Steamboat Springs The rise of the bark beetle epidemic just as the housing market was beginning to take a turn for the worse was a confluence of bad luck for the timber market and, by extension, Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
The forest suddenly was full of dead lodgepole pines that needed harvesting before they fell and began to deteriorate, but the slow in home construction reduced the demand for lumber and squeezed the sawmills that would otherwise be bidding on timber sales.
“Without a viable timber industry we kind of lose a tool,” said Mark Cahur, of the U.S. Forest Service.
Cahur, who is a forester in the Routt National Forest, said the timber sales help the Forest Service reach land management goals and put money back into the forest.
“If the industry is coming back — and it appears that it is — that’s great,” Cahur said. “It gives us an opportunity to get some use” from the trees.
The housing drop off and the resulting lack of lumber demand pushed some sawmills to the brink, and others shut down entirely.
Now, building permits are on the rise again and, despite a recent slowdown, news about housing starts also has been positive. Even secondary indicators are looking up; Home Depot’s share price has seen a 50 percent increase in the past year, for example.
“What we’re hearing is that housing starts are up, which has increased the demand for lumber,” said Mark Westfahl, timber program manager for Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
In response, the sawmills are stepping up production or coming back online.
“They’re producing what they can, and they’re finding a buyer for all of their material,” he said.
The demand for lumber was outpacing what was available earlier this year, driving up lumber futures.
A mill in Saratoga, Wyo., reopened earlier this year. A mill in Parshall opened last year.
Montrose Forest Products bought a timber sale in the Hahn’s Peak-Bears Ears Ranger District of the Routt National Forest earlier this year after it was on the edge of bankruptcy before being bought by a Wyoming firm last fall.
The increased mill activity has been reflected in falling lumber futures as prices can be expected to drop as supply catches up with demand.
The market for Routt National Forest timber is in some ways very local.
“I think it’s a little more locally driven as to the infrastructure, as to where the mills are at,” Westfahl said.
The number of working mills determines the interest in timber sales. But once the timber is cut, it can end up anywhere across the nation.
Westfahl said he knows a company that during the downturn was loading logs on rail cars and shipping them elsewhere rather than milling the lumber itself. Now that there’s more demand, the company will mill its own lumber but retain the additional revenue stream. Dimensional lumber, once cut, will be sold to wherever the demand is, Westfahl said.
The Hahn’s Peak-Bears Ears Ranger District has a sale in the bidding process and one more planned to go out for bid later this summer.
Montrose Forest Products should be starting operations soon in Routt National Forest, Cahur said, and hopes to have half the sale logged this summer. However, some operations can last between three and five years.
“The best case for us and for forest users is that these timber companies get in and get out quickly,” Cahur said. “Then on to post-sale work.”
“The post-sale work almost starts in the pre-sale work,” he said about the process of encouraging regrowth.
The Forest Service has benchmarks it needs to hit at intervals up to five years. If, by that time, natural regeneration isn’t at an acceptable level, the Forest Service steps in with manual regrowth work.
“A great thing for people to know is we’re just not there for the timber,” Cahur said. “The best thing about a timber sale is that we’re getting money for the products as opposed to paying someone for fuels reduction. The timber sales are really the way to address the fuels problem.”
The fuels problem is the number of dead, dry trees still standing across Routt National Forest that pose a fire danger. Instead of drawing on Forest Service resources to mitigate the problem, timber sales let money flow back into the forest.
“That money comes back into the forest to be used in that sale area,” Westfahl said.
Part of the sales goes into the salvage fund, which goes toward preparing more sales, and part goes into a fund dedicated to post-sale work.
It’s somewhat of a race to get productive use from the trees before they fall and start to deteriorate, becoming unusable for some products. Lodgepole pine can stand for longer than 10 years after they die, according to Westfahl and Cahur.
Other uses such as biomass and pellets can handle more decay, and a pellet plant in Kremmling has a long-term stewardship contract for some areas in Routt National Forest.
There’s a small market for posts and poles and a little demand for housing logs, according to Westfahl, but the major market is 2-by-4s to be used in construction.
“One of the harder things to overcome is people believe the bluestain was a structural problem,” Cahur said about the fungus that kills lodgepole pines after the mountain pine beetle has infected them. “And it’s not.”
There’s even a small market for the interesting pattern it creates in the wood.
“Last year, we only sold about 36,860” hundred cubic feet of wood across Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, Westfahl said. “This year, we’re looking to sell 70,000 ccf.”
“We’re hoping and anticipating for more competition,” Cahur said about upcoming sales in Routt National Forest. “That’s where we are going.”
To Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com