continue to be so, he said, because “you can only do so much” to avoid log breaks by rotating logs prior to cutting them.

As droves of dead standing pine trees continue to age, more of them will develop defects that lead to messy and costly log breaks in mills. Such outcomes can be avoided, Zaturecky said, but will require investments by companies to “commercialize” the stress-testing he and others developed. In other words, companies like Canfor will have to spend more money up-front, perhaps at the logging sites themselves, using stress tests to sort logs into two streams – one stream for the sawmill, the other for pulp and paper mills or wood-based “bioenergy” plants.

If Bell’s optimistic projections are to have a shot at being credible, he better pray that an economic recovery happens soon and that ideas like Zaturecky’s catch on. Otherwise droves of dead pine trees won’t go anywhere any time soon.

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