Pine Beetle Timber Boom Prepares To Go Bust

Apr 10, 2015

Operation Manager Hank Lucido and his crew harvesting ponderosa pine in the Roosevelt National Forest.
Credit Melodie Edwards

When you hear the word “boom” in the West, you usually think of the energy industry. But in the last 15 years, there’s been another kind: a timber boom. That’s thanks to the mountain pine beetle, a tiny ravenous bug that’s now chomped its way through over 40 million acres of forest in the U.S., moving north into Canada, expanding its reach as the climate warms.  To clean up all that dead wood, forest managers have turned to the timber industry, leading to a surge in jobs and enterprise. But now, the bugs have almost eaten themselves out of food. The question is, what’s next for the timber industry?

Hank Lucido looks just like a lumberjack stepped out of a fairy tale--the big burly beard, the stocking cap, the boisterous laugh.

“This is a log loader,” he says. “Obviously he’s loading logs. And then he’ll pile brush with it like he did over there.”

Today, the company he manages, West Range Reclamations, is harvesting beetle-killed pines on the Colorado-Wyoming border. Lucido gives a holler and the log loader’s giant metal claw starts grabbing up several logs at a time and stacking them on a logging truck to ship for processing. And boy, do they use every stick.

“With a lot of our byproduct, we grind it up and we make the colored bark mulch,” he says. “Then there are other places, such as dairies and horse barns that like to have wood shavings. We sell that product too.”

And they supply wood for products never before manufactured in the region, like pellets for heating stoves and biofuel for the energy grid. Lucido’s company employs eighteen people on three logging crews. In Wyoming, the number of people employed in the timber industry has increased by 25 percent in the last ten years of the epidemic and, nationwide, it’s nearly doubled. But Lucido says all this work could soon come to a screeching halt. That’s because the quality of the wood available to the industry is deteriorating—fast. Standing next to a pile of wood, Lucido jabs his finger into the pulpy center of one log.

“Some of this, when it gets this red rot to it, if you were to grind that, it would turn to dust. When you go to grab it and it crumbles, it’s not worth anything to us.”    

And it’s not worth anything to other businesses that depend on the wood, either, like Rich Arbour’s. He manufactures rustic furniture and sells it in his store, Mountain Woods in Laramie. He used to sell lots of dining tables and bunk beds made from blue stain, a unique-looking wood made from beetle killed trees. But now?

“Only have one, and it’s a particularly nice piece, and that’s this entertainment center here.”

It’s the only example of the beetle-kill blue stain in his whole store. He runs his fingers down the streaks of reds and blues on the cabinet’s door and explains how they’re made.

“The beetles have infected the wood, the tree is trying to preserve itself, and it’s emitting enzymes. And the enzymes are what makes that color in the wood. It makes for pretty woods.”

He says when the pine beetle was a big deal in the news, people couldn’t get enough of blue stain furniture. But with the epidemic on the decline, he says, “The interest in it has waned, in a big way."

The pine beetle's decline might be bad news for businesses like Arbour’s and for the timber industry. But Wilderness Society Director Greg Aplet says all those falling trees is good news for the health of the forest.

“When a tree dies in a forest, its life is only half over,” Aplet says. “And that’s because dead trees play such an important role. They’re called nurse logs and they help raise the next generation of forest.”

Aplet says that means that the forest will have a harder time recovering if the timber industry harvests too much of the dead wood. Timber Manager Mark Westfahl with the U.S. Forest Service says that won’t happen.

“We usually have some standards that describe how much woody debris needs to be left,” Westfahl says. “We try not to strip it clean.”

And that means, at a certain point, Westfahl have to scale back the number of timber contracts he issues. He says, with fewer and fewer trees left, they’ll have to start weighing the health of the timber industry against the health of the forest.

“How long will we be offering traditional timber sales?” He pauses, considering. “That’s kind of to be seen. It really depends on how long the trees continue to stand.”

He says the Forest Service will do what it can to keep offering timber contracts into the future so the industry can stay in business. But Logger Lucido says he knows its crunch time for the timber industry in the West.

“If we don’t get into this wood in the next five years, it’s going be blown over or burned up,” Lucido says with finality. “And once it falls onto the ground, it’s done.”

The question is whether the many businesses that have built up around the pine beetle clean-up will find a new way to survive into the future.