A positive economic side to Colorado’s beetle problem   

An inside view of the sawmill

Various species of bark beetles have killed more than 800 million trees in Colorado since 1996,  according to the Colorado Forest Service. 3.4 million acres of lodge pole pine have been killed by mountain pine beetles. 1.8 million acres of Englemann spruce trees have been infested by spruce beetles, and a new infestation of round head beetles are feasting on the bark of Ponderosa pines in San Juan National Forest. 

There is something of an economic upside to the problem, though. Beetle-killed timber products provide 90 percent of Montrose Forest Products raw material. 

Montrose Forest Products is a logging, milling, and forest management company, which operates a sawmill at 11925 6530 Rd, in Montrose. The company makes 2X4 and 2X6 studs, and boards. It was acquired by Neiman Enterprises in 2012. 

Norm Bircher recently represented the company in a presentation to the Wednesday morning Forum at Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli, in Montrose. Bircher talked about the current condition of our forests, upgrades at the saw mill to better utilize beetle-killed trees, and a new $20 million planing mill to be built at Montrose Forest Products this year. 

Bircher is a professional forester who has 40 years in forest management, including logging, sawing, and specialty forest products. 

“When we talk about forest health, and we talk about 800 million trees dead, sometimes we get a little paranoid,” he said. “But, even though the beetles are out there, we have ways to deal with them, and sometimes we just have to suffer through it.” 

Bircher began with the species of bark beetle that has been the biggest trouble-maker. “Let’s start with the spruce beetle because that is the one that’s most active in the state, and currently affecting the timber supply for the mills in Colorado. In 2018, 178,000 acres were affected, and these numbers come from the most recent Forest Health Report, in the Colorado State Forest Service. Every year, they fly over the state’s 23 million acres of forest land, and map it from the air. What a tedious task that must be!” 

Bircher explained the history of the problem. “Two things probably stand out to us. First, about 40 percent of the high-elevation spruce and fir trees have been affected by this epidemic. The epidemic was started by a blow-down event in the San Juan National Forest Weminuche Wilderness Area, to the south of us, right at the time we had that 2001-2002 extended drought.” Most of the trees in that area were old, stressed, and “really good beetle food.” The beetles spread from there, and infested large acreages. 

The epidemic peaked in 2014, and is on the decline. according to Bircher. 

As for the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic, Bircher said “This one has pretty much run its course.” Less than 500 acres were affected last year. 3.4 million acres were affected in total. 

The Douglas Fir Beetle is still a problem. “About ten thousand acres around the state were infected last year.” 120,000 acres have been affected to date in the epidemic. “Doug Fir is not a major component of our timber supply here,” according to the forester. 

An infestation of Roundheaded Pine Beetles has begun in an overcrowded 90,000 acres of the San Juan National Forest, near Dolores and Dove Creek. “It’s almost pure Ponderosa Pine,” said Bircher. The trees have been under-harvested since the 1940’s, when a local mill burned down, he explained. “As a result, those pine stands are very dense, and overstocked at twice the rate they should be.” The Roundheaded Beetles are expected to kill most of those trees over time. They don’t spread as quickly as the other species, but the infestation is growing.”   

Bircher also explained that logging can help prevent infestations from spreading by getting ahead of the beetles, and depriving them beetles of more trees to feed on.  

Forest management and logging can also prevent wildfires, he said, and dead trees are more likely to burn. “We went through a really rough fire season last year. Hopefully, this year will be a lot better.  

“As we know, wildfires are increasing in intensity, and cost to our citizens, in the United States. I’m sure that climate change is affecting that. But so is the massive build-up of fuels in our forests,” due to too little forest harvesting and too few controlled burns, in Bircher’s opinion. 

Montrose Forest Products has had a positive effect on our local economy. “Last year, we made 90 million board-feet of lumber. We treated about ten thousand acres of forest land. We provide about 169 full-time jobs. That’s just a rough estimate to our region, which isn’t huge in the big picture, but is big on the Western Slope. 

“The 90 million board feet we’re producing now will build about 4,000 homes per year,” Bircher estimated. 

Montrose Forest Products plans to build a new planing mill—a facility designed to take cut and seasoned boards out of a sawmill and convert them into finished lumber products. “We will break ground on this $20 million facility as soon as the frost is out of the ground,” Bircher said. He expects that to happen in February or March. The building will cover 67,000 sq.ft., and a local company will erect the metal structure. The general contractor will be out of Vancouver, WA, and the planer machine is coming from N. Carolina, so there will be skilled tradesmen coming in to finish this.  

“We hope to be done by mid-September. At that time, we will start harvesting Ponderosa pine down in the area that’s affected by the round-headed pine beetle.” Bircher reports that the San Juan National Forest has been very co-operative. So, it looks like an environmental problem might be transformed into an economic boon for the Montrose area. 




About the author

Dave Segal

Dave Segal

Dave Segal, a Detroit native, has been a journalist since 1977. He has worked as a reporter, commentator, and news director at radio stations in Detroit, Denver, and Montrose.

Dave has been writing and editing for the Monitor since its first print issue in 2003. He is editor and senior writer for the digital magazine. On the side, Dave has also done freelance writing, media relations, and a variety of volunteer work.