THE WORM THAT’S WRECKING OUR FOREST
Roaring at treetop height over the vast billion-dollar New Brunswick pulpwoods an armada of daredevils in patched-up planes fights a dangerous war against
FOR THREE WEEKS last June a grim and
meaningful war raged over the jagged green roof of northern New Brunswick’s spruce and balsam forest. The battleground was twenty-three hundred square miles of rolling bushland, acre for acre the most valuable pulp forest in Canada. Today that forest is worth something over a billion dollars. Next year it could be a dying wasteland worth practically nothing, if the final reckoning shows that the war was lost.
And not just a forest lay at stake. Bound to that forest was the future economy of New Brunswick, and a vital segment of the economy of all Canada itself.
It was aerial war, as colorful and at times as hazardous as the Battle of Britain. The ammunit ion was microscopic droplets of DDT spray.
The attacking force was a restless weather-beaten assemblage of pilots, most from the Canadian and American west, who fly their light spray planes as recklessly as their grandfathers of the Old West
rode their cow ponies. Incongruously teamed with them was an army of scholarly foresters and entomologists directing the battle from the ground.
The enemy was a tiny caterpillar which, during the past forty years, has destroyed enough Canadian pulpwood to make a two-hundred-and-fiftymillion-cord woodpile four feet high, sixty feet wide, around the world at the equator. This is almost as much pulpwood as man himself has cut during the same period, worth at today’s prices more than five billion dollars.
The entomologists call the caterpillar Choristoneura fumiferana. The spray pilots call it “the bug.’’ To the rest of us it is the spruce budworm, scourge of the northern coniferous forests which are the mainstay of a pulp-and-paper business that has become Canada’s leading industry.
The budworm is Canada’s most destructive forest insect, the forests’ greatest enemy next to fire. Even when full grown it is only three quarters of an inch long with the diameter of a pin, yet its voracious
appetite for spruce and balsam needles has, during the past decade, left a tangled swath of thousands of square miles of dying forest across eastern Canada, turning prosperous lumber and mill communities into ghost towns.
Now in New Brunswick, where the forest is eighty to ninety percent balsam the budworm’s main food tree —it could in another year or two wipe out everything and the province would be faced with unemployment and economic paralysis. Wood-using industries are the source of sixty percent of the income of New Brunswick’s population. The immense area sprayed, considerably larger than the province of Prince Edward Island, is the heartland of a forest region from which six of the province’s largest pulp-and-paper mills draw most of their wood supplies.
But all Canada has a big stake in this battle of the budworm. If New Brunswick prosperity slumps, its loss of spending power will be felt across Canada. If the province loses its best pulpwood
forest the reduction in pulp-and-paper exports to the U. S. would have an immediate effect on the nation’s over-all foreign-exchange position. Canada exports annually close to a billion dollars’ worth of pulp and paper, to make it our leading producer of foreign-trade credits. By perfecting a method of large-scale aerial spraying of forest, New Brunswick is pioneering a new era of pest control that, promises new and greater wealth from forest lands everywhere in Canada.
It was a brief, fast and hectic battle. It had to he, for the caterpillars expose themselves for only a brief period in June, and even then weather conditions suitable for spraying last only a few hours each dawn and dusk. Seventy-seven planes, the biggest nonmilitary air fleet ever assembled in Canada, took part. They had to operate from six crude little emergency airfields hewn out of solid hush during the previous winter. For three weeks those rough stump-rimmed runways were far and away the busiest airfields Continued on pane 43
By FRED BODSWORTH
The Worm That's Wrecking Our Forests
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 21
in Canada. At Nictau—busiest of the six—I stood in a control tower of unpaired planks on June 15 and watched Bob Thompson, its air-traffic controller, handle seven hundred and eight take-offs and landings during the day. On the same day at Toronto’s Malton field take-offs and landings totaled about four hundred, and Nictau that day flew only eight hours, Malton twenty-four.
Last year in the same area three hundred square miles were doused with DDT1 and the “kill” of budworms was an almost unbelievable 99.8 percent. This year’s operation was almost eight times larger. It required five hundred men. It cost four million dollars.
It brought a new and colorful character to the Canadian aviation scene —the spray pilot who still flies “by the seat of his pants” in old open-cockpit planes, always so close to the ground that some claim they get nosebleeds when they climb to a thousand feet. These pilots roam the continent like gypsies, flying recklessly at barn-roof height when the weather is good, playing poker just as recklessly when the weather is bad. Regarding poker, one said: “In this business you begin to feel that you’re not going to live forever and it makes you careless about money.” But they never touch liquor, for they know their job demands the ultimate alertness and co-ordination.
