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Forest restoration project could bolster timber industry

Creative solutions sought for small, damaged trees in Southwest Colorado
Carmen Fernandez splits aspen logs at Aspen Wood Products in Mancos. Aspen Wood Products took over the former Western Excelsior plant after it burned in 2017. Aspen Wood Products manufactures raw materials from wood needed for things such as erosion-control products and air-conditioner pads. The Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative is interested in working with businesses that can make wood products out of the timber that needs to be removed from the forest to improve the forest’s health and prevent wildfires.

A new project to improve the health of 750,000 acres of forest in Southwest Colorado could open new opportunities for the timber industry to harvest more wood and use it in nontraditional ways.

The Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative is projected to cost $50 million to mitigate wildfire risk and improve the health of the ecosystem through prescribed burning, forest thinning, logging and other strategies, said Reid Armstrong, communications project manager for the initiative. The project could receive funding through grants, nonprofit fundraising, the operating funds of governmental agencies and nonprofits, among other sources, she said.

Decades of fire suppression have left the forests across Southwest Colorado and much of the West overgrown and susceptible to catastrophic wildfires and beetles that can kill vast numbers of trees. The project is expected to include all the vegetation on the landscape, including species that aren’t necessarily a focus of mitigation, such as aspen, she said.

The initiative, a collaboration of 30 organizations, is expected to work across public, state and private land over 10 years to improve the resiliency of forest along the U.S. Highway 160 corridor east and west of Durango.

Businesses will be valuable partners in the initiative and could help come up with a model for using the wood harvested from the forest that could be economically sustainable long term, said Ellen Roberts, a former state senator and a member of the initiative’s steering committing.

Aspen Wood Products in Mancos manufactures aspen trees from the San Juan National Forest into excelsior that can be used by other companies. Logging aspen trees helps regenerate groves.

How to make forest thinning economically sustainable is “the big question in the entire western U.S. Everybody is trying to figure it out,” she said.

But Southwest Colorado is already using timber typically considered worthless in innovative ways, and she expects more small businesses could help lead the charge to find new uses for challenging timber, particularly trees and branches that are 10 inches in diameter or less and don’t have commercial value in traditional markets, she said.

If the area can find a way to manufacture products from the small-diameter timber, it could help inform how forests are managed across the state, Armstrong said.

Southwest Colorado was chosen as the focus for the initiative in part because some small businesses are already pursuing creative solutions.

J.R. Ford, owner of several timber businesses in Pagosa Springs, is building a facility to produce biochar, a product made from timber burned at very low temperatures that can be used as a soil amendment. The biochar is extremely porous, so it can absorb water and release it slowly and improve the natural biome in the soil.

“It creates housing and home condo projects for microbes,” he said.

The biochar can be made out of small-diameter timber and branches that still have their needles attached.

David Sitton, one of the owners of Aspen Wood Products, examines the raw material his company makes for use in air-conditioner pads and erosion-control materials. The Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative would like to develop relationships with private industry to develop markets for products that could be made of wood that must be removed from the forest. Thinning aspen trees helps them to regenerate.

Ford said he expects to break ground on the new facility that will make charcoal briquettes and biochar this year. The plant could be making biochar by the end of the year.

The large stands of beetle-killed trees in Colorado also pose a challenge because the timber is traditionally considered trash by the timber industry, said David Sitton, co-owner of Aspen Wood Products and Aspen Wall Wood in Montezuma County.

However, companies in Southwest Colorado are using it as decorative paneling and cross-laminated timber, a form of manufactured wood panels made by gluing three layers of wood, with the layers oriented perpendicular to adjacent layers, Roberts said.

Aspen Wall Wood produces decorative paneling from the timber and ships it nationally and internationally, Sitton said. The combination of tree species dying and the type of beetle causing the deaths in this area produce a particularly desirable blue stain that has proved marketable, he said.

If the Forest Service stays committed to timber sales, he expects the industry will grow in the area.

Rodolfo Murillo, center, works in Aspen Wood Products, which occupies the former Western Excelsior plant in Mancos. Aspen Wood Products makes the raw materials needed for products used for erosion-control and air-conditioning pads.

“I would suspect that there will be competition and interest,” he said.

Kyle Hanson and Andy Hawk, owners of Timber Age Systems, are working on building a local market for cross-laminated timber they plan to manufacture, which is typically used in commercial buildings. But they expect the best local use for it will be in residential homes, they said.

The growth of the timber industry could also support more jobs, such as foresters, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, electricians and other positions requiring special training, Roberts said. She has started talking with local high schools and Pueblo Community College about what they would need to help prepare students for those roles. Preparing skilled labor is particularly important since many in the timber industry are approaching retirement age, she said.

“We’re at the beginning of pulling the partners together and integrating seamless pathways for young people to seek careers in the Southwest,” she said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

This story has been updated to correct the status of the funding for the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative. The initiative has not been funded. But partners participating in the collaborative expect the project will cost $50 million.

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