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As Colorado’s pine beetle fades, what’s next for the timber industry?

Pests began their devastating march through forests about 15 years ago
Blue-stain pine that was delivered to Aspen Wall Wood for processing. So-called blue-stain ponderosa features blue-gray streaking, with occasional highlights of yellow, purple and red. The coloration is caused by a fungus that comes with an invasion of pine beetles. (The Journal file)

Colorado’s forests have been waging a losing battle against tree-killing beetles for more than 15 years. Now, after marching across the state and killing millions of acres of pine forest, the burrowing, fungus-spreading mountain pine beetles are slowly losing steam.

While other beetles have thrived in Colorado’s drought-ravaged mountains, the mountain pine beetles have reigned as the state’s most nefarious pest. But the mountain pine beetle epidemic was always going to end, as there are only so many ponderosa and lodgepole trees in the 3.3 million acres affected by the tree-killing insects in Colorado.

And with that decline, a timber industry that has thrived on a once seemingly endless flow of dead pine trees is transitioning to new types of timber and logging.

This also means the end is near for the coveted blue-stained wood the pests leave behind. They spread a fungus in trees, leaving a distinctive blue hue that has made beetle-kill lodgepole a high-value wood for cabinetry, paneling and trim work.

David Sitton’s Aspen Wall Wood mill in Dolores transitioned from pure aspen paneling to mostly beetle kill almost 20 years ago. Now he’s preparing to transition back.

“That blue stain, it will be a relic at some point,” said Sitton, who bought the Aspen Wall Wood mill in 2016.

Blue-stain ponderosa pine is in demand because of the coloration caused by beetles and the fungus that follows their invasion. (Courtesy of Aspen Wall Wood)
‘Compounding disturbances’

The march of mountain pine beetles through Colorado’s forests changed the composition of the state’s woodlands. Aspen, spruce and Douglas fir have thrived in areas where beetle-kill lodgepole was harvested by loggers who supported sawmills like Sitton’s. It’s not likely the state will see a resurgence of lodgepole anytime soon.

A lodgepole pine typically begins dropping cones to seed a new generation of trees after about 15 years of growth. The Cameron Peak and East Troublesome wildfires last fall scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of about 15-year-old lodgepole, just as the young trees were ready to begin reproducing.

That’s what scientists call “compounding disturbances.”

“Those fires, that was a double whammy for lodgepole,” said Brett Wolk, assistant director of Colorado State University’s Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. “It’s not an extinct species, but the decline in lodgepole is accelerating the change in our forests. It’s just another indication of climate change and compounding disturbances and how things are happening quicker than we ever anticipated. Everything is changing a lot faster.”

Workers process lodgepole pine trees into lumber and other lumber products at the Montrose sawmill in 2010. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun file)

A sawmill’s proximity to an outbreak largely determines the profitability of logging, transporting and milling the salvaged trees.

The longer a dead lodgepole or spruce stands unharvested, the less viable it becomes for lumber. After a decade or so, the standing dead trees start to rot, making them likely to break when they are logged, de-limbed, loaded onto trucks or processed at sawmills. A lodgepole can last longer, but spruce tends to spiral-crack after several years, making it useless for lumber.

The breakage makes salvaged timber less valuable, as logging companies and timber mills get less usable wood per acre. But new acres are being affected by a host of insects that flourish in drought conditions.

“I’m not sure we will ever run out of beetle kill, really,” said Molly Pitts, executive director of the Colorado Timber Association, which has 56 members, including loggers, sawmills, truckers and other companies. “We just won’t see it in that volume we had before.”

Stands of beetle-killed Engelmann spruce cover a mountainside near Wolf Creek Pass in 2015. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Some sawmills are phasing out mountain pine beetle-kill production and transitioning to more live trees. But there are a few years of other beetle kill left. The spruce beetle is continuing its more constrained but still deleterious sweep across southern Colorado. Spruce beetles have killed about 1.9 million acres of trees since 2000, affecting about 41% of the state’s spruce and fir forests.

