Mountain pine beetle devastated Colorado forests, but deadwood supply presents an opportunity

A logging truck delivers lumber to the Montrose sawmill on July 10, 2013.
Summit Daily File

In recent decades, the mountain pine beetle has devastated one-fifth of all Colorado forests. Summit, Eagle and Grand counties were among the hardest hit, with thousands of acres of forest wiped out. But the opportunity arose out of their ash remains, as local lumber and alternative energy industries were able to make good use of the timber from these devastated forests.

The Colorado State Forest Service has estimated that the mountain pine beetle has killed 3.4 million acres of forest. That’s about 800 million dead trees that will serve as potential fuel for the next wildfire to hit the state.

Ryan McNertney, a forester with the CSFS district of Granby, said the dead trees ironically breathed new life into the living.

“These dead trees,” McNertney said, “provided a large amount of available wood that these local mills used to support their industry which usually came from green or living trees until this epidemic broke out.”

The CSFS estimates that one-third of Colorado’s roughly 100 sawmills use beetle-killed trees to produce wood. This wood is used in a variety of different wood products, such as furniture, flooring, house frames, fences, and as fuel for wood stoves. Wood killed by beetles is of the same quality and just as useful as “live” wood.

“Wood killed by the beetle is good to use,” McNertney said. “Some people see bluing, which is a fungus, as negative, but it has no impact on the structural viability of the wood product.”

Bill Jackson, a Dillon Ranger District ranger, said finding uses for beetle-killed trees encourages the clearing of dead forests, which is essential for forest health and human security.

“Around Summit County,” Jackson said, “we mainly cut trees to create buffer zones around wildfire communities, at the same time to regenerate new forest. “

Molly Pitts, program manager for the Intermountain Forest Association, a lumber industry lobbying organization, said the industry was doing its part to help mitigate the fallout from the outbreak.

“Since the spruce beetle has severely affected over 1.78 million acres of spruce forests in Colorado,” said Pitts, “it is important that we continue to maximize recovery efforts in the area. all over the state before the wood deteriorates and is no longer usable. “

Pitts added that the bounty of deadwood translates into more work and more jobs.

“Colorado’s forest products companies employ or contract 1,200 loggers, truckers and factory workers and manufacture products valued at over $ 86 million annually. Most of the wood currently used has died and has been killed by bark beetles.

There is another interesting use for beetle-killed wood: energy.

“The majority of the lumber from Summit County actually goes to the Gypsum biomass plant,” Jackson said, referring to Gypsum’s Eagle Valley Clean Energy plant. “The plant uses these dead trees and other organic material as fuel to generate electricity for residents of Eagle County.”

However, in a press release announcing the 2017 Colorado Forest Health Report, the CSFS noted that the Colorado lumber industry is not large enough to deal with the overwhelming number of dead trees that must be culled.

“(The) majority of Colorado factories are smaller operations,” the statement noted, “and the state still does not have the timber utilization capacity necessary to fully meet forest management needs.”

The CSFS said it will continue to work with local partners to find ways to use beetle-killed trees as the agency faces the daunting challenge of keeping Colorado’s forests safe and healthy on a budget. constantly decreasing.

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