Caught between beetle, hard spot in economy

A worker sorts different sizes of wood at the Intermountain Resources mill in Montrose in early February. Most lumber produced at the mill comes from dead trees killed by the pine beetle infestation in Colorado.



Usable for lumber

Beetle-killed timber retains value as a construction material, even though the tree is dead, because the beetles don’t eat into the wood, said Doug Jones of Doug Jones Sawmill in Grand Junction.

Adult beetles bore through the bark to the cambium layer between the bark and the wood, where they lay eggs. Hatched grubs feed on live bark tissue until they are ready to fly. The blue stain, however, can go to the pith of the tree, Jones said.

Beetles are battering Colorado’s forests, but the battle on the bugs also is bolstering the region’s lumber industry, at least for a while.

Federal officials earlier this month announced they were pumping $40 million into the fight against the beetle, including $30 million to be spent in Colorado. That spending could have particular effect in western Colorado, where three sawmills are still operating.

Foresters welcomed the new commitment to fight the bug, but it said the timber industry faces multiple challenges, including a lumber market slowed by the recession and competition from Canada.

Of the money to be spent in the state, $2 million is tagged for the spruce beetle that is chomping away on the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests and other forests west of the Continental Divide.

The money will go only a small part of the way to deal with the infestation that has turned red the normally green lodgepole pine forests of central and northern Colorado, timber company and federal officials said.

“Really, our concern now is for the safety of the public” and U.S. Forest Service employees who work in and around dead trees, said Janelle Smith, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Lakewood.

Forest officials are still determining how they will spend the money, Smith said.

Dead trees no longer well-rooted to the earth are a threat to fall on top of people nearby and also are a fire hazard, Smith said.

The bark-beetle money carved out of the federal budget by Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Colorado Democrats, will be used to fend off immediate threats to towns, roads, power lines and other man-made structures.

“That was emergency money,” said Nancy Fishering, public-policy analyst for Intermountain Resources, a lumber mill in Montrose. “It’s not designed to maintain a timber industry.”

The timber industry in western Colorado over recent decades has shrunk significantly, said Tom Troxel, spokesman for the Intermountain Forest Association, based in Rapid City, S.D.

“My best guess for the mills that closed from 2000-2009 is 1,000 sawmill and logging jobs (disappeared),” Troxel said.

Most of those jobs were in rural communities such as South Fork, Olathe, Saratoga, Wyo., “where good jobs that have full benefits are hard to come by and not easily replaced,” Troxel said. “More likely those jobs have not been replaced.”

Closed mills, dead forests

Many of the now-closed mills are in communities that are surrounded by dead forests, such as Walden, Kremmling, Saratoga, South Fork and Olathe, Troxel said.

By his organization’s count, 20 mills that handled Colorado timber have closed since the early 1980s. As a result, a long-overdue, all-out assault on the bark beetle in Colorado would likely fizzle for a lack of industrial firepower, forestry experts at Colorado State University said.

When federal land management agencies reduced timber harvesting in the mid-1990s, it “brought down the call for some of the processing capacity we have on the West Slope,” said Doug Rideout, a forest economist with Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “Some of the mills reduced capacity, and others packed up and left. Now we’re in a position where we don’t have the industry or processing capacity we did even five years ago.”

Western Colorado is home to three of the survivors of the shrinkage of the lumber industry: Delta Timber Co. in Delta, Doug Jones Sawmill in Grand Junction and Intermountain Resources in Montrose.

Sawmill owner Doug Jones said he hopes to be notified of the sales when the Forest Service has them prepared, but he also has misgivings. He’s already under contract for some salvage sales, “and I’ve got a lot of wood in the yard and the markets are slow.”

He can hold lumber on site for two or three years without seeing major problems with its quality, he said, but he’d like to move it sooner.

Intermountain Resources is ready for as much work as it can muster, Fishering said. The mill has geared up from a facility able to process 12 million board feet of lumber a year to one that can handle 42 million board feet annually.

The plant employs about 100 people and last year paid out $10 million to independent contractors,  Fishering said.

This year will be better, she said.

“I consider last year to be the bottom,” she said. “We don’t think this year will be a stellar year, but it’s the beginning.”

While the assault on the bark beetle promises a fresh supply of raw material for lumber and related products, the western Colorado industry has another problem entirely. Lumber buyers are scarce because of the global economic slowdown in general and the fall in new-housing starts and other construction.

“We don’t have the markets, and we don’t have the processors at this point,” said Bob Sturtevant, a CSU extension forestry specialist in Fort Collins. “Everything has conspired to make it a problem. Fifteen years ago, we could have moved the wood.”

At a time when forest products are most easily available, market demand is minimal, Troxel said.

“When we need to be doing more work in the forest, we’re saddled with the worst lumber markets since the Great Depression,” Troxel said.

Colorado wood also has to compete against lumber from the forests in Canada, Sturtevant said.

Dumping dead wood

“They have 10 times the number of dead trees and a thriving industry,” he said. “They can move lumber into the United States real quickly. They’re dumping wood on us.”

It doesn’t help that beetle-killed lodgepole bears tell-tale blue marks, called blue stain, which can lessen the value of the product.

Fishering is more optimistic, citing recent sparks of life in new-home starts and other construction.

Federal budget makers also seem more interested in better forest management, Fishering said.

“Oddly, with all issues in Colorado, you’d think supply would not be an issue, but a bank requires you to have more than one year of timber,” Fishering said.

Most of the forest-restoration work he does at the Delta Timber Co. is in the spruce forest, said Eric Sorenson, co-owner of the business with Robert Teal.

“All of it has bugs in it right now,” Sorenson said of the forest. “It’s just unprecedented.”

Things seem to be changing in the business of forest management, Sorenson said.

“It’s starting to be realized that our industry is an important tool for managing the forest responsibly,” Sorenson said.

When he travels to the lodgepole forests in northern Colorado, “the only patches of green I see are the stands we harvested in the ‘80s. Those trees are too young for the bugs to kill.”

One thing that foresters have learned is the necessity of a variety, or mosaic, of ages of trees in the forest, Troxel said.

“Otherwise,” he said, “it’s like having your entire 401(k) invested in Enron.”

Even the millions of federal dollars won’t make much of a dent in the bark-beetle infestation, Sturtevant said. Removing diseased trees near urban areas will cost about $1,000 an acre and $500 to $600 an acre in more rural areas, he said.

“If you do the math,” Sturtevant said, “that $40 million will go fast.”


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