Feature

Red Rush

No longer kept in check by cold winters, the mountain pine beetle has killed $50 billion worth of BC forest in less than a decade

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• 5,229 words

The drive along Highway 16 from Prince George to Vanderhoof, a town of 4,800 in the geographic centre of British Columbia, should be a straight one-hour burn. There are plenty of passing lanes, and the $50,000 Ford F-350s nearly everyone drives roar past the black-spruce-encircled moose swamps and pipe-cleaner-thin evergreens at well over the 100-k.p.h. speed limit. But every summer, drivers must spike their brakes at some point along the way, brought to heel by a woman in a reflective vest. The “flag hags,” as they’re called in trucker parlance, make menacing sentries, with their cigarettes dangling and stop signs waving to protect their road crews from traffic. On a trip to Vanderhoof last summer, I leaned out my window and asked one of the women how long the delay would be. She answered at foghorn pitch: “A while!”

A few hundred metres beyond, a column of swaying translucent heat rose above the new asphalt ribbon that was inching toward us. After twenty minutes, the lineup stretched well back: flatbeds stacked with freshly milled two-by-fours, housewives returning from the Prince George Wal-Mart, dog owners pulling their panting hounds to the ditch for a roadside piss. But then the sentry flipped her sign and the convoy began to move. The tar-caked paving crew watched, water bottles in hand, as the line glimmered by under the midsummer sun.

Highway 16 is also called the Yellowhead, after Tête Jaune, a blond-haired Iroquois trader and guide who opened up the first pass through the Rockies to what is now Prince George for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early nineteenth century. From Tête Jaune’s time through to the 1980s, the ground in this region stayed reliably solid during the winter. For much of the twentieth century, this allowed loggers to manoeuvre hydraulic machines of up to forty-five tonnes through the bush between October and April without fear of sinking into the soupy local soil. Come April, the Cariboo clay, a blanket of muck deposited during the Fraser glaciation 12,000 years ago (and cursed by locals for nearly as long), would thaw, sucking in the workboots and truck axles of anyone foolhardy enough to venture off the region’s paved paths.

But the winters here are no longer as wintry as they used to be. In the last twenty years, the average temperature has gone up by around 2°C, and during winter the ground now shifts between the consistencies of granite and Silly Putty. This has led to a rash of incidents featuring half-buried logging machines, embarrassed operators, and livid bosses. It has also meant no shortage of work for road crews, who smooth out the blacktop’s latest slumps and heaves.

I’ve seen the paving crews along this stretch of the Yellowhead every summer since 2001, the year I quit university in Victoria to go north and fill my wallet with logging dollars. Back then, I thought political pork explained the constant presence of the crews — a reward to the Prince George–Omineca riding for voting solidly Liberal in the 2001 provincial election. Returning to Vanderhoof five years later, I see it as something else: part of the escalating war between industry and a warming planet.

For resource-dependent hinterland towns, global warming could mean ruin. The salmon stocks of Canada’s west coast are migrating north to Alaska. The Prairies seem to flirt with drought every year. And one of the country’s most valuable resources — the pine forests covering much of BC’s Central Interior region — is falling victim to a tiny beetle made virtually immortal by the warm winters of late. To study Vanderhoof, situated in the middle of that blighted pine forest, is to study the troubled future of rural Canada.

red forests forever

About twenty minutes past the paving crew, Vanderhoof’s billboards began to appear. One welcomed drivers on behalf of more than a dozen local churches; another proclaimed Vanderhoof the 2000 Forest Capital of British Columbia. But for one peculiarity, this could have been any resource town in northwestern Canada. As far as I could see, brick-coloured trees lent the Nechako Valley the look of the Adirondacks in autumn. But this was evergreen country in summer. Those red trees were dead trees.

When I first saw Vanderhoof nearly seven years ago, the trees were just starting to turn red, overwhelmed by the mountain pine beetle. Politicians and foresters still mused about defeating the bug then. All we need is one cold winter, people said. They’re still waiting. In recent years, everyone around here has noticed the balmier winters. Guides and trappers have come across the corpses of moose drowned in lakes whose winter ice was once plenty thick. Forest fires are getting worse. And locals have spotted new bird species in town, while Canada geese, I was told, don’t seem to head south for the winter anymore.

