Beetle-killed timber presents business opportunities across Colorado Rockies
FRISCO — The mountain pine beetle has devastated one-fifth of Colorado forestland over the past couple of decades, but the lumber and alternative energy industries have been able to make good use of the wood from these blighted forests.
Routt, Eagle, Grand and Summit counties were among the hardest hit, with thousands of acres of forest wiped out. The Colorado State Forest Service estimates the mountain pine beetle epidemic killed 3.4 million acres of forest across the state. That’s about 800 million dead trees that are potential fuel for the next wildfire.
“These dead trees 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,” Granby District forester Ryan McNertney said.
The Colorado Forest Service estimates one-third of Colorado’s roughly 100 sawmills use beetle-killed trees for wood products. The lumber takes on a blue stain caused by a fungus and is used in a variety of wood products, such as furniture, flooring, house frames, fencing material and as fuel for wood-burning stoves.
Mountain Pine Manufacturing, based in Craig, also converts beetle-killed timber into wood strand mulch, which supports revegetation of disturbed soils at highway projects, oil well pads and scorched forests.
Dillon Ranger District forest ranger Bill Jackson said finding uses for the beetle-killed trees encourages clearing of dead timber, which is critical for forest health and human safety.
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.
“It is important that we continue to maximize salvage efforts across the state before the wood deteriorates and is no longer usable,” she said, adding 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,” Pitts said. “The majority of the wood currently being utilized is dead and was killed by bark beetles.”
But the lumber industry in Colorado is not large enough to process the overwhelming number of dead trees that need to be cleared, according to a 2017 report on the Health of Colorado’s Forests.
“The 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.”
But there’s another use for the beetle-killed wood: energy.
Confluence Energy’s wood-processing plant in Kremmling takes the material sawmills and loggers throw away and turns it into a variety of products, including wood pellets that can be used to heat homes.
The plant is capable of producing 80,000 tons of refined material per year, about 30,000 tons of which is used for wood pellets. The rest is used for other products ranging from kitty litter to biodegradable absorption material.
The Colorado Forest Service said it will continue to work with local partners to find ways to make use of beetle-killed trees and improve the health of forest land across the state.