Most are war pilots but a few are youngsters who have learned their flying since the war. They work about nine months of the year, dusting cotton in the deep south, spreading weed killer in Texas, spraying potato bugs in Idaho, orchards in British Columbia and Washington, dusting fertilizers on the prairies, spraying in numerous places for mosquito control, seeding rice in Louisiana. Many of them work into Mexico and a few each year reach the coffee plantations of Brazil. The pay is good, but few of them can afford the premiums demanded for insurance on their lives.
Most of them regard the forest spraying in New Brunswick as their toughest and most hazardous assignment. To keep the spray falling true and evenly they had to fly a scant fifty to a hundred feet above the treetops, weaving between the steep hills and diving low into the valleys. Even landings and take-offs were frequently hair-raising aerobatics in themselves, for the fields were short and narrow, some of them cradled between towering hills. Yet at the height of the battle, planes were roaring in and out of these airstrips so rapidly that sometimes for hours at a time there would be a landing or take-off every thirty seconds.
This year’s stepped-up war on the budworm got under way late in April when twenty-seven entomologists, including six loaned by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, fanned out through the bush to keep tab on the budworm’s emergence and development. Early in May spray planes in British Columbia, Oregon, California, Arizona and Texas began taking off and converging on New Brunswick.
Crossing the continent in short hops, because their range is limited to two hundred miles, flying by dead reckoning for a compass is the only navigational instrument they carry, they gathered first at Fort Wayne, Ind., then pushed on to Watertown, N.Y., to enter Canada at Dorval. By mid-May the continent’s greatest mass move-
ment of small aircraft was completed and seventy-seven of them were lined up on the six New Brunswick bush airfields as the pilots waited for the go-ahead sign from the entomologists.
Each pilot was assigned his own area and he flew over it repeatedly until he could recognize every gully and high tree, so that when spraying began not an inch would be missed. Nictau, farthest south, was the first field to go operational.
The entomologists gave their okay on May 26. On May 27 at 3.30 a.m. Nictau’s chief pilot, Abe Sellards, a
boyish twenty-five-year-old from Arizona, bolted his breakfast and hurried out to the radio shack to check weather reports. Spraying requires calm and cool air, for a breeze disperses the spray and rising warm air prevents it from settling. Rain will prevent spray from clinging to the trees, fog may trap planes in the air. The weather reports sounded favorable.
At 4.15 Sellards told the pilots to warm up the aircraft and load their tanks with spray. The planes were coated with frost and there were needles of ice on the runway puddles.
The pilots pulled parkas over their white coveralls and fastened footballtype crash helmets on their heads. Everybody was running, no one walked.
At 4.30, when hills in the east were just beginning to emerge against the first grey light of dawn, Sellards took off to check conditions in the air. Only the red and green wingtip lights were visible as his plane lifted off the runway. The chief pilots, one at each airstrip, ride herd on the spray pilots, do not spray themselves, and fly radioequipped Stinson monoplanes. The
spray planes—converted U. S. Navy Stearman trainers—have no radios.
Sellards disappeared and the Stearmans lined up at the end of the runway like race horses itching to start. At 4.50 Sellards radioed in from fifteen miles away: “Let ’em go.”
In the control tower, Bob Thompson began signaling the Stearmans off in twos with green flashes from his light gun. In five minutes all twenty of Nictau’s squadron were in the air. It was still dark enough when the last plane took off that its pilot, Greg Quaadman, of California, could see the green flash of the light gun without turning toward the control tower. Not a minute of spraying weather could be missed, and the take-offs were timed so that each plane would reach its spray area with the first light.
The first Stearmans were back for a reload in fourteen minutes and for the next four hours they were roaring in and out at the rate of two a minute. By nine a.m. the air over the forest was warm and rising and Sellards grounded the planes until the coolness of dusk would permit resumption of spraying.
The other airfields were operating in a few days. Sometimes several days would pass during which there would be no spraying weather at all, and the pilots would wait restlessly, tuning up their planes, sleeping, playing poker. Then at a cold 3.30 a.m. the cookhouse iron would clang again and with the dawn they would be in the air once more, climbing over the ridge», diving down into the hollows, never more than a hundred feet above the trees. Behind each aircraft the white fog of “goop” boiled out like a comet’s tail, sometimes gleaming in rainbow colors when the sun struck right.
