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Meet the Beetle Ravaging Canadian Forests, Driving Up U.S. Lumber Prices

Sky-high demand has pushed American remodelers to dip into the Canadian lumber supply, already hard-hit by the mountain pine beetle.

May 04, 2021
Pine Beetle and lumber prices

2x6 lumber prices causing you to scream? Blame the beetles. 

Not the Beetles Volkswagen nor the legendary Beatles, but beetles as in the actual bug. In a recent article, The Atlantic asked natural resource and lumber experts why the lumber prices have skyrocketed for projects from framing to door installations. Their answer? Growing demand for softwood lumber spurred builders and remodelers to dip further into the Canadian supply, which has been ravaged by wildfires, climate change, and one hungry headache: the mountain pine beetle. 

Canadian forests, eh?

The health of the Northern Woods is crucial for lumber prices and availability as Canada is the number one exporter of lumber to the U.S. In 2019 alone, our northern neighbor sent us $6,373,967,000 worth of sawn wood. Three Canadian firms, West Fraser, Canfor, and Interfor, all made the top 10 list of lumber US producers, and the top producer, Weyerhaeuser, has 14 million acres of public timberland leased in Canada. 

Major lumber suppliers also have skin in the Canadian game: LP Building Products has 24% of its mills in Canada spanning 13 million acres of public forestlands. The company states that “Canada has long been considered a global leader in sustainable forest management and already has the largest area of third-party-certified forests in the world.” And though it doesn’t readily break down percentages of lumber from the U.S. versus Canada, Home Depot sources over 94% of its lumber from North America. 

What is the mountain pine beetle?

Mountain pine beetles are bark-eating bugs that have been around North America for thousands of years, according to the US National Park Service. They are small insects measuring roughly 5 mm long with shiny, black heads, textured bodies, the standard six legs, and a one-year life cycle destructive enough to kill a tree in just one generation. Outbreaks aren’t unheard of, but the current onslaught of mountain pine beetles is overwhelming North American forests thanks to mild temperatures and low rainfall. 

“Hard winters with cold temperatures can kill beetle eggs and larvae wintering under a tree's outer bark. Related to general climate warming, average winter temperatures in the Rocky Mountains have been higher than normal over the past ten years,” the NPS says in the beetle’s profile. “Trees have also been weakened by a prolonged period of low precipitation.”

According to the Canadian Forest Service, mountain pine beetles in British Columbia have affected 18 million hectares of forest, attacked 50% of the total volume of commercial lodgepole pine and destroyed pine trees that could have produced an estimated 752 million cubic meters of sellable pine from the 1990s to 2017. For reference, 18 million hectares of land is roughly equal to the size of Rhode Island,18 times over. 

Meanwhile, Oregon, the largest softwood producer in the United States, is also plagued by the pine beetle. The state’s Department of Forestry says that the “mountain pine beetle is the most destructive forest pest in the west and has contributed to more tree mortality than any other bark beetle in Oregon.” The bug destroys an estimated 380,000 acres of the state's forests per year.

pine forest killed by mountain beetle

Adobe Stock | By PiLensPhoto

Why is the mountain pine beetle bad for lumber forests?

The CPS says that mountain pine beetles dine on the bark of softwood trees such as the ponderosa and lodgepole pines. The females burrow into the timber and lay eggs underneath the bark, and the resulting larvae eat the soft pulp until the tree becomes sick and dies from the damage. This process also introduces harmful fungi into the pines.

While the trees can defend themselves with toxic resin, that approach only works when there is a small local population of beetles. “[Tree defenses] become inconsequential when beetle populations are high,” the CPS’ factsheet on mountain pine beetles says. “Landscape-level epidemics only decline once most of the large diameter host trees have been killed or unfavorable weather causes catastrophic insect mortality.”

In other words, once the infestation becomes too great, the only thing that can stop the outbreak is the death of most of the large pine trees. The USDA says that mountain pine beetles may start attacking pine forests once they age 70-100 years and clear nearly 80% of pines in that community of trees. 

What are forest departments doing to save trees from the mountain pine beetle?

