Sawmills take flight with beetle-killed trees


One of the reasons that bark beetles have spread through forests across the West is because those forests haven’t been managed correctly. When forests aren’t thinned, the beetles have an easy time going from tree to tree.

But the beetle-ravaged trees also need to be harvested, and that has been a boon for some sawmills in the West. Pine from beetle-affected trees is in demand.

The use of beetle-kill pine has…become a popular aesthetic choice utilized for flooring, paneling, or siding applications within modern residences, businesses, and restaurants in recent years. The blue stained hue of the wood that has allured many architects and interior designers alike is caused not by the beetles themselves, but from the fungus that the beetles carry with them.

Tens years after shutting down, a sawmill in Saratoga, Wyo., is up and running again. Eighty people are working at the mill, and 30 loggers are harvesting beetle-ravaged wood from Medicine Bow National Forest nearby.

“Does this look like an old beetle-killed tree to you?” said (sawmill owner Gary Ervin), patting a stack of pine two-by-fours bound together and ready to be forklifted away onto a semitrailer.

“That’s what it is,” he said. “That’s what’s here.”

And without this glut of beetle-killed lodgepole pine, Ervin said, the mill couldn’t have reopened.

The reopened Saratoga mill has hired back experienced crew and is so successful that its product even has its own nickname.

A log at the Saratoga Forest Management sawmill starts as a tree — mostly beetle-killed lodgepole pine — hauled to the mill’s lumberyard on the back of a truck. It is weighed then debarked. Great rotating saws slice each log first into lengths then into two-inch thick planes. Each plane is splayed into boards four inches wide, creating a rough cut of a two-by-four. The boards are stacked and dried in a kiln at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 to 14 hours. Crew members mark each board before sending it through a 12-knife planer to shave away unwanted roughness.

The whole process can take as little as one day to complete, Howe said. The ultimate product is an industry standard two-by-four either 8 or 9 feet long. So far the new “Saratoga straights” have been shipped to Iowa, Texas, Louisiana and California, among other states, Ervin said.

Crews produce 200,000 board feet of pine two-by-fours each day.