Whither Dead Trees? The Bark Beetle Summit

What is the role of the timber industry in Colorado? The current mill is on life support. Should we attempt to get back more industry in these tough times, or simply move on to other uses such as biomass? Or just let the material sit in big piles throughout the landscape?

See this story from ABC news.

Beetles that burrow under the bark of trees have killed about 21.5 million acres in the interior West, or more than 33,000 square miles, Tidwell said at a bark beetle summit hosted by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.

The Forest Service estimates about 98,000 trees are falling each day, but government funding can’t keep up with how many trees must be cut to protect watersheds, people and infrastructure.

“We have a true crisis on our hands,” Ritter said….

The troubled Intermountain Resources mill in Montrose, which is in receivership, might process some of the felled trees, but costs of hauling trees cut in the north-central Colorado mountains to southwest Colorado are high.

That has left some logs to sit unused as contractors haul them to nearby private land rather than a faraway mill, said Patrick Donovan of Cordes and Co., the mill’s receiver.

The mill also has had problems making timber contracts with the Forest Service work out as struggles in the housing industry have affected timber prices, he said.

“We’re begging for logs. We’re willing to pay for logs, but we can’t get logs,” Donovan said.

Ritter said the silver lining to the beetle epidemic is looking for economic opportunity that can come from dealing with infested trees.

His summit aimed to set the foundation for how governments, the private sector and nongovernment groups can tackle the hundreds of miles of corridors where dead trees need to be removed, with limited funds.

“Mother Nature bats last. We’re just trying to keep the ball game going into extra innings,” said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.

There’s another piece on the Summit by Bob Berwyn here.

Dixon and others once again addressed the fundamental economic issue associated with treating vast areas of beetle-killed forests, describing how existing market conditions make it a challenge to find value for the timber — especially now, several years into the insect epidemic, as many of the trees are quickly losing their value as timber that could be milled into lumber.

Still, Dixon said the traditional timber market will continue to be part of the solution.

“I think it’s true, we need an integrated market … we can’t lose our traditional market. We have to maintain what we have and be part of the dialogue to encourage new emerging markets … propellants, bioenergy, and biomass,” he said.

The Forest Service is working on statewide stewardship agreement with Colorado that could allow the state to serve as a “general contractor,” to help get around haul costs and address the challenges smaller operators face when it comes to getting bonded for the forest work.

I wonder if we’re seeing the beginning of the “post timber war” era, where people decide what they want to have on a landscape and, if there are byproducts of that use, we all get behind using the material, while building resilient, sustainable local communities. Some of us are the offspring of Depression-era parents who grew up with that old adage “waste not, want not.” Which echoes in the sustainability movement of today. As the Colorado Forest Service cap I have says “local people, local wood.” Or to expand it, local people, local food, local energy, local wood. Sounds like the refrain of a folk song, or perhaps a rap?

17 thoughts on “Whither Dead Trees? The Bark Beetle Summit”

  1. Thanks Sharon, that worked. I wasn’t there for the political speeches – I figured they wouldn’t say much new, but it was interesting to hear Tony talk about the on-the-ground stuff. Also interesting was the fact that the Four Mile Canyon Fire was mentioned several times, even though that burned in an area mostly unaffected by pine beetles. Why are top Forest Service leaders and elected politicians trying to tie together that fire with the the beetle epidemic?

  2. Good question. Off the top of my head, it would have something to do with Colorado’s WUI and the need for homeowners, communities, counties, the states and feds to work together to design ways to protect them from fires, and negative aftermath such as flooding and sedimentation (like the Hayman.)

    There are interrelated issues, in my mind 1) the tree falling on roads, trails and infrastructure problem (BB)(see photo above- we saw about 10 miles just like this in Wyoming), 2) the trees falling right around communities leading to “jackstrawed piles that are difficult to fight fire in” problem (BB) and plain old WUI fuel treatments and other aspects of CWPPs (Community wildfire prevention plans) that is basically the same kind of problem throughout the West- where fire-adapted ecosystems meet houses and community infrastructure. There’s also the question of what do do about watersheds either prior to or post fire or both.

    But if I were to guess, alluding to Four Mile Canyon was acknowledgment that even though we talk about problems 1 and 2 a lot, we can’t forget about 3.

  3. Worthless trees remind me of worthless apples. The owner of each has two choices. Pay more than the end product is worth to turn them into cider, lumber, energy, etc. Or let them rot.

    Private owners of worthless trees and apples let them rot. Public agency owners of worthless trees and apples spend tax dollars turning them into cider, lumber or energy that are worth less than the cost. The reason is simple. The private owner’s financial loss is borne by the owner. The public agency’s loss is borne by taxpayers — the agency employees get paid the same regardless.

    • Spent much time on private ranches in SW, NE, or SE Montana lately Andy? Or any private ranch for that matter? Your post above anwsers my questions perfectly…not one minute. Lots and a lots of timber coming off prviate, non-industrial landowners these days Andy and it’s not for the money.

  4. I see your points, Sharon, but I still think that it’s counterproductive and even a bit misleading to mention bark beetles and the Four Mile Canyon Fire in the same sentence. Maybe I’m hypersensitive, but I feel like it’s being used as a scare tactic.

  5. Bob-I just saw a truly amazing aerial video of the new aerial survey on channel 4 Denver. Unfortunately I can’t find the video on their website; they say it’s an FS video. Perhaps it’s on the web somewhere..

    Here’s a photo from the FS video
    Stunning video shot by the USFS from a helicopter and provided to CBS4 reveals the extensive die-off as far as the eye can see in mountain valleys like Grand and Summit Counties.

    but they did show an interview with Chief Tidwell and summarized it here..

