Impact of bark beetles is deeper than just dead trees

2013-12-12 Ashley Bach

The bark beetle epidemic that has spread across the West in the last 17 years is unmistakable. Forty-six million acres of forests in the U.S. have been affected. In British Columbia, 576,000 acre feet of trees have been killed, which is the same amount of timber that's harvested over a normal 10-year period in B.C.

But the impact of the epidemic is complex. In B.C., two large timber companies recently announced they were closing sawmills because the beetles had decimated the timber supply. But smaller sawmill operations in the American West are actually taking advantage of the beetle-ravaged wood and making money.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said last month that it's funding a $10 million study to convert beetle-ravaged timber into liquid biofuel. And despite all the devastation, recent studies out of Colorado and Wyoming suggest that beetle-affected forests recover faster than experts thought.

The Sky-Hi News, a paper in Grand County west of Denver, set out to take a deeper, more nuanced look at the impact of the bark beetle in Colorado's High Country. The paper's 3-part series this month (the last part is still to be published) shows that the beetle kill has had widespread negative impacts but also some silver linings.

The second part of the series explores how Colorado's timber industry is struggling to harvest the plethora of beetle-ravaged timber and find some financial benefit. This is partly because of a lack of sawmills. Colorado's timber industry was hit harder than other states decades ago and can't bounce back because the vast majority of the harvestable forestland is owned by the federal government.

(P)rivate supplies only account for a small fraction of Colorado’s salvageable beetle timber, and those supplies are running out. Even small mills now need the U.S. Forest Service to source them with lumber sales to keep their businesses going. The sales need to be repackaged and smaller so these mills can afford them.

“The local community, in the past, has logged a lot of the private lands,” said Dave Fiala, owner of Colorado Timber Resources LLC, a Parshall-based stud mill that opened last June. “In the next few years, we need the federal land to open up and release timber sales.”

The first part of the series is more hopeful. The beetle kill, which makes forests much more suspectible to fire, and along with a string of record wildfires has spurred High Country residents to become more proactive about clearing their land, the story says. Local, state and federal leaders have created financial incentives to convince residents to clear brush and create defensible space from fire.

High Country dwellers aren’t new to making sacrifices in order to live among the forests and mountains they love. It often means heavy snow, subzero temperatures and slick mountain passes in the winter. For some, it means finding elusive seasonal work and scraping by during the shoulder season. And now, for most, it will mean taking a proactive stance toward forestry — property by property, neighborhood by neighborhood, and community by community.

In one project, the U.S. Forest Service teamed up with the Denver Water Department and Winter Park, a small mountain town west of Denver, to clear 400 acres of timber - both beetle-killed and green. If the trees had caught fire, they would have threatened Winter Park and a key watershed for Denver's water supply.

(A)ccording to (Craig Magwire, a district ranger with the U.S. Forest Service), this renewed interest in inter-agency cooperation and proactive forest management came as a result of the bark beetle’s sweep.

“The pine beetle epidemic has heightened people’s interest in good forest management,” he said. “We’re (now) at the right place for trying to reduce the potential threat of wildfire on watersheds and communities.”

But for wildfire treatments to be effective into the future, public interest must remain high in active forest management, which includes thinning stands, reducing fuel loads and removing hazardous trees.

“I think the real question for our community and society is, will we continue to be able to support the forest management necessary to be able to achieve that?” Magwire said. “It’s not something you do in a decade. Or two decades. You have to continue working at keeping your forests diverse.”