But global warming has brought a less visible and much more problematic pest than the geese and their plentiful turds. Since 1993, the population of mountain pine beetles in the Central Interior has been exploding. They now number in the trillions. No bigger than a mosquito, the beetle nests in live pine trees during the summer. By the time its offspring part almost a year later, the host tree is dead. BC’s mountain pine beetles have thus far nested in an area nearly twice the size of the United Kingdom, killing some 500 million cubic metres of lodgepole pine — enough timber to build a modest-sized house for every person in Western Canada. The BC Forest Service estimates that 90 percent of the province’s pine trees could die by 2016.

Why is this happening now? Every one in town has an explanation. Some blame government, some blame industry, others cite the natural life cycle of forests. But it is undeniably the case that the bugs, which have been around for two thousand years, are normally held in check by persistently cold winters, and persistently cold winters are a thing of the past. By 2070, average temperatures across Canada are expected to rise by another 2 to 7°C. The flora and fauna that have thrived in the relatively stable climate of the 10,000 years since the last ice age will be forced to migrate, adapt, or die. Those last two options will go for small towns whose economies rely upon flora and fauna as well.

You wouldn’t know it to drive into Vanderhoof, though. As I coasted down the southern slope of the Nechako Valley overlooking town, great plumes of steam billowed from the stacks of two mills to the west. Fords dieselled past me at a constant rate, the men inside gripping Tim Hortons cups, their truck beds carrying bright-red Tidy Tanks filled with fuel destined for the skidders, feller-bunchers, buttontop loaders, and other hulking machines of the forest. They were part of a dash for the remains of an unprecedented ecological disaster.

The consolation for the destruction caused by mountain pine beetle disease is that a dead tree retains some value for ten years. The Mountain Pine Beetle Action Plan, a glossy twenty-page pamphlet outlining the government’s bug strategy, states that one of the province’s main objectives is to “recover the greatest value from dead timber before it burns or decays, while respecting other forest values.” Essentially, this means that all $50 billion worth of dead and soon-to-be-dead pine in the province is up for grabs.

The government’s plan has set off a red rush, if you will, to cream as much value as possible out of British Columbia’s once-mighty pine forests before they rot. It was just such a fever that attracted white people to this region nearly 150 years ago. Back then it was the lure of gold; now it’s dead wood. In place of pick and pan, today’s prospectors use tracked hydraulic machines worth upward of half a million dollars. Each one is capable of whacking, stacking, and hauling huge swaths of forest in a single day.

One of those prospectors is my old boss, Dave Stephen, a logger whose fortunes have mirrored those of the entire industry. My first stop in Vanderhoof was Dave’s parents’ farm. A sixty-five-hectare piece of valley flatland, the farm had few cattle, and its hay crop looked like the hide of a mangy dog. Its primary purpose had changed over the past five years from agriculture to forestry. Dave and his brother Scott were using it to park their logging machines, a collection of iron, steel, and hydraulic oil they’d paid about $5 million for.

When I pulled in, Dave was talking on his cellphone. At thirty-three, he still had a boyish mien — patchy blond facial hair, thin build, no wrinkles. He’d gone from plumber to millionaire logging contractor in less than a decade, all while working on five or six hours of sleep a night and a steady diet of coffee, microwaved burritos, and chewing tobacco. “Still drink the coffee, but I quit the chew,” said Dave, now off the phone and leaning against his F-350.

Dave got into logging in 1995, guided by his wits and a penchant for whiskey. Within a year, he’d bought a feller-buncher, a machine capable of cutting down three hectares of trees in a single twelve-hour shift. Dave’s wits soon beat out the whiskey, and he began bringing home more than $100,000 a year. He bought a house and married a girl who now runs a successful veterinary clinic out of their home. In 2000, he amalgamated his logging company with his brother’s silviculture (tree cultivation) business, and the two started acquiring equipment and crewmen, of which I was one. A cousin of mine who was raking in $1,500 a week running machines for Dave convinced me to quit school and do the same. Dave was so desperate for workers that he kept me on even after I nearly killed one of his crew by changing a truck tire incorrectly — a task anyone else could’ve done stone drunk. (Luckily, the poorly fastened tire flew off while the driver was bumping slowly along a logging road.)