Ed Batchelor, of Langley, B.C., a slight, former RAP" pilot who had to work as a farm laborer during his first year in Canada, figures the job is tough, but not as tough as milking a cow. “I don’t mind dodging barns and transmission lines because when you’re doing crop work there’s usually a place to crash land if you have to,” Batchelor says. “But in this country there’s nothing but trees underneath. If you have to come down, you’ve probably had it.”
Yet the low landing speeds of the Stearmans give the pilots a fair chance, even in forested country. In the two years of New Brunswick spraying one plane has been completely wrecked and three badly damaged without a pilot being seriously hurt.
Bill Swanson, a California pilot, plowed into the bush near Budworm City—headquarters of the spray operation last year and jumped free seconds before his Stearman exploded and burned. His only injury was a badly burned finger, but he was flying another plane next day.
This year two B. C. pilots, Ron Wells and Sandy MacDonald, trying to take advantage of the last minutes of evening flying weather, missed Budworm City in the dusk and became lost. Traffic-control officer, Harry Talbot, of Montreal, reported them missing. Radioman Owen Morris alerted the other airfields, where barrels of oil were lighted. The chief pilots took off and circled high above each airfield with lights blinking, hoping the lost pilots would spot them. After two hours Talbot called them in with a laconic: “They’re down now. No fuel.”
Meanwhile Wells and MacDonald had separated in the darkness and were scanning the black forest for a lighter patch that would indicate a clearing where they might get down. Neither had parachutes. Both came out into farming country as their gas-
oline was running low. Wells buzzed the main street of a small town several times until the citizens realized he was in trouble. A dozen people jumped into their cars and, with headlights blinking, they led him out to the only large field in the vicinity. There the cars lined up with headlights lighting the field and Wells dropped down out of the darkness for a perfect landing.
A hundred miles away, his fuel gauge reading “empty,” MacDonald was still in the air. He had seen nothing but forest below for two hours when he came out suddenly to the farming community of St. Quentin. “I picked the first field I could find and put ’er down,” MacDonald said. “It was a lovely field, except it had a fence across the middle of it.”
The plane hit the fence, somersaulted, crumpled a wing. MacDonald, bruised but still conscious, released his safety belt and rolled clear, just as a farmer’s wife ran up with a butcher knife a foot long. “I think she was disappointed to see me out of the plane,” MacDonald said. “She was all ready to cut me loose before it caught fire. She jumped that fence like a deer.”
Back in Budworm City’s radio shack, Chief Pilot Herb Henderson, of Yakima, Wash., had been chewing the same unlighted cigar for two hours. When Wells and MacDonald reported in by phone Henderson exclaimed : “Every year I swear I’m going to quit this business, but every spring when the sky turns blue and one of them old Stearmans fly over, I sign up again. It’s a hell of a disease.”
Killer with an Alias
Ron Wells was less sentimental. “There’s only one reason anyone flies in this racket,” he said, “it’s the money. You take the risks and you get paid well for it.” Each pilot earned more than fifteen hundred dollars for the three weeks of flying in New Brunswick and when the job was done they took off immediately for the cotton fields of southern U. S.
With all their experience, the spray pilots had never fought a stranger foe.
For years the spruce budworm may practically disappear. Then, mysteriously and without warning, every thirty or forty years, the population explodes into an epidemi:: of countless millions. The present outbreak now at its peak in New Brunswick started in northern Ontario in 1937.
Yet the damage it does is inconspicuous and a forest may be practically killed before the budworm becomes apparent, except to the entomologists who are looking for it. Even its name — spruce budworm — is a camouflage. Entomologists now say it was misnamed, for its preferred food is balsam, not spruce. Spruce is attacked by the overflow population only, when there are not enough balsam to go around.
As an adult the budworm is a small brown-and-grey moth with a wipgspan of less than an inch. The moths hatch from cocoons early every July and each female lays about two hundred eggs on the needles of balsam or spruce. About a week later the microscopiclarvae, or budworms, hatch from the eggs and it is one of nature’s strangest curiosities that a caterpillar which later displays such a voracious appetite waits almost a year before taking its first meal. Though it is midsummer, the newly hatched budworms spin minute individual silken cases, curl up their sixteen legs and go to sleep until the following spring.
By mid-May the hibernating budworm is getting hungry. It crawls out, burrows into a needle and since it is only one sixteenth of an inch
long with the diameter of a hair it finds plenty of room inside. After hollowing out two or three needles in its beding it needs larger fare and ramb.es off on a long hike of two or three inches to the end of its twig and burrows into the terminal hud which contains the developing needles of that year’s foliage. In early June the bud opens, the soft new needles flare out and ’he budworm, now half an inch long, eats heartily. But he’s too big now to keep himself hidden and it is only during this last two or three weeks of his life that a poison spray can reach him.
