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Rocky Mountain Pine Beetle - The Demise of Lodgepole Pine in Colorado

Traveling through Colorado, the keen observer will note that vast areas of the montane forest are covered with trees that have a reddish, rust-colored tint to the foliage. These reddish colored crowns are evidence of the death of the lodgepole pine forest in Colorado. Populations of the mountain pine beetle have exploded over the last decade and it has not been possible to control this spread through thinning of the timber stands or by spraying.

The mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus monticolae) will attack trees which are more than 3-inches in diameter. They girdle the tree with their boring into the wood and this prevents the lifeblood of the tree from reaching the crown. They are not like the common termite that eats all of the wood nor does this beetle live in the tree for years on end. They spend the winter in the tree bole and leave in June through August as an adult. In heavily infected stands this life cycle continues as the off spring infest neighboring trees.

In Colorado, the winters have been unseasonably warm over the last 10 years. This in return has helped the mountain pine beetle increase its populations and spread over wide areas. Presently there are 1.4 million acres infected by the beetle over a forested area of some 22 million acres in the State of Colorado.

The first “knee jerk” solution to this dilemma is to cut the trees in the infected stands of timber. There are many drawbacks to this solution when one considers the commercial cutting of the dying lodgepole pine.

1) The volume of timber affected is so widespread that commercial operations cannot handle the amount of fiber available.
2) Much of the timber is of small diameter and thus is really pre-commercial timber. A sawmill cannot log and haul loads of logs into the mill which are 4 to 10 inches in diameter. If all of the trees were in a diameter class of 14 to 24 inches, for instance, the sawmill could cut the logs into various lumber products and make money from the expenditure of their capital.
3) During the present recession, the demand for lumber products of all types has decreased precipitously. At the present time most sawmills don’t need yards full of merchantable logs as the markets have dried up.
4) When these trees are attacked, the carry spores of a fungus into the tree which results in blue stain. This staining of the wood is desirable in the West for paneling in a home. However, if a mill is sawing logs for grade lumber, then this blue stain is not desirable.
5) These vast areas of infected timber could be used for pulpwood, but the Intermountain West does not have pulp mills that could use this wood fiber. The wood would have to be shipped to the Pacific Northwest or even to the Lake States at a high shipping rate. The wood in partially to completely dry when it is harvested so a very large load could be placed on a rail car without and concern with weight. The blue stain wood also increases the absorption of chemicals into the wood fiber and this would decrease the time it would take in the digester at the pulp mill.
6) The lodgepole pine would make good posts if they were pressure treated but again we must think of the number of pressure treating plants in the area and the markets available for the finished product.
7) Firewood comes to mind, but this “small potatoes” when one considers the amount of acres affected and the limited market for firewood in the 21st Century.
8) It has been suggested in the State of Colorado that the sales tax be rescinded on products produced from beetle killed lodgepole pine. However, this will probably be reminiscent of the song from the 1960’s, Mona Lisa: it will just lie there and die there!

So what will happen if this dying timber resource is not harvested before it becomes unmerchantable? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that fire will be the final arbiter. Fire has been an ecological factor in the lodgepole pine forests since they first colonized the Intermountain West tens of thousands of years ago. In fact, lodgepole pine depends on fire to maintain its foothold in the mountains. Fire clears out the thick stands of pine and creates factors conducive to the growth of a new stand of timber. The heat from the fire opens the pine cones and a proliferation of seeds will cover the area. This results in “dog hair” stands of pine after a fire which can be in excess of 5,000 stems per acre. Although this life cycle which is dependent of fire was fine thousands of years ago, it is not something that can always be tolerated in modern times with houses and towns being in close proximity to the dying lodgepole pine stands.

As one travels through Colorado, dying and dead lodgepole pine is found in close proximity to towns, business, condos, and homes. One lightning strike or ignition source caused by a careless human will wreak havoc on a very large region of northern Colorado. One only needs to think of the Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire, which took place the same time as the Chicago fire, to know what can happen when a forest fire gets a good start. Another large fire in northwestern Montana and northern Idaho was the 1910 burn which devastated the region in which it took place and spread. When fire hits the region of dying lodgepole pine the news coverage will be great, but at the present time this sleeping monster is mostly unreported except at the local level. The U.S. Forest Service has closed a number of campgrounds at this time due to the fire danger. This should prevent an errant camper from causing a fire but they cannot control lightning hitting a snag or mountain peak.

