New Brunswick is on the brink of another spruce budworm outbreak and the forestry industry — the largest in the province — is doing everything in its power to prevent massive defoliation like that of the 1970s.

Over the border in Quebec, the insect has been wreaking havoc around the Matapedia region and scientists warn it’s been inching closer to New Brunswick.

Just this summer millions of moths descended on Campbellton, coating parking lots, cars and even people.

“It is right at our doorstep,” said Rob Johns, research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.

“An outbreak potentially is imminent in New Brunswick.”

More prevention, less spraying

Mike Legere, the executive director of Forest NB, called the potential outbreak a “serious concern” for the entire forest sector.

“There’s a general consensus that this is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately,” Legere said.

And that’s exactly what the industry has been doing.

But to control the insect’s population, the province is banking on a different approach than the intensive aerial spraying of the past, according to the research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.

“We’re trying to do a very surgical targeted, very small areas, instead of treating half the province, which happened during the previous outbreak,” said Johns.

Scientists together with the industry have started treating several hot spots in New Brunswick in the face of a looming epidemic.

Thousands of jobs at stake

The forestry industry is still the largest in the province, employing more than 20,000 people.

Legere said the forest sector is concerned about the economic impact of a budworm outbreak.

“A severe outbreak as to what we see in Quebec currently could potentially result in the loss of probably 2,000 jobs. Not to mention economic activity could suffer in the range of $4 to $6 billion,” said Legere.

Forestry giant J.D. Irving Ltd. has even taken things a step further.

Together with researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, it developed a substance to treat young trees and make them naturally resistant to the insect.

“It’s a lot less expensive and a lot less risky than treating them later on if we have another epidemic when these trees are older,” said Jason Killam, forest engineer with J.D. Irving Ltd.

Lack of diversity

But environmentalists believe the budworm is a symptom of a larger problem.

“We’ve simplified our forest for one that is a breeding ground for spruce budworm,” said Tracy Glynn, forest program director with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

Forest companies tend to re-plant clear cuts with fir and spruce trees, species-at-risk for infestations.

“We need to move toward supporting a more diverse, resilient forest. That’s our best defence against pest outbreaks,” said Glynn.

Time’s running out though. With outbreaks running in 35-year cycles, it won’t be long, before the province sees another one.

“We could be looking at just three or four years where we would see much more defoliation.” said Johns.