The Stephen brothers’ entry into the business could not have been timed better. They got in right before the provincial government switched to its policy of creaming value from the dying woods. A housing boom in the United States was heating up, and local mills were buying, processing, and shipping all the lodgepole pine the Americans could handle. Even the 27 percent tariff that the US Department of Commerce was slapping on Canadian lumber couldn’t stop Canfor, Canada’s largest forestry company and the operator of Vanderhoof’s biggest mill, from posting record profits in 2003 and 2004. During a two-week period in March 2006, Dave and Scott grossed a million dollars — not bad for a couple of farm boys.

a blue streak

The next morning I joined Dave on a drive out to Burns Lake, a logging town about an hour and a half west of Vanderhoof. He was planning to size up a stand of bugwood the province had recently put up for bid. Normally midsummer is a slow season for logging. Roads can be sloppy, and the fire hazard level generally hovers between “high” and “extreme.” (Under guidelines set by the BC Ministry of Forests and Range, when the fire hazard has been set at high for three days, logging crews can’t work between 1 p.m. and sunset. After three days at extreme, they can’t work at all.)

“I got six or seven guys working right now,” Dave told me as we drove out of town, double-doubles in hand. “Me, I’d rather be taking it easy right now, but if the crew says they wanna work then I have to find them work or else they might not be there when I really need them.” For the most part, work hadn’t been hard to find. Every five years, the province’s chief forester sets annual allowable cuts for each region in British Columbia. In the last five years, the allowable cut for the Vanderhoof Forest District, an area encompassing over 1 million hectares, had shot up from 2 million cubic metres to 6 million. To put this in perspective, a town of fewer than 5,000 people was felling enough timber to build more than 150,000 homes per year — roughly two-thirds the number of housing starts in Canada in 2006.

“You haven’t seen any of this, have you? ” asked Dave as we sped west through a portion of the valley that I remembered as verdant. “I don’t think any of this was red a couple of years ago. Now she’s all hit.” The big Canfor mill soon appeared on our left. A recent $100-million upgrade had made it the highest-capacity mill in the world. Among the improvements was the addition of a laser-equipped machine that detects faults in wood and rotates each log so that saws don’t cut across the cracks and checks that inevitably form in pine-beetle-infected trees. “With the volume of wood they’ve got coming through here now, they couldn’t keep up with the old layout,” said Dave.

We both noticed that the lumber yard was full. The mill wasn’t keeping up because of a few glitches with the new upgrade, Dave said. The other possibility — that they didn’t have any buyers — seemed too remote for discussion.

Half an hour down the road, Dave pulled onto a dirt driveway that brought us to a small sawmill and an atco trailer. He hadn’t mentioned this stop. “I just need to talk to these guys for a few minutes,” he explained. Inside the trailer, he shook hands with Adam Castle of Rocky Mountain Log Homes, a Montana-based company that is one of the world’s biggest builders of log homes. After a few pleasantries, Dave started negotiating the sale of timber he’d accumulated over the summer. “You guys need any more wood? ” he asked.

“How much you got? ”

“About 30,000 [cubic metres] on the ground. It’ll be 40,000 by August.”

“Yeah, we can probably take that.”

And just like that, $2 million in timber traded hands. So it went in the red rush. After the transaction, Dave and I made our way over to a small show home close to his truck. It was barren. The logs had not been varnished, and the smell of freshly cut pine was overpowering. “There’s that fungus, eh,” Dave said, pointing to a blue stain running through one of the logs.

“Don’t buyers mind? ” I asked.

“Don’t seem to. These guys gave us most of our work this winter.”

The blue stain is the mountain pine beetle’s calling card, a mark that persists through most of the milling process, long after the red limbs have been discarded. The stain is the byproduct of a symbiotic relationship with a fungus that is vitally important to the bug’s defences, and to the pathology of mountain pine beetle disease.

When a female beetle in search of a nesting site settles on a particular pine, she uses her powerful jaws to bore into the tree, digging until she reaches the phloem, the moist living tissue just beneath the bark that conducts food up and down the tree. Here she sends out pheromones that invite other beetles to join her in her burrow. In response to the ensuing onslaught, a lodgepole pine will try to send sap into the holes in an attempt to force the attackers back out. But the beetles have their own counter for this: a mixture of bacteria and fungus. Once deposited, this blue stew disrupts the movement of fluids inside the tree and plugs its phloem. Unable to produce the sap it needs and overwhelmed by dozens of attackers, the tree bleeds dry.

