The pine beetle has devastated Colorado’s forests, but dead wood supply presents opportunity
February 13, 2018
Over the past few decades, the mountain pine beetle has devastated a fifth of all Colorado forestland. Summit, Eagle and Grand counties were among the hardest hit, with thousands of acres of forest wiped out. But opportunity has arisen from their ashen remains, as local lumber and alternative energy industries have been able to make good use of wood from these blighted forests.
The Colorado State Forest Service estimated that the beetle killed an eye-popping 3.4 million acres of forest. That's about 800 million dead trees standing as potential fuel for the next wildfire to hit the state.
Ryan McNertney, a forester for the CSFS Granby District, said that the dead trees have ironically given a new lease on life to living ones.
"These dead trees," McNertney said, "have provided a large supply of available timber that these local mills utilized to sustain their industry that typically would have come from green, or live, trees until this epidemic came through."
The CSFS estimates that a third of Colorado's roughly 100 sawmills use beetle-killed trees for wood products. That lumber is used in a variety of different wood products, such as furniture, flooring, house frames, fencing material and as fuel for wood-burning stoves. The beetle-killed lumber is the same quality and just as useful as "live" lumber.
"Beetle-killed lumber is fine to use," McNertney said. "Some people see blue staining, which is a fungus, as a negative, but it has no impact on the structural viability of the wood product."
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Bill Jackson, a forest ranger with the Dillon Ranger District, said that finding uses for the beetle-killed trees encourages clearing of dead forestland, which is critical for forest health and human safety.
"Around Summit County," Jackson said, "we're primarily cutting trees to create buffers around communities from wildfire, at the same time to regenerate new forest."
Molly Pitts, programs manager for the Intermountain Forest Association, a lumber industry lobbying organization, said the industry is doing its part to help with the fallout from the epidemic.
"Given that the spruce beetle has heavily impacted over 1.78 million acres of spruce forests in Colorado," Pitts said, "it is important that we continue to maximize salvage efforts across the state before the wood deteriorates and is no longer usable."
Pitts added that the bounty of dead lumber translates to more work and more jobs.
"Colorado's forest product companies employ or contract 1,200 loggers, truckers and mill workers and produce products valued at more than $86 million annually. The majority of the wood currently being utilized is dead and was killed by bark beetles."
There's another interesting use for the beetle-killed wood: energy.
"The majority of the wood that comes from Summit County actually goes to the biomass plant out in Gypsum," Jackson said, referring to the Eagle Valley Clean Energy plant in Gypsum. "The plant uses those dead trees and other organic material as fuel to produce electricity for residents in Eagle County."
However, in a press release announcing the 2017 Report on the Health of Colorado's Forests, the CSFS noted that the lumber industry in Colorado is not large enough to process the overwhelming number of dead trees that need to be cleared.
"(T)he majority of Colorado's mills are smaller operations," the release noted, "and the state still lacks the wood utilization capacity necessary to fully address the broad scope of forest management needs."
The CSFS said it would continue to work with local partners to find ways to make use of beetle-killed trees while the agency faces the daunting challenge of keeping Colorado's forests safe and healthy with an ever-shrinking budget.