    “You have this emergency concern that we have to deal with,” says Thomas Tidwell, Chief of the USFS. The Chief flew from Washington D.C. to Colorado to be a participant at the governor’s Bark Beetle Summit in Keystone on Monday.

    Stunning video shot by the USFS from a helicopter and provided to CBS4 reveals the extensive die-off as far as the eye can see in mountain valleys like Grand and Summit Counties. Pine trees that should be green have turned grey in death. The red needles of a couple years back have dropped to the ground.

    The epidemic is naturally occurring, explains the chief but he says climate change makes it much worse.

    “We have fire seasons that are longer and when fires do get started the fire behavior is much more intense,” Tidwell said.

    A good example of more intense fire behavior broke out early in September and became known as the Fourmile Fire in Boulder County.

    “You had a very fast moving fire,” recalls Tidwell, “but they were able to get people out.”

    No lives were lost but 169 homes were destroyed by the blaze. It burned mostly on private land involving conifers that were not bug-killed timber.

    “But it’s an example of the conditions we face now throughout the country,” adds the chief.

    Protecting people and property in the beetle kill zone has become a top priority for the service.

    In an exclusive interview with CBS4, Tidwell detailed how fire breaks are being created in mountain communities by removing dead trees. The work can clearly be seen from the helicopter video in places like Grand Lake.

    If fire should break out, it allows suppression efforts to be more effective, says Tidwell.

    “It may be a large fire, but it doesn’t burn the hundreds of homes and we don’t suffer the loss of life,” he adds.

    The threat of falling trees presents other problems. It’s why crews are now busy removing beetle killed trees to make public campgrounds safe along the shoreline of Lake Dillon.

    The service is also targeting dead trees near thousands of miles of forest roads and hundreds of miles of power line right of ways.

    Protecting public safety is an expensive, time consuming job, says the chief. Work started last year in high priority areas and it’s less than 20 percent complete.

    Approximately $40 million has already been spent or committed to the pine beetle mitigation work in Colorado.

  6. What would you like clarification on Sharon? Numerous private land owners are implementing forest management projects on their lands.

    Andy’s statement, “Private owners of worthless trees and apples let them rot.” Typically not true here in Montana…

  7. sorry to be so dense, Smokey but are you saying that private landowners also implement fuel projects and that the trees from those projects are not worthless trees in Montana because mills are buying them?

  8. Yes Sharon…that’s what I’m saying. Is that such a foregin idea?

    And to most ranchers it’s not a fuels project. It’s forest health issue though fuel reduction is also an outcome.

  9. I had a mill manager in Montana tell me last summer that ironically it was the pine beetle that helped them stay in business in the current economic malaise. This was because a lot of private “non-industrial” owners were clearing the dead trees from their lands, and thus the “stumpage” price was low (lotsa supply). However, the private lands have been supplying a disproportionate share of timber for the last 20 years since the USFS backed off, and that source is drying up. Think about it, no private land owner would be selling his timber in the current economic low stumpage price environment UNLESS it was dead.

  10. So Smokey- can you give me a feel for if these ranchers are mostly selling dead trees, as Derek implies? Or what kind of “forest health” treatment are you talking about? Seems to me that you could mean:

    1) thin live ponderosas to help them fight beetles (I would call this “forest health”)
    2) thin live ponderosas that have beetles after they are attacked but before the beetles fly (they are doing this in the Black Hills)(also “forest health”)
    3) take all kinds of dead trees after they are dead (I wouldn’t call this “forest health” )

    1,2 and 3 also provide some fuel treatment. I don’t see a lot of 1 and 2 here in Colorado, probably because of our lack of mills and prevalence of 3. It would just be helpful to know.

  11. Smokey: Last week I sold the 42-acre ranch I owned for the past dozen years. I raised and harvested timber, hay and sheep. I didn’t pay loggers to harvest my trees; they paid me. The trees are “worthless” if I have to pay to have them removed. I’d sooner let them rot. This is not a complicated idea. “Worthless” means what it says — “the benefit is worth less than the cost.”

  12. So they paid you for the logs which in turn they sold to a mill. The logs had value…unless the loggers were operating at a loss. So your arguement that the trees are worthless, particularly in your last post, makes no sense. Or maybe i’m not getting it.

    And when I say ranch I mean 1000+ acres…working ranches. Not hobby ranches.

    Sharon, yes mostly dead and dying LP pine. Some overstocked DF and PP as well to help carry the project. And I’m not getting into a forest service terminology conversation here about “forest health”. Let’s just call it forest management…

  13. Smokey: At the risk of kicking a dead horse . . . I’m making only two points. Point #1: Some trees are worthless; just like some apples are worthless. That means the cost of logging, hauling and milling (or burning for energy) exceeds the value of the products. Point #2: Only government makes a habit of logging worthless trees.

    In regard to what’s it take to be a “working ranch,” half of all American farms are fewer than 99 acres in size, while 85% are fewer than 500 acres. Although many farm owners are two-income families, many small farms can produce substantial income, particularly with high soil productivity and water availability.

    Interior west livestock ranches tend to be large because they are unproductive — too hot and dry in the summer; too cold in the winter. A Kentucky rancher can grow as much beef on 10 acres as an eastern Montana rancher does on 100 acres. My western Oregon farm could easily carry 50 breeding ewes and lambs on 20 acres of pasture, with no imported feedstock. Try doing that in Montana, Idaho or Utah. My Douglas-fir Site Class III woodlot grew timber 3-5 times faster than typical Montana ponderosa pine country.

    Like all farmers, I learned that making a profit means cutting costs to the bone. That’s why I would never pay a logger to cut my timber; if no one wanted to buy it, I either let it keep growing, or, if dead, let it rot (I had no shortage of firewood!).


Leave a Comment