When completed, a new wood pellet plant in Kremmling will utilize 100,000 to 150,000 tons of dead and dying beetle kill trees a year.
Kremmling Patches of lodgepole pine have been harvested for building materials or firewood for three generations on Jim Ritschard's ranch in Kremmling.
With more than 40 acres of pine on his land, Ritschard saw the supply as endless - suitable to his current needs and with plenty of timber to harvest as a revenue source during his retirement years.
But that supply is dwindling much faster than he expected.
"About 10 years ago, I began to see a lot of trees dying, and a few years later about 50 percent of them were turning red. Three years ago, I had about 95 percent total loss on this small farm," Ritschard said Thursday, during a Bark Beetle Information Task Force meeting in Steamboat Springs.
He told a group of about 50, including loggers, portable saw mill owners, retail lumber suppliers, foresters from the Colorado State Forest Service, Community Agriculture Alliance members and U.S. Forest Service officials, that there is a tremendous amount of timber going to waste on his ranch.
"I'm doing only so much that two men, my partner and I, can do with a chainsaw," he said.
In January, the Forest Service announced that pine beetles killed lodgepole pines covering 500,000 acres in 2007, bringing the total infestation to more than 1.5 million acres - nearly all of Colorado's lodgepole forests.
"We are talking tens of thousands of trees in our area that are dying," said Jeff Becker of Becker Tree Service in Steamboat. "That being said, there doesn't seem to be a local market for the lumber."
Thousands of dead trees are rotting on the stump on Ritschard's ranch. He's been largely unsuccessful in attracting anyone to harvest the trees because of the glut of beetle-kill trees overflowing the timber market.
"The problems we are having is getting rid of the wood once it's cut," said Mike Miller of Rogue Resources, a Steamboat excavating firm that's seen a sharp rise in the number of residential and commercial property owners looking to remove beetle-infested trees.
"The customers want the wood taken down at little or no cost," he said.
As wood sits dead on the stump, cracks spread deeper into the tree, potentially ruining the logs' use as a building material and dampening any potential profit.
Finding a local market
Routt County Cooperative Extension Service Director C.J. Mucklow mediated Thursday's task force meeting. The goal was connecting those with beetle-killed trees with those needing the abundant natural resource.
"We need to find a way to make this connection - local people, local wood," he said. "Let's find a way to get you all together to help reduce the number of dead trees we have out there that could potentially be a fuel source for forest fires in our region."
Sarah Fox, of Fox Construction, said many of her residential and commercial clients have remarked that the blue, beetle-killed wood makes beautiful interior paneling, furniture, trim and other wood products. When beetles attack a tree, they infect it with a fungus that causes the wood to turn partially blue.
"It's truly a beautiful wood, and I think there could be a local market for it, but the price is often more expensive because there are no local sawmills to process it," she said.
Joe Bonn, of J Bonn Wood Products in Steamboat, said two decades of anti-logging sentiment and a subsidized timber industry in Canada closed many large sawmills in Colorado.
Wood products from Steamboat and surrounding areas often are shipped to Wyoming or Canada to be cut before returning to Colorado, which raises the cost of the wood beccause of transportation costs.
Fox and Bonn encouraged any entrepreneurs at the meeting to take the initiative to build a local sawmill to process the wood that is going to waste.
"If we don't take a proactive approach here we are going to lose this material," Bonn said. "Also, the longer the product is dead, the fewer uses we have for it."
Of the 1.25 million acres in the Routt National Forest, about 350,000 of the trees - about 20 percent - are lodgepole pines, according to supervisory forester Andy Cadenhead.
"We didn't have that local timber supply for years and that drove the saw mills out," Cadenhead said. He predicted the timber supply will dry up again, in about five to eight years, after the beetles have eaten themselves out of house and home.
"There is no way to guarantee the long-term (return) for a $12 million investment," he said, referring to his own hypothetical estimate of the cost of a local sawmill.
Fuel to the fire
Mark Mathis said he would rather see healthy, green forests than the open-faced slopes coming to much of the region. But Mathis, the president of Kremmling-based Confluence Energy, is setting aside his preferences and finding a use for beetle-killed trees.
Rising from the ground on the south side of Kremmling, on Colorado Highway 9 near the Colorado River Bridge, Mathis is erecting a $10 million wood-pellet manufacturing plant with co-owner Tom McGarry.
"We are going to be taking whole-log, pine-beetle-killed pine trees and reducing them into a pellet to be used as a heating source," said Mathis. He said the plant will be the only whole-log wood pellet plant operating in the United States.
The Kremmling wood pellet plant won't come close to using up the abundance of dead wood in Colorado's forests, but Mathis said the plant will be good for the local economy and environment.
"We will have about 20 full-time jobs at the plant : and we should be creating another 70 to 75 jobs in trucking and those types of things," he said. "We should bring about $10 million to the local economy here (annually) in fuel and purchasing materials."
Mathis stressed that the environmental impact of burning wood pellets is considered carbon-neutral, because it's a clean-burning fuel and healthy trees are not harvested into the fuel source.
He might receive some federal help. U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs, announced a trio of bills Jan. 31 to help reduce fire and flood damage created by the pine beetle epidemic.
One of the three bills - House Resolution 5216 - amends the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to classify beetle-infected trees as "renewable biomass." The bill encourages incentives for private companies to burn trees for electricity.
Mathis said he's optimistic about the sustainability of his business in Northwest Colorado, despite concerns raised at the Bark Beetle Task Force meeting about boosting the local logging infrastructure with a supply of beetle-killed trees that could last only a decade or so.
"On the stump, this stuff is good for about 12 to 15 years if it doesn't fall over, and we have another five years or 10 years to fulfill the cycle of the beetle kill," he said. "If you had five or ten years on top of 10 to 12 years, you have a 17- to 20-year window of material. It's going to wane, but looking forward to the end of that cycle, we are hoping to have other options for fuels."
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