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Mountain Pine Beetle: the Blight and the Bounty

If you can’t see it out your backdoor today, chances are, if you live in Colorado’s high country, you soon will. And it isn’t a pretty sight: swaths of dead pine trees scrubbing the skyline with the rusty sheen of a worn-out Brillo pad, formerly verdant forests decimated by the mountain pine beetle.

Forestry officials estimate that the current pine beetle epidemic, which stretches from Canada to New Mexico and covers an area large enough to be seen from space, will have claimed two million acres of Colorado forests by the end of 2009––up 70 percent from 2006. Beyond the obvious threat to tourism (who wants to gaze at a vista full of dead trees on their vacation?) lie myriad health and safety issues associated with the beetles’ relentless march. These include significant risk of catastrophic wildfires, ensuing erosion, and increased global warming due to the release of the massive amounts of carbon that had previously been captured by millions of live trees. All of that is compounded by the fact that the current situation has no end in sight: Global warming has all but eliminated the midwinter deep freezes that have historically staved off pine beetle scourges.

And while politicians, scientists and community members debate the appropriate course of action, a growing number of enterprising individuals see a potential bounty in the blight.

Wood. Good wood. And lots of it.

Ron and Dawna Foxx built their 7,000-square-foot Breckenridge home almost entirely out of beetle-kill pine. Ron says he was frustrated with the costs of building in Summit County, especially when the area was surrounded by so much dead wood, and was sickened to see so much of it going into landfills. After learning that a blue fungus injected into the tree by beetles compromised the tree’s life but not the integrity of the wood, Foxx began milling beetle kill logs in his backyard using a Norwood 2000 sawmill. He got much of the wood for free from neighbors and nearby construction sites. The home’s largest logs came from Hester’s Log and Lumber in Kremmling, which for the last three years has dealt almost exclusively in beetle-kill wood, also known as “blue pine” or “blue stain.”

“We’ve seen a huge increase in people wanting to use beetle kill, because it qualifies as ‘Built Green,’ ” says owner Cindy Hester. (Built Green Colorado is a program of the Home Builders Association of metro Denver designed to promote industry-wide green building practices.) “It’s beautiful, a very stable wood,” and it can be graded for structural purposes, she says.  “It’s aesthetically pleasing to a lot of people. There’s wonderful character in it.”

Jerry Naro, a master woodworker based in Nederland, has been working with blue pine since the pine beetle epidemic of the late 1970s. Naro has crafted custom doors, cabinets, floors and furniture out of beetle kill but notes that blue pine is not for all tastes and applications. “The natural bluing is a thing of beauty to some, while others could care less about it,” he says. “If I ran my shop solely on beetle kill, I’d be out of business.” 

One relatively new application that has Naro particularly excited is a siding product called Windswept, which uses beetle kill wood to replicate century-old barn wood. Homeowners get the look of reclaimed wood without having to incur the costs (both financial and environmental) of trucking in the real thing from, say, Ohio or Pennsylvania. Naro also points out that Windswept is treated with low-VOC sealers, stains and primers, making it even more attractive to eco-conscious consumers. And it qualifies under the Colorado Blue tax credit program instituted by the state as an incentive to build with local beetle kill.

So has blue wood’s green moment finally arrived? Maybe, maybe not. The environmental benefits of using beetle kill seem clear. “It’s growing and dying here. We should use it,” says Chris Jacobson, owner of GreenSpot, a Roaring Fork Valley green building materials supplier. “It’s a way of making good use of a waste product.” Perhaps even more important, the lumber retains all the carbon consumed by the live tree that would otherwise be released were it left to rot in the forest. 

What is less clear, however, is a viable means of harvesting and processing the dead trees on a grand scale. “Just because you have an abundance of a product doesn’t mean you have an avenue for it to be utilized,” says Naro, with an air of having seen it all before.

The issue has turned into something of a political football, with one side advocating for logging roads to be built deep in wilderness areas and another arguing against it. But one thing seems clear: For the time being, for those willing to use it, Colorado is going to have plenty of blue stain pine.

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