1) Increased harvest is a “no-brainer” but as mentioned earlier, the markets are limited. When one considers the hauling costs, the sales available are not extremely attractive.
2) Should the state and federal agencies that own much of this timber, pay mill owners and others a fee for taking it from the forest? They can have the timber as an added incentive, but in this way a large forest fire could probably be averted or kept to a minimum. Why is it that this is not an option but fighting a forest fire with millions of dollars is money well spent?
3) When a landowner has noxious weeds on his land, the local governments can have the landowner remove these weeds at his own expense as a public nuisance. Should the local governments compel homeowners to remove this timber from their land and especially around buildings to deter fire spread? This would be considered an action taken for the public good.
4) Some policy must be taken soon as the problem is not going away. Each year more timber dies, it becomes drier and less marketable. Sooner or later nature will take its retribution as it has always done in the past. Do you remember the Yellowstone fire back in the 1990s?

In conclusion I need not reiterate the problem and the imposing danger stalking the mountains of Colorado. What I need to stress is the lack of strong and immediate action by foresters at all levels and local cities and towns in minimizing the danger of fire if they cannot completely eradicate this threat. This treatise is not a call of hysteria but a call for immediate and positive action to remove the fire threat. I am afraid that once again, “after the horse has got out of the barn,” fingers will be pointed at one another as to who was to blame for leaving the barn door open! We don’t need a blue ribbon panel to report on the obvious, we need action for the good of all.

Along the Arkansas River in Colorado, the tamarisk and Russian Olive are using too much water from the river. This deprives the state of water for irrigation, drinking, flushing toilets, car washes and industry. This problem has been studied for a number of years by various agencies but I have yet to see the tamarisk go the way of the bison. It is till there through drought years and years of plenty. Just study it to death and everyone gets a warm, fuzzy feeling that something is being done. With the state of Colorado in the economic doldrums, as are most states, don’t look for any infusion of money to correct any natural resource problems. Maybe we need another study!

When the fires move across northern Colorado, all I can say is “I told you so.”

Clyde Cremer has a BS in Forestry from Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas, and a Masters Degree in Forestry from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, CT.

Western Log Home Supply
869 Industrial Blvd
Pueblo West, Colorado 81007
(719) 547-2135

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Comment by Rita Hickey on June 8, 2009 at 5:00pm
I say we bring back the Civilian Conservation Corps! Unemployed individuals in service to thier country for a year till the economy picks back up. Take some of that stimulus money, work alongside the Forest Svc., BLM and even private fire contractors. There are lots of loggers and forest industry persons in the west that have vast knowledge, and since the mill left town, no job. Could work for everybody.
Comment by Wes on June 8, 2009 at 4:16pm

Not just Colorado, but much of the Rocky Mountain complex is infested with pine bark beetle. On the north slope of the Uinta Mtns where we are building our cabin I would venture to say that a fifth or a quarter of all lodgepole pine are infested.

As part of my 'mitigation' for building our log cabin I have chosen to plant Blue spruce, Douglas fir, and Austrian pine as replacement species for the lodgepole I am taking out. Although this is only a small-scale project when compared to millions of acres that need attending.

Like you noted: Commercial operations could not even begin to put a dent in the problem, sawmills don't want to mess with the small stuff. Air spraying has been ruled out due to its potential environmental impacts.

The only thing that could possibly kill the beetle is -20 degrees for at least a week. But with climate change this seems unlikly to occur.

One option that you have not addressed is controlled burns. Conducting these operations in late fall or early spring may be an option to consider. Not only would it reduce the fire hazard associated with dead standing trees, but it would induce new lodgepole growth. The EPA has approved controlled burns as a preemptive method to reduce air pollution that would be associated with wildfires.

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