In the early 2000s, tree-heavy Colorado suffered an outbreak of mountain pine beetles, decimating some 70% of the lodgepole pine population. In recent years the infestation spread south as far as Mexico, and north through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to reach western Canada, where the current outbreak dwarfs the Colorado infestation. Colorado's loss of tree acreage is in the low millions; it's estimated British Columbia will lose some 44 million acres of pine trees.
The mountain pine beetle typically lays its eggs under the bark of dead pine trees, and historically the bugs' population was kept in check by the winter cold. But as North America has recently had warmer-than-normal winters, the MP beetle's population has exploded. With not enough dead trees to go around, the beetles start laying their eggs into live trees.
When that happens, the live tree becomes infected with a blue fungus that arrests its internal flow of nutrients. Its pine needles turn red, its bark starts to turn grey, the internal wood takes on a bluish tinge, and the tree dies. Here you can see dead trees from literally miles away:
Having huge swaths of prematurely dead trees is bad news. It's a forest fire waiting to happen, and dead trees will release all of that juicy CO2 they've been storing their entire lives. Government forest officials in both the U.S. and Canada have determined the trees must be cut down.
A mandatory influx of millions of logs of surplus wood--sounds great for manufacturers, right? In this day and age of not-enough-wood-to-go-around, you'd think that a huge amount of wood that must be cut down would be a positive. Unfortunately, the problem is getting all that wood. There are significant infrastructure problems. Not all of the afflicted trees are on public or easily-accessed land, and a lack of roads coupled with rising fuel costs make it prohibitively expensive to clear.
Then there's a two-part manufacturing hassle: One, the specific type of pine killed by the beetles—lodgepole—is relatively small-diameter and often cracked by the disease, making it difficult and expensive to mill into useful boards. Two, the U.S. timber industry has been declining for years, with one large sawmill after another shutting down. Today there are only a handful of high-capacity sawmills left. To truck dead trees hundreds of miles to a sawmill that can handle them simply isn't cost-effective, in light of the low manufacturing yields.
"Typically you'll find the material is so low value, doing anything with it beyond a 15-mile radius is problematic," forest scientist Mike Eckhoff told Biomass Magazine. As a result, one "solution" has been to throw the stuff into a wood chipper, and dump the resulting piles into landfill. And unfortunately, that is as affordable as it is shameful.
This disaster notwithstanding, a handful of brave entrepreneurs have been trying to turn the blue pine negative into a positive. Next we'll take a look at what they've been up to.
For more on the Blue Pine Disaster
» A Raw Materials Nightmare, Part 1
» What is Blue Kill Pine Good For?
» What Will the Future Bring for Blue Kill Pine? Canadian Innovation FTW
» How You Can Help As An Individual
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can't wait for the next post on this article.
I was living in CO in the early 2000s and certain parts of the state had ID'ed the beetle as being potentially devastating to the trees and thus creating extreme fire hazards. The state had several dozen logging contractors come in for supervised and controlled harvesting in the troubled spots to help keep the beetle down. It was then that some environmental groups stepped in and threatened to sue the state and DOI/NPS to prevent any harvesting from occurring in natural areas. This last summer with the fires utterly destroying many acres throughout the state, my contacts out west said this destruction is a result of over protection of the land.
There is a lot of truth to this statement - see my reply below.
No offense meant but there is
a tremendous amount of misinformation regarding our beetle killed forests and
the processing of this standing dead timber, so I am going to point out an
inaccuracy here... but first, lest I be unjustly hammered on by the
environmental activist community, let me state that I am what I describe as a 'sustainable
environmentalist' and have long supported intelligent utilization of our local
natural resources since well before environmental activism became popular and
commonplace as we all come to realize that we have limited natural resources
and we should darn well make better and more intelligent use of what we have -
especially in lieu of climate change and a worldwide population explosion that
will, at the least, strain these resources to the maximum.
As the article points
out, there has been a tremendous loss to the USA timber and forestry
industries, and there are a number of reasons for this - but that is perhaps
for later comments, though 2 are valid here.
We have a lot of
timber in Colorado, (though our forest are projected to shrink by about 75% by
2060), and yes, it is small diameter stock located on tough terrain so this
does make it more expensive to process than many other areas, but the most
significant two reasons why there is so little processing of forest products
are; 1.) An extremely active environmental and
conservationist community that is often misinformed because frequently only a
part of the story is told in order to gain support to mount lawsuits to stop
logging, so it costs the forest service’s enormous
amounts of time, resources, and money to fight in court in defense of their
position to thin overcrowded and unhealthy forest areas, and
2.) The enormous importation of
cheap, (often foreign government subsidized), wood products coming into America. We simply cannot compete in a very uneven
In the case of beetle kill
wood, both Pine and Spruce, with combined losses in Colorado of billions of
trees spanning over 8 million acres with a 70-90% tree mortality rate, it is
far more difficult than described with just these two primary conditions...
In short, 4 more major factors
come into play in Colorado… where I live:
1.) Dead trees have cracks and
checks that occur throughout the length, and usually to the center of the tree,
as they dry out on the stump, thus cracked trees = cracked boards, so losses
are high and often more cost is incurred as re-manufacturing is needed to cull
and sort stock to provide good quality lumber products,
2.) In the early 1900's, the
lumber industry determined that blue staining in wood was a defect, and thus a
downgrade in quality and market price. This still holds true today for it
is obvious they have no mind for marketing blue pine for what it is; beautiful, unique, and exotic appearing
Eco-friendly wood that can employ Americans in struggling rural communities
that also helps reduce the cost of our society in the removal of timber to
protect our infrastructure from fire and falling trees while storing carbon
that would otherwise be released to further feed the drought and warming cycle.
55 million acres of British Columbia have been killed by the beetles and the
Canadian government reduced the cost of timber from about $25 per cubic meter
to only $.25 per cubic meter to allow the lumber industry to race through the
forest in massive clear cuts in futile attempts to get ahead of the beetle
swarms and to remove the timber before it developed cracks. This resulted in Canadian beetle kill being
dumped on the USA market at prices below the cost of production in the USA –
and especially at small ‘mom and pop’ mills which cannot compete with mills
that produce millions or hundreds of millions of board feet of lumber. Small mills are all we have left in Colorado
because the forest services can not provide a steady and affordable supply of
timber – even if it all dead. This loops
back to the environmentalist legal actions…
DISCLOSURE: Ten years ago I dedicated my life to the utilization of USA beetle
killed timber and have done thousands of hours of research while educating the
public and operating a business that exclusively provides beetle kill wood
flooring, siding, paneling, trim, mantles, and tops that is all Made in the