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Published on July 6th, 2013 | by gatsbyadmin

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The Beetle Kill of Colorado

This past weekend, we drove from Denver to Aspen via I-70, and highways 91, 24 and 82 on the Top of the Rockies scenic byway. While there’s no denying the astounding beauty of any drive through the Colorado mountains, we couldn’t help but be slightly horrified by the amount of trees affected by beetle kill that we saw, especially so soon after so many significant fires have ravaged the state and continue to do so. Even if there’s no easy solution to the beetlekill problem, it’s important for us, living in Colorado and the entire drought-ridden southwestern United States, to be aware of the issue and what, if anything, can be done to help.

Partially to blame is the mountain pine beetle – a species of bark beetle native to western North America, from Canada to Mexico. It’s about the size of a grain of rice (5mm) and has a hard black exoskeleton. These little critters inhabit a variety of pine trees, including ponderosa, whitebark, lodgepole, Scotch and limber. Much like forest fires, pine beetles play an important role in the natural life-cycle of forests – killing old trees to make room for the development of new ones. That’s where the other party to blame comes into the picture: the environment. The hot, dry summers and relatively mild winters which have persisted, it seems, since the Hayman fire of 2001, along with Colorado forests being filled with mature pine trees, have led to an epidemic that seems to get worse with each passing summer, after winters lack the cold spells long enough to kill off the culprits from last summer. As the outbreak grows, it impedes the ability of every forest affected to remove greenhouse gases from the air, as well as produce oxygen.

 

There are several different kinds of management techniques that can be used  to treat beetlekill:

  • Pheromone baiting – is luring beetles into trees ‘baited’ with a synthetic hormone that mimics the scent of a female beetle. Beetles can then be contained in a single area, where they can more easily be destroyed.
  • Sanitation harvesting – is removing single infested trees to control the spread of beetle populations to other areas.
  • Snip and skid – is removing groups of infested trees scattered over a large area.
  • Controlled, or mosaic, burning – is burning an area where infested trees are concentrated, to reduce high beetle infestations in the area or to help reduce the fire hazard in an area.
  • Fall and burn – is cutting (felling) and burning beetle-infested trees to prevent the spread of beetle populations to other areas. This is usually done in winter, to reduce the risk of starting forest fires.

These methods tend to be most effective when used on smaller scale infestations, and some spraying techniques involve chemicals which are carcinogenic to humans and have devastating effects on animal life, and all methods are, of course, costly. Senators Udall and Bennett have pushed to receive between $30 and $40 million for fighting the beetlekill and everything that comes with it.

There is, however, some good news. Beetle kill wood maintains its strength and commercial value for over 12 years after the tree has died, and the drier the conditions, the better, making Colorado beetle kill wood some of the best. Woodworking companies in Colorado (Mountain Heart Woodworks and Sustainable Lumber Co., to name a few),  have started crafting everything from guitars, to furniture, to homes using blue pine lumber. Using this lumber is not only ec0-friendly and sustainable, but it clears the dead trees from the forests, reducing infestations and creating room for healthy forests to grow. Additionally, beetle kill pine could soon serve as an alternative energy source! Colorado’s Department of Energy recently provided $30 million toward construction of the state’s first cellulosic ethanol plant, to convert beetle kill into ethanol.

Wood flooring from beetle kill pine

A home made from beetle kill pine

 

All we can do now is wait and be conscious. Wait for the natural forest cycles to run their courses, and be conscious of what can be done on our parts to help the problem. Don’t throw out your cigarette butts, pick up your trash so there’s one less thing that can spark a fire, and when you can, support the local economy and help clear the effected trees by using beetle kill pine for your next project – it’s beautiful and something you can feel good about.

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