After mating, the female beetles lay eggs, which hatch into larvae that feed off the phloem over the winter. By May, when daytime temperatures are hitting around 20°C, the larvae have become adult beetles, ready to fly off in search of fresh phloem. Depending on the weather, they can fly for anywhere from two days to six weeks. Most migrate within tree stands, but some — around 2.5 percent, according to the Canadian Forest Service — catch a ride on the strong winds swirling above the canopy and swoop into new stands altogether. In 2002, as many as 30 million beetles soared 400 kilometres from the area around Vanderhoof to the east side of the Rockies.

the rotten stand

After leaving the Rocky Mountain site, Dave and I surged toward Burns Lake. Compared with the rest of BC, the Nechako region is relatively flat, part of the 370-kilometre-wide Fraser Plateau, which fans out in gentle undulations between Prince George in the east and Smithers in the west. When receding ice plugged up the Nechako River during the Fraser glaciation, the area was flooded, rounding off many of its geological features. Rolling hills of red tailed off as far as I could see in every direction.

An hour down the road, we turned onto a dirt path. As we closed in on the stand, the Ford bucked and groaned over the bumps. Dave shut off the engine at a dead end and got out to survey the site on foot.

Up close, an invaded pine tree is a sad sight. Small piles of sawdust lie at its base, and solidified drips of tan sap hang from each of the beetle entry points like blood from a wound. By the time the beetles flee, the tree’s needles, deprived of resin, have lightened to a yellow colour. (Trees at this stage are termed “faders” by foresters.) The needles take on a cardinal-red hue by late summer and become dull red within another year. Three or four years following the attack, the tree will have shed its foliage entirely. Left uncut, it can stand for as long as twenty-five years, a brittle grey skeleton.

Until 2006, the BC government set the stumpage fee for trees like these at twenty-five cents per cubic metre — low enough to encourage mills and contractors to buy dead trees. Then, in April of last year, the province jacked prices up to global market rates. (The hike bolstered Canada’s claim during softwood-lumber talks with the United States that the BC forest industry wasn’t subsidized.) “The mills have to pay around twenty bucks a [cubic] metre now,” said Dave.

“How long before these trees aren’t worth anything? ” I asked.

“Five years ago, I thought we’d only be able to log for another five years,” he replied. “Now I’m thinking we have another five years. It’s tough to say.”

When I first met Dave back in 2001, he had what he jokingly called a “Freedom 30 plan.” He was going to make a million dollars on bugwood by age thirty, sell all of his equipment, and live off the earnings. “I had to bump that up a bit,” he told me when I asked why he’s still working at thirty-three. “It’s Freedom 35 now.”

Near the end of the reconnaissance, Dave pointed to a clump of metre-high grass — the kind that usually grows in roadside ditches. “Now that the trees aren’t sucking up all the sunlight and water,” he said, “this understorey’s growing up like crazy.” Looking around, I was reminded of the rain-soaked forests along the BC coast, with their broad-leaved vegetation bursting up along the ground. I wanted to know if a whole new ecosystem would eventually grow up to fill the void left by the dead pine, but I stowed that question away for later, figuring Dave wasn’t the guy to ask.

“I don’t see any real pumpkins in here, but it’s not bad,” Dave said as we stepped back into the truck. “I’ll stick in a low bid and see what happens.”

On our way back to the farm, I told Dave I was planning to interview Bob Clark, who had recently retired from his post as BC’s “beetle boss.” Dave grimaced. “What does he know? He just sits around at a desk all day. He has no idea what’s going on out here.”

I was surprised at his reaction. Dave’s dad once worked alongside Clark at the Ministry of Forests and Range office in Vanderhoof. “Yeah, but he coordinated the whole provincial response to the beetle,” I said.

Dave snickered. “That worked out really well, didn’t it?”

to kill a pine beetle

“Cup a’ coffee? ” Bob Clark asked almost as soon as he opened his front door. Burly, bearded, and greying, Clark somewhat resembled Ernest Hemingway. He also appeared to live in Hemingway’s dream home. A massive antelope head met my gaze as I walked into the house. Downstairs in the den, a menagerie hung from the walls: bear, wolf, oryx, cougar, and more. In the basement was Clark’s office, a pine-lined room that also boasted probably the best wine collection in Vanderhoof.