The good news is that the pine beetle population is declining. In Canada, the CPS says that conservation efforts include “detecting the mountain pine beetle in new areas, removing and burning infested trees and harvesting affected stands before the economic value of the wood is lost or diminished.”

The bad news is that the outbreak's effects will still be felt as it takes time for forests to regrow, and even if the mountain pine beetles are reigned in, other species of bugs are waiting to wreak havoc: In The State of Canada's Forests Report for 2020, the research indicated that “the spruce beetle is killing significant volumes of spruce trees in regions that were previously impacted by the mountain pine beetle, potentially exacerbating wood fiber supply issues in British Columbia.”

These environmental factors mix with international relations to drive up costs. In late 2020, the U.S. Commerce Department slashed tariffs on Canadian lumber from 20% to 9%, a move that the National Association of Home Builders categorizes as a “positive development.” But the tariff still adds an additional cost to an increasingly scarce resource. 

As lumber prices in the United States and Canada continue to rise in 2021, it will be imperative for the housing industry that conservation efforts focus on protecting softwood lumber, or that alternative materials or sources for lumber are found. 

How can remodelers help support sustainable forestry?

Now, remodelers aren’t conservation experts or foresters, but there are still ways that they can reduce lumber consumption and support sustainable forestry.

Here are five ways that remodelers can help support sustainable forestry and save on lumber costs: 

  1. Buy materials from lumber suppliers that ethically source wood and support conservation initiatives. Look for wood from lumber yards near you that is FSC-certified timber (Forest Stewardship Council) or SFI-certified (Sustainable Forestry Initiative).  
  2. Consider using wood alternatives such as metal framing.
  3. Use Feng shui principles to make rooms feel bigger without removing existing walls.
  4. Recycle materials and use reclaimed lumber from demos and fabricators. 
  5. Employ advanced framing strategies to avoid using too much wood. 

Inspired to pursue more green building practices? Check out these three tips for remodelers to get green buy-in from homeowners looking for a kitchen or bathroom renovation. 

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Comments

Comments

Even with the beetle, lumber production is still on a upward trend. I would think we are seeing a perfect storm of supply not keeping up with demand. Part of that is probably exacerbated due to wholesalers not wanting to get caught holding the bag when prices drop and that keeps supplies tight as well. I think the only question is how high will it go and how hard will it fall?

Ron, you bring up a good point about there being a perfect storm. I agree. The beetle is just one moving part in a very complicated supply issue and part of the context of why supply is so tight. While the pandemic, tariffs, and supply chain issues are heavily reported on, we thought it would be interesting to also highlight how environmental factors play into the high lumber prices we are seeing.

I agree (and I dont know anything). But, if it is a supply and demand problem, why not buy lumber for two weeks..I am told that this issue extends to trucking problems...but something has to be done...and Washington will not get it done..and what should they really be expected to do in a free market economy... mark worley GMB, CAPS,. GBP

No mention was made that it is global warming that has let to the increase in numbers of pine beetles and the inability of the trees to produce enough resin to slow them down. More than 95% of the softwood trees in Colorado are also dead from beetle infestation. Need to stop wasting lumber with over sized houses and single family dwellings that require 30% more lumber and other materials. Half the green house gases emitted are the result of meat production so a vegan remodeler will be protecting the environment for future generations.

It's time to start calling out bogus information. In the first place the article did mention "global warming" as one cause of the pine beetle infestation. Second, 95% of the softwood trees in Colorado are not dead. While there has been wide spread tree kill in some areas, other areas have been largely unaffected. I've been there and talked with the forest service. You may want to consult them to update your percentage. Half the greenhouse gases are from meat production? NOT TRUE, this is a false talking point. What do trees need to survive? Carbon dioxide alias greenhouse gas.

It is not the pine beetles so much as our capitalist dominated government and banking that results in global warming and financial uncertainty. Since the politicians deregulated the financiers which led to the Great Recession in 2008, many lumber mills have gone out of business and existing ones are reluctant to make the capital investments needed for additional capacity when it is a boom or bust businss for them. Plenty of trees but without the mills the logs do not become lumber. Check out the article by Henry Grabar in Slate. Henry actually bothered to go and talk to the loggers and the mill owners.

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