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Sunday, June 1, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inland forests: more cutting, more controversy

Seattle Times staff reporter

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — In the plateau country that surrounds this interior town, Weyerhaeuser loggers are working overtime in a forest of skinny lodgepole pine.

They wield no chainsaws and their feet rarely touch the forest floor. Instead, they work 12-hour shifts — deep into the night — inside the glass-enclosed cab of a $400,000 harvester. Their circular saw can fell 300 trees an hour.

The pines grow like hair on a dog's back. Compared to the giant cedars of the coastal forest, these trees look like oversized toothpicks. But it is the harvest of these and other interior trees that yield most of the lumber and paper products that Weyerhaeuser and other Canadian companies export to the United States.

These forests are immense, covering roughly one-third of Canada and stretching from British Columbia's interior to the northern boreal reaches of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario. As logging in the western coastal forests has slowed, the pace of cutting in the inland forest has surged, with the harvest volumes increasing by more than 60 percent during the past three decades.

But these lands are more than a giant North American lumberyard. They are home to numerous threatened species, such as the woodland caribou. And the boreal reaches — so named for the Greek god of the north wind — are breeding grounds for 30 percent of North America's migratory land birds — an estimated 3 billion warblers, sparrows and others that fly north each summer to nest.

"The problem with these forests is that they are just not as sexy as those romantic coastal forests," said Joe Scott of the Bellingham-based Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "A lot of them are fairly monotonous, and they're out of the public eye. But in terms of servicing ecological needs, they're absolutely critical."

It was the inland forests that first drew Weyerhaeuser to Canada. In 1964, the corporation funded a joint venture to operate a pulp mill in Kamloops. The city of 18,000 sprawls along an arid river valley, and some of the surrounding hills are so barren they appear to have been transplanted from the Arizona desert. But as you gain elevation, the mountains capture enough snowpack to cloak the hillsides in forest greenery.

Farther to the north, in boreal forests, the pace of logging has been on the rise as new technology has made it possible to profit from the skinny stands. Some of the most spectacular industry growth has taken place in Alberta, where the harvest volume jumped more than fourfold the past two decades. Weyerhaeuser is a big player there, holding long-term logging rights on 7.5 million acres of public lands.

In recent years, Weyerhaeuser has backed a new approach to logging that more closely emulates the effects of wildfire that periodically blackens the boreal forests. Weyerhaeuser's goal: maintain the biological diversity of the forest.

Sometimes that means logging big patches of timber so that the stand that grows back will be large enough to shelter caribou. Most often, it means ragged-edged cuts that leave more trees, according to Luigi Morgantini, a former University of Alberta biologist now working for Weyerhaeuser.

Morgantini says that within each cutblock, about 5 to 8 percent of the commercial timber is left. Across the landscape, about 30 percent of the trees will be preserved, he said.

But critics say Weyerhaeuser logging is still too aggressive. Weyerhaeuser is cutting too much older timber — in the 100- to 150-year range — which supports the greatest diversity of wildlife, said Richard Schneider, a Canadian conservationist and author of the book "Alternative Futures, Alberta's Forest at the Crossroads."

Weyerhaeuser and other companies repeatedly have balked at setting aside large areas of this timber for wildlife, Schneider said.

In at least one area in Alberta, the logging already has driven out fur-bearing animals that need forest cover, according to David Donahue, an Alberta fur trapper and outdoor guide.

Weyerhaeuser started clear-cutting around his trap lines in 1996, Donahue said, and since then he has noticed a dramatic decline in lynx, fisher and marten. Before the logging, he could make up to $23,000 a year from trapping; now, he's says he lucky to make $3,500.

Corporate logging practices do flush out some fur-bearing animals and the impact on trappers is unfortunate, said Morgantini of Weyerhaeuser. But the animals can move to unlogged areas, and populations can be maintained, he said.

That's not much solace to Donahue. "I just met a Weyerhaeuser guy the other day while I was tending my trap line. I said, 'What are you guys going to do? Log till there are no trees left?' "

While conservationists argue for more outright set-asides, Weyerhaeuser's efforts draw praise from provincial forestry officials.

"Weyerhaeuser is an excellent operator," said David Piggins, a provincial forester who helps oversees the Kamloops harvest. "They have a very good ethic — and they're not paying me to say it."

In the British Columbia interior, much of the harvest is now driven by a massive pine-bark beetle infestation that hop-scotches across 10 million acres of public lands, putting billions of dollars of timber at risk.

The beetle's larvae drill into the pine, and the best control is a deep winter freeze. But the past decade has seen a string of unusually mild winters, and an explosion in the beetle population.

That has prompted a use-it-or-lose-it strategy about logging, with the government approving bigger harvests in areas where the beetle poses the biggest threat. In 1999, for example, Weyerhaeuser proposed a 215-acre cut in the Merritt Forest District south of Kamloops. Then the beetles were discovered on more acreage, and the company gained Ministry of Forestry approval to log more than 95 percent of the timber from more than 1,200 acres.

The size of the cut concerned several provincial environmental officials, but they were overruled by a district forester, according to government correspondence.

This year is expected to be another big year for beetles, and another big year for logging. Provincial officials have approved an 8 percent boost in the cut around Kamloops.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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