Clark started with the BC Forest Service in 1972 and was placed in charge of the beetle battle in 2002. It wasn’t long before he concluded that the fight was already over. “I took a flyover of the affected area,” Clark said, shaking his head. “Afterward, I wandered around thinking, ‘I can’t win here.’”

The province’s strategy at the time focused on weeding out each and every patch of bug-infested trees, no matter how small. One method was called “snip ‘n’ skid” because it involved cutting a relatively small stand of trees, then dragging them great distances to logging roads using a towing machine called a skidder. “Over three years, the ministry did 15,000 snip ‘n’ skids,” said Clark. “It was probably a defence unparallelled in the history of man.”

Because snip ‘n’ skid harvesting concentrated on such small areas, it had the blessing of the province’s environmental groups. These groups didn’t find Clark’s next move nearly so palatable. In 2003, he abandoned the large-scale snip ‘n’ skid strategy and relocated more of the province’s cut to the fringes of the beetle kill, with the aim of carving out bigger clear-cuts directly in the path of the outbreak. The David Suzuki Foundation said in a press release at the time that this would make “a dire situation even worse,” but the environmental groups soon fell mute. “It might be the biggest issue in forestry right now,” Panos Grames, a spokesperson for the Suzuki Foundation, told me. “But our funders just aren’t interested in it.”

Seated behind his meticulously kept pine desk, Clark told me why he decided the cut had to increase: “In 1910, there was 300 million cubic metres of pine in BC. Run up to 2000 and we have 1.2 billion cubic metres, because of fire suppression.”

The BC Forest Service has long prioritized the battle against forest fires in order to protect the public and the province’s greatest economic asset. But fires are a natural part of the forest cycle, levelling older forests to make way for new ones. Pine beetles, which prefer older trees and their more plentiful phloem, are part of this cycle too. But with so many stands of old pine being protected from fire and logging, the beetle, Clark argued, had had a veritable buffet set out before it, spurring it to engulf the province’s forests. “In the seventies and eighties we should have harvested more,” he said. “We should have increased the cut.”

It’s long been known how the mountain pine beetle is killed: the thermometer must either drop to -40°C before November or stay at -20°C or lower for any two-week period over the winter. Historically, cold snaps always hit regularly enough to keep the beetle population down. But the last large-scale kill-off came on Halloween in 1985, when trick-or-treaters faced -37°C. Last November, with temperatures hovering between -35°C and -20°C for nearly a week, Vanderhoof watched to see whether the deep freeze would last long enough to massacre the beetle. It was not to be, however. The cold snap was too short, and it had come too late.

Since retiring from the Forest Service in February 2006, Clark had been working as a consultant, mostly with the Alberta government, which is extremely concerned about the beetle’s forays across the Rockies. “Alberta has a national obligation to fight this thing,” Clark said. “This is not a provincial problem alone. Tests tell us that the beetle could easily take Jack pine stands, and that means it could creep clear across Canada.”

Before leaving, I asked if there was anything more he could have done as beetle boss to stop the outbreak. “No,” Clark replied. “If we were there when the soft music played, when the first two bugs did their thing, we’d all be in a much different position. But that wasn’t about to happen. I don’t apologize for a thing.”

the long view

Thousands of years before Canfor, CN, the Stephen family, and even Vanderhoof himself, the Saik’uz people settled this region. Today, the Saik’uz First Nation consists of ten reserves, the most populous of which is Stony Creek Indian Reserve No. 1, a fifteen-minute drive south from Vanderhoof. I rolled in one afternoon on a vast, grassy plain dotted with a few dozen houses, a store, a band office, a school, and various other administration buildings. Affixed to the walls of the reserve’s wood- and vinyl-sided houses were eighteen-inch satellite dishes, up to five per dwelling.

According to regional myth, the forests in this region became a “sea of red” at one point during the nineteenth century. It’s not known if the legend refers to a beetle outbreak or to a massive wildfire that is thought to have swept through the area about 120 years ago. Traditionally, the Saik’uz have protected themselves from forest fires by staging controlled burns, which eliminated the fuel for wild-fires and regenerated hardy local species of green grass. “The government could’ve learned something from that,” said Stanley Thomas, a former chief and now a Saik’uz band councillor in his late forties. “They don’t know what to do now.”