When full grown in late June the budworm spins a cocoon among the needles and changes into a mummylike pupa. The transformation to an adult moth occurs, the moth hatches and another year’s budworm cycle begins.
Entomologists sometimes find a quarter of a million budworms on a single tree. Spruce and balsam needles remain on the tree for five or six years and a healthy tree can lose its new foliage for three years in a row and, though weakened, can survive. But if a tree is robbed of its new needle crop for four or five successive seasons, it usually dies.
After a budworm killing, the forest is littered with dead dry trees which make fire prevention almost impossible. The fallen balsams make a perfect kindling, sooner or later lightning or a neglected campfire touches it off and the devastation the budworm started among one or two tree species results in the destruction of entire forests over vast areas. Most serious forest fires in eastern Canada got their start in areas of budworm kill.
And then, when the forest is leveled, the budworm plays his final trump card. Balsam reproduces faster than other species, and the new forest which succeeds will contain a higher proportion of balsam. The more balsam a forest contains, the more susceptible it is to later budworm outbreaks. So with every budworm attack, the budworm lays the foundation for a more severe attack in the next generation of forest which will mature fifty years later.
“In earlier years no one worried about the budworm because there was more wood than man could use,” explained B. W. (Barney) Flieger, a big, blond former professor of forestry at the University of New Brunswick, now director of the spraying operation. “Until the pulp-and-paper industry developed twenty-five years ago, balsam wasn’t worth much anyway. But now man and the budworm are competing for the same woodpile. Companies have to have long plans. Maybe a tract of forest isn’t scheduled to be
cut for twenty years, but if the budworm knocks that forest out the company’s entire program is disrupted. In the old days it was a case of hunting for something you wanted, cutting it, and getting out. Now we have to work with long-term plans to grow what we want.”
By pioneering aerial spraying, “Operation Budworm 1953” was promising permanency to the new “sustained yield” system of woodland operations, and laying the foundation for a fuller utilization of Canada’s forest wealth.
After the last big budworm infestation petered out finally in the Maritimes in 1923. there were only brief and sporadic outbreaks until 1937. Then that year another severe outbreak began north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. It spread rapidly eastward in following years, more slowly westward, each generation of moths fanning out to leave their eggs in a constantly expanding area. In 1948 the budworm arrived in New Brunswick’s balsam forests and by 1951 twenty-two hundred square miles were badly infested, a central portion of it so heavily that three hundred square miles of forest would die if the budworm attack continued another year.
“We knew we were in for trouble,” recalls Flieger. “The New Brunswick International Paper Company had been holding much of this area in reserve. We hadn’t taken a thing off it. It was vital to our future operations.”
Two years previously Oregon had started aerial spraying experiments against the budworm in Douglas fir there, using old crop-dusting biplanes. Success was reported in small spray areas. New Brunswick’s problem was much more difficult. Even the most heavily attacked three-hundred-squaremile area was much larger than anything Oregon had attempted, and the New Brunswick forest was isolated, with few roads, no airfields. But Flieger went to Oregon, studied methods being developed there, came back and said the job could be done.
The New Brunswick government agreed to foot one third of the bill if the New Brunswick International Paper Company would finance the balance and superintend the job. The company figured that that three hundred miles of menaced forest alone was worth one hundred and fifty million dollars and called it a deal.
No one hoped that the spraying would give New Brunswick a permanent and final victory over the budworm. The insect was firmly entrenched in the surrounding forests of Maine and Quebec and the moths would invade anew from the surrounding unsprayed areas. But by spraying they hoped to kill the budworms before the year’s new crop of balsam foliage was destroyed. This would give the sprayed trees at least another year’s lease on life.
The heartwarming success of the 1952 operations made the continuation and the widening of the war a certainty. For this year’s operations, the federal government and three other paper companies joined forces with the New Brunswick government and the International Paper Company.
In the campaign this summer much of the two thousand square miles was sprayed twice. And now the entomologists are still checking on the extent of budworm kill. Will the pilots be meeting again at Budworm City in the spring of 1954? Or can Canada’s busiest airfields be abandoned to revert to forest again?
“We’ll know by fall,” says Barney Flieger, “whether nature is ready to take over the battle of the budworm alone, or whether we’ll have to help her for another year.” ★