Beetle Infestation Helps Open Shuttered Saw Mills

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Saw mills are re-opening in Colorado and Wyoming after a long lull in the timber industry. They're harvesting and processing trees that have been killed by beetle infestation. Beetle killed wood is just as strong as regular wood.

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In Colorado and Wyoming, sawmills are reopening after a decade of being shuttered. They're harvesting and processing trees that have been killed by a beetle infestation. Many of those trees are still suitable for lumber.

Wyoming Public Radio's Rebecca Martinez reports that this up tick in the timber business is helping with forest fire management.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE FIRING UP)

REBECCA MARTINEZ, BYLINE: On a densely wooded slope of Elk Mountain in southern Wyoming, a huge logging machine sets about clear-cutting a stand of lodgepole pine and fir trees. It has an enormous mechanical arm, wielding a claw and a circular saw. In a few smooth motions, it slices through several trees a few stories high, gently lifts them, and places them in a tidy bunch. This device that fells and bunches trees is called a feller-buncher.

JOSH VAN VLACK: The equipment that the loggers use is very expensive, and just the labor that goes into it. If it weren't for having the saw mills in the area, we wouldn't be able to do hardly any forest management.

MARTINEZ: Josh Van Vlack is with the Wyoming State Forestry Division. He says the area's new saw mill, Saratoga Forest Management, makes it possible to clear out hundreds of acres of beetle-killed wood. The company sells the wood in the form of two-by-fours and wood chips and the Forestry Division gets help clearing out swaths of dense forest. Van Vlack points out that half of this forest is already dead.

VLACK: The mountain pine beetle has attacked the lodgepole pine and the Ponderosa pine at a pretty much landscape scale.

MARTINEZ: The region has seen serious wildfires spreading in recent years that have threatened cities and taken lives. Foresters blame poor management over the last century. Historically, extinguishing fires was the priority, which allowed forests to grow denser. Then, in reaction to over-harvesting, environmental restrictions drastically limited timber sales.

Brian Ferebee, with the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region, added that these factors have enabled a feeding frenzy among native bark beetles.

BRIAN FEREBEE: The host beetles have just taken advantage of a combination of climate change, drought and the lack of vegetation treatment across the landscape, and has really spread.

MARTINEZ: To make matters worse, competition from Canada and a weak domestic construction market forced many regional sawmills out of business in the early 2000s.

This January, one of the biggest saw mills in the region came back to life. Clint Georg is one of the owners of Saratoga Forest Management. He says once you eliminate fire and harvesting.

CLINT GEORG: What you end up with is densely spaced forest, where the trees are competing for nutrients. And therefore they're susceptible to disease, they're susceptible to insects, they're susceptible to fires.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW WHIRRING)

MARTINEZ: The rash of beetle kill and rapidly spreading wildfires were game changers for the timber industry. Last year, the forest service sold off nearly four times as much timber as it had in 2000. They're selling marketable timber to sawmills, and hiring loggers to strategically cut down the less valuable but more dangerous stuff.

Saw mills benefit, because beetle killed wood is just as strong as regular wood. And Saratoga's Clint Georg says federal, state, and private forest managers are happy because thinning wooded areas can also improve forest health, much like fire did naturally.

GEORG: When we harvest, it opens us the forest floor. The seeds now that are dropped during the process, the pinecones open up, the seeds start to regenerate, and you have a regeneration of the forest.

MARTINEZ: Saratoga Forest Management is processing about 25 million feet of logs per year. Owners say that if more timber becomes available, the mill could handle three times that much, removing even more fuel from the regional forests.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Martinez in Laramie.

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