As a kid, Thomas fished for trout, ling cod, and whitefish in Stony Creek, which moves through the centre of town at a pace leisurely enough to provide a habitat for mosquito larvae and green algae. “Can’t get nothing out of there anymore,” said Thomas. “A great starvation is coming again soon. That’s what the elders tell me. I think the land is dying.”

Thomas’s assessment echoed those of climate researchers in the region. When I spoke with Andrew Weaver, Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria and the editor of the Journal of Climate, he confirmed that an entirely new ecosystem could be headed Vanderhoof’s way. “I can say with a high degree of probability that we’ll see ecosystems shifting northward,” he said. “When you run climate models with vegetation incorporated within them, the boreal forest, the deciduous trees, the grasslands — they all head northward.” The beetle and the rising number of forest fires are both bellwethers of this shift.

There is something familiar in all of this for the Saik’uz. They have lost the natural resources that sustained them once before. The Dakelh people, who once controlled most of what is now the province’s Central Interior region, began settling the Stony Creek plateau — known in their language as Saik’uz, or “on the sand” — in the 1890s, lured by favourable fishing and hunting grounds. Within fifty years, the federal Department of Indian Affairs had outlawed the hereditary Saik’uz system of governance, carved their territory up for the Crown, and placed restrictions on trapping, hunting, fishing, and logging. Without the freedom to use their land, the Saik’uz fell into an economic decline from which they are only slowly recovering. Median income for Stony Creek residents fifteen and older hovers around $4,500 per year.

“We are seeing a few licences coming our way now,” said Thomas. “But what are they worth? A hundred percent of it is totally red. We only got five years, tops, and then there’s no more. Then we gotta wait eighty more years. It’s going to be a long time. Could be ghost towns all over by then, but not us. We’re still going to be here. We’ve got nowhere to go.”

after the boom

Vanderhoof’s economic upsurge appeared to be the sole upside of the ecological disaster. I dropped in on Len Fox, the town’s mayor, who was happy to list more signs of growth. “Right now, every plumber is busy, every electrician busy,” he said. “We had thirty-eight housing starts last year, which is quite good for a community our size. To the best of our knowledge, we have fifteen to twenty years on our current timber supply.”

Could bugwood really sustain Vanderhoof that long, I wondered? The town was relying on a valuable but volatile resource. About 80 percent of the wood was heading to the United States, where the housing market was beginning to look shaky.

Four months later, I called Dave Stephen, and sure enough, Vanderhoof’s optimism seemed to be fizzling out. An expected surge of winter contracts hadn’t arrived, and even Rocky Mountain Log Homes wasn’t buying. The problem the mayor had insisted was years off was settling in like bad weather. “It’s dead,” Dave said. “The mills can’t find any buyers. When this mountain pine beetle thing started five or six years ago, people predicted a boom for ten to fifteen years. The boom was there, but now it’s tailing off. We’re doing half the volume we did last year. Probably less.”

All of the rosy predictions for the region hadn’t factored in the moody suitor that is the American economy. As housing starts in the States plummeted toward the end of 2006, so too did the demand for pine. With BC’s supply at its highest point ever, the province was staring at what economists call market disequilibrium, and what local newspapers termed a glut (as if a strong shot of Drano could free everything). The market’s solution to disequilibrium is usually to trim production, which translates into trimming jobs — and, undoubtedly, leaving behind more uncut red trees.

For their part, Dave and Scott Stephen are constantly strategizing. They have kept up the less-profitable silviculture side of their business, anticipating the inevitable salvage and cleanup contracts that will come up when the worthless trees need to be culled and the forests reclaimed. “They’re going to have a whole forest of dead trees,” said Dave. “Something has to be done with them.”

If you trust coffee shop banter, oil and gas will ride to the rescue of the region’s small towns. Word was circulating around Vanderhoof of massive pools of natural gas beneath the Cariboo region, just waiting to enrich everyone above. It reminded me of something Mayor Fox mentioned offhandedly before I left his office that summer day. A geologic survey had recently found “significant” gold and copper deposits on nearby Mount Milligan, he said. It seems that the gold rush mentality won’t die with the trees.