Someone asked me recently, since we had all these dead and dying trees around, why a board costs so much at the local lumberyard? There is no quick and simple answer to this question. This article will briefly explore the issue of wood use in Colorado, and in the process perhaps answer the question about that expensive board.
Colorado has never been a significant wood producer, partially because of our relatively dry climate and because we harvest so little of our net annual growth. Our forests in the state currently grow about 1.4 billion board feet per year. Coincidentally, Colorado residents consume about one billion board feet per year. Colorado produces between seventy and eighty million board feet a year, less than ten percent of our consumption. A single board foot is a standard measure of wood that is the equivalent of a board 12 inches by 12 inches and 1 inch thick. As noted, most of this wood we consume comes from outside the state. In fact, the United States as a whole is now a net importer of wood.
So why does Colorado produce so little of the wood it uses? At least part of the reason is because we have very little timber industry left in the state. Because the majority of the forested land base is on federal lands, the industry traditionally has relied heavily on timber from those lands. The U.S. Forest Service drastically reduced its harvesting in Colorado in the mid-nineteen-eighties, largely due to a loss of public support for harvesting on public lands. At the same time, private landowners often were reluctant to manage their forested lands. Without a supply of timber, the industry withered.
Another factor affecting Colorado's forest industry is competition from the global economy. Wood produced in Colorado competes with wood from places as far as Siberia; places that often have less stringent environmental regulations and with lower labor costs and standards. Finally, structural lumber must be graded. Architects, builders and retail lumber suppliers, through preference and custom, heavily favor Douglas-fir lumber to our local lodgepole pine. Lodgepole pine lumber is not as preferred as Douglas-fir, but it is a perfectly good wood for most applications. Wood that has been grade stamped meets an established structural standard, regardless of species. Grade-stamped lodgepole lumber produced in Colorado often is sold outside the state.
The historic and dramatic mountain pine beetle epidemic, in combination with high fuel costs, may be causing a heightened public consciousness regarding the environmental, social and economic advantages of using locally produced wood as well as an increased understanding of the importance of forest management. Portable sawmills provide landowners the option of sawing lumber on their lands, and a number of landowners have built houses and other structures from beetle-killed lumber produced off their land. The objectives of the ongoing workshop series, "Local People, Local Wood," include connecting local wood producers with local wood consumers and providing information to the public as to the beauty, functionality and environmental advantages of using our local wood.
Buying wood harvested locally and milled by our neighbors isn't just an environmentally good thing to do, it might just mean that the board you buy from a local producer will be significantly less expensive than the same board that was shipped from British Columbia.
John Twitchell works for the Colorado State Forest Service.