Head into the mountains of Colorado, Montana, Wyoming or even British Columbia and chances are you’ll see gray interspersed with the green. In some cases, you’ll see giant swaths of land that have been cleared, leaving the mountainside looking like a kid with a bad buzz cut.
The source of this extreme landscaping? The mountain pine beetle.
A native to the forests of western North America, periodic outbreaks of the mountain pine beetle (MPB) can result in losses of millions of trees. Since 2000, this 1/8 to1/3 inch beetle has destroyed 23 million acres of forests in the United States.
An equal opportunity destroyer, mountain pine beetle outbreaks develop without bias in wilderness areas, mountain subdivisions and backyards in–you guessed it–pines. They have a particular appetite for ponderosa, lodgepole, Scotch and limber pine, with bristlecone and pinyon pine less commonly attacked.
During early stages of an outbreak, attacks are limited largely to trees under stress from injury, poor site conditions, fire damage, overcrowding, root disease or old age. However, as beetle populations increase, MPB attacks may involve most large trees in the outbreak area.
Why are the pine beetles attacking now? For several reasons. The beetles have always been here—that’s nothing new. However, due to rising temperatures, the MPB is expanding its territory, growing its population and surviving through the winter when previously, it did not (for freezing temperatures to affect a large number of larvae during the middle of winter, temperatures of at least 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit must be sustained for at least five days).
The MPB is manipulating our mountains and, while there are ways to prevent beetle-kill, we’re still left with millions of acres of that that have to be cut down.
Pressure on Pines
“Over the course of the epidemic, since the late 1990s the mountain pine beetle has affected more than 3.3 million acres in Colorado and has killed primarily lodgepole, ponderosa and limber pines” explains Bob Cain, Forest Entomologist for the Rocky Mountain Region of the USDA Forest.
The pine beetle problem was big news in Colorado about five years ago. At that time, the MPB had already affected much of the mature lodgepole pine stands in Grand, Jackson, Summit, Routt and Eagle Counties (counties that are home to ski resorts like Winter Park, Arapahoe Basin, Aspen and Vail) and had begun affecting the Front Range counties of Bounder and Larimer and, to a lesser extent, Clear Creek and Gilpin.
In recent years, however, mountain pine beetle activity in Colorado has steadily declined. Dying pines were detected on 752,000 acres in 2011 and 264,000 acres in 2012. Preliminary aerial observations in 2013 indicate the currently affected acres continue to decline greatly.
“Although the mountain pine beetle epidemic is no longer making headlines, its effects on mountain communities and public lands will continue for years,” says Cain. “By far the biggest issues everyone faces have to do with the millions of acres with dead trees.”
Though the dead and fallen trees provide wildlife habitat and protection for some species, the dead trees also present a safety issue for those who use the forest for recreation.
“Forest recreationists need to be safety conscious and be aware that dead trees can fall at any time,” Cain cautions. He offers some tips: “Evaluate disbursed or backcountry camping sites, road access and weather conditions and be prepared to cut or move fallen trees when traveling on forest roads. Pay attention to changing weather conditions, especially when accessing the backcountry through bark beetle infested areas.”
It’s not just summer forest recreation opportunities that have seen an impact from the MPB. Ski resorts in Colorado have seen big changes from the MPB infestation—you might need to take a look at the trail map the next time you come up for a powder day.
“Ski resort areas in the state have seen variable levels of damage from mountain pine beetle in northern Colorado, but most have many high elevation runs through spruce and fir forests that remain green,” Cain explains. “Open glade skiing is likely to increase in some areas as dead trees are removed and some areas may need to be temporarily restricted to protect young regenerating forests.”
Beauty from Blight
Though the mountain landscape is changing, emerging from this widespread clear-cutting of diseased and dead trees is beauty. Maybe it’s a form of resilience or simply ingenuity in the face of adversity, but there are people who are taking this beetle kill wood and creating something more lasting and memorable than mulch.
There are two interesting things about the wood left behind by the MPB: beetle-kill timber retains its structural integrity if harvested before the natural decay process begins and the MTB carries a fungus that produces a natural blue stain on the wood when it traverses through the tree.
The result? The acres of trees that have been cut down can be fashioned into skis, snowboards, wood paneling, furniture, iPad covers and more, each with a unique blue tattoo, courtesy of the mountain pine beetle.