But the number of trees killed by the spruce beetle in Colorado has been declining for the past five years. The damage is still evident, though. Engelmann spruce trees in the Rio Grande and San Juan national forests – fighting through a sustained, 20-year drought – are under attack by spruce beetles, making the insect a top priority for state and federal forest guardians. The spruce beetle affected 25,000 new acres of Engelmann in Colorado in 2019. And in recent years, the roundheaded pine beetle has been attacking the region’s ponderosa pines, impacting 22,000 acres in 2019.

The exceptionally dry winter will likely spike beetle kill in southern Colorado this summer, Pitts said.

“We anticipate quite an uptick in beetle outbreaks down there,” she said.

Lodgepole pine trees are unloaded for processing at the Montrose sawmill in 2010. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun file)

The Montrose Forest Products sawmill in 2018 announced a $21 million upgrade so it could process as much as 20 million more board feet a year of ponderosa pine from the San Juan National Forest. The sawmill, which has traditionally produced studs, beams and structural lumber for framing houses, is moving away from beetle kill.

The beetle-kill lodgepole from north of Interstate 70, as well as dead spruce in the Rio Grande and Gunnison national forests, “is just not economical anymore,” said Tim Kyllo, resource forester for Montrose Forest Products, noting his mill’s distance from impacted forests as well as the increasingly fragility of long-dead trees.

The state has moved from the epidemic stage of beetle infestation – where large numbers of trees were being killed across pretty much the entire state – to an endemic stage, where the pests are still killing, but at a slower rate and in smaller geographic areas.

The Montrose sawmill is expanding into harvesting and processing green timber off federal land. The mill’s $21 million, 2-year-old planer can cut up to 44 million board feet of logs every year. In the past decade, almost all those trees would be beetle-kill Engelmann spruce, lodgepole and subalpine fir, all cut into structural boards. The new planer will cut more ponderosa pine – harvested live, not salvaged – into 1-inch boards for nonstructural uses like trim, cabinets and decking.

“We knew there would be a shelf life for dead timber. Had the beetle continued moving in the epidemic stage, we would still be involved in that salvage work, but now there’s nothing in it,” said Kyllo, who has five logging crews working in San Juan, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison and Rio Grande national forests, all but one harvesting live trees.

Impacts on the timber industry

Beetle-ravaged trees fed an industry that is slowing and adjusting business plans as the beetles wane.

The Forest Service is focused on forest health, and thinning forests is a critical tool in lessening the severity and spread of wildfire while increasing the diversity of tree species. Most logging in Colorado is done on federal land, so the state’s timber industry relies largely on federal logging contracts and timber sales to operate. Those contracts ebb and flow in changing political climates. In other areas of the country, like the South, timber is harvested from private land in fertile areas where trees grow faster.

So as lumber prices explode this year under record demand for new homes and a pandemic-slashed labor pool, it makes more sense to build new sawmills – or open dormant mills – down South.

“It can be risky to build a new facility in Colorado,” Kyllo said.

“There may be a desire to expand right now ... but capital investment in mills is expensive and you are not going to build a new sawmill based on what is being offered in this state,” the timber association’s Pitts said.

The Forest Service’s aggressive clear-cutting of beetle kill, in addition to burning and thinning forests to slow the pests, has reduced the flow of blue-stained wood, but Dolores sawmill owner Sitton still expects five, maybe even 10 more years of supply.

If he had to transport beetle-kill across the state, though, he would be cutting the blue stain from Aspen Wall Wood’s offerings. (The spruce and roundheaded beetles do not leave spruce stained blue like lodgepole killed by mountain pine beetles.)

Freshly milled and finished lumber sits ready for transport at the Montrose sawmill in 2010. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun file)

When he cuts trees into 1-inch boards, he creates a decent amount of waste, usually 20% to 30% of the tree.

“Being right here, so close to the trees, we can afford that waste factor. We could not if we had to add freight to the equation,” he said.

The beetle epidemic has been calamitous for Colorado’s forests, but Sitton sees an upside, beyond his ability to expand his business on the dead timber.

“It’s devastating to see the impacts of the beetles, but the flip side is that they have put more focus on forest health,” he said. “So there is a silver lining in there. And a blue one, too, I guess, right?”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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