EAGLE COUNTY - When the U.S. Forest Service received no bids on two small timber sales in Eagle County earlier this year, the agency's local rangers encountered what is becoming a problem throughout the intermountain West.The federal agency got a lesson in market economics and the three-way tug of war over lumber in national forests. There were no bidders for the timber "salvage" sales designed to remove trees killed by infesting pine beetles. The Forest Service also wants to sell the dead trees so they won't add extra fuel to wildfires."We think the market is just flooded with all the beetle-killed trees," said Cal Wettstein, district ranger of the forest lands surrounding Eagle County. "The long-term concern for us is every (dead) tree that doesn't come out of the woods eventually is going to burn."The glut of dead trees is occurring at a time when economics, the few Forest Service timber sales and natural trends have left few loggers and lumber mills. The amount of dead trees available for loggers and mills is at an all-time high and growing as the pine beetle epidemic spreads. The ability to extract them remains a bottleneck.But in the three-part dance of the Forest Service, loggers and lumber mills, not everyone sees eye-to eye. It's a complex, awkward cycle of either too much wood, not enough loggers, too few mills or a mixture of all three combined with environmental constraints that seems to beg the question: What came first - the forest or the pine beetle?88 truckloadsChris Meyers' Intermountain Resources in Montrose is one of the few mills left in the state, and his mill is dieting in the midst of a potential smorgasbord, he said. The problem his business encounters is not enough loggers to provide the raw material for the mill, Meyers said. Part of the problem is the Forest Service hasn't sold enough logs in recent years to support the timber industry, he said. Now, it needs trees removed from the forest and doesn't have an industry large enough to do that, he said."We struggle all the time for enough raw material," said Meyers. "The (Forest Service) doesn't put up enough wood to supply our facility on a year-round basis. They're under-budgeted in what they're trying to achieve."
That bottleneck has trimmed the ranks of businesses that cut wood."It's has caused a shrinking of the industry," he said. "We are capable of running 140 million board-feet a year but we're running 40 million at four days a week and one shift. We need two shifts five days a week to be competitive."That's 88 truckloads of logs a day, he said.Loggers, like Tom Olden of Eagle, say the price of logs offered by mills isn't enough to bid on sales while environmental and other constraints imposed on bidders further wring the profit out of the business. And the Forest Service said it