The Goods from the Bad and Ugly
Barry Clark started Weston Snowboards in 2012 in Minturn, Colorado; the area around Minturn in the White River National Forest has seen its fair share of beetle-kill.
“I kept seeing all these log trucks coming through town,” Clark says. “It was inspiring because we needed to do something with all of this wood. We can use it for firewood and fuel and other uses, but I always wanted to start a snowboard company. I thought it’d be more meaningful to use it to make snowboards.”
The 2012-2013 snowboards were made from beetle-kill pine and poplar from the Midwest; the 2013-2014 boards will all be made from all Colorado-sourced wood: beetle-kill and dead fall aspen trees.
Clark says the response to Weston’s boards, especially the “Beetle Kill,” an all-mountain board that has a clear base material so that you can see the blue shading from the MPB, has been incredibly positive.
“It almost sounds corny when you say this, but a snowboard is something you have a unique connection to,” Clark explains. “You spend the day with it in a way that you don’t with other stuff. It’s strapped to your feet; you have a connection with that piece of wood. It matters how it’s made.”
Established in 2009, Meier Skis may have started in a garage, but the company has grown quickly, creating a beautiful, high-performance ski that is manufactured in Glenwood Springs, CO from locally harvested aspen wood as well as recycled beetle-kill.
“You can see so much of the pine beetle kill devastation on the mountainsides where we often ski,” Ted Eynon, owner and ASB at Meier Skis, says. “It seemed like a cool idea to try and find a fun way to utilize it and skis seemed to make a lot of sense.”
Meier skis are light, playful and “poppy,” a direct result from the wood that is being crafted into the skis. “It makes for highly sustainable ski construction that is both beautiful and high-performing,” says Eynon. In addition to aesthetics and performance, there’s a continuing ecological and economic benefit for using beetle-kill.
“For starters, it’s very local so we minimize the cost of transporting wood from other countries. This in turn has a huge impact on reducing the carbon footprint of the ski,” Eynon explains. “It also creates local commerce around our forests that have unfortunately been hit hard by the pine beetle, which in turn provides for local forestry based jobs. All of this plays a role in cleaning up our forests and making them healthier while simultaneously reducing danger posed by wildfires.”
But it’s not just sports equipment that’s being created from beetle-kill.
Fancy a beverage? Each and every tap handle from Crazy Mountain Brewing Companyis hand-made from beetle-kill branches. Additionally, every wood piece in the tasting room in Edwards, CO, from the tables and benches to the sampler trays, are made from beetle-kill pine.
For music fans, there’s no need for expensive speakers. Koostik, a Colorado-based company, creates an “un-plugged” amplifier for listening to music on your iPhone® or iPad®. By combining two hemispherical sound amplification chambers with carefully designed sound channels, it achieves natural, energy-free amplification, increasing the volume on your device by two to four times. Made from a variety of wood, the beetle-kill version is great for camping—no plugs required.
Speaking of electronics, if protecting your iPad®, iPhone® or (coming soon) MacBook Air® is of interest, Bad Beetle, based in Montana, makes covers and cases for Apple® accessories from beetle-kill pine. They even dubbed the little buggers, “nature’s graffiti artists” for the unique blue stain they leave behind.
Artifact Uprising, a company based in Denver, creates design-your-own photo products and photo goods from beetle-kill pine. Featuring calendar boards, wood boxes and wood blocks for holding photo prints, all crafted from beetle-kill, Artifact Uprising creates lasting pieces that can hold your lasting memories.
“We’ve found that there are so many people out there who – like us – value products that align with their own gratitude for the outdoors, products that tell a story about its origin, products that tell a story about a new kind of conscious consumerism,” explains Katie Thurmes, co-founder of Artifact Uprising.
These are just a few of the products being made from beetle-kill pine. Wood paneling, wood flooring, lamps, Adirondack chairs and other furniture are being made from the downed trees. In a particularly appropriate turn, it’s also being turned into a type of wood-strand mulch that prevents erosion after forest fires, which are more apt to spread when still-standing beetle-killed trees are present.
For more information about bark beetle conditions in Colorado, visit the USFS Rocky Mountain Region website or contact the local Colorado State Forest Service office or USFS Ranger District Office. Check with local USFS Ranger Districts regarding road conditions or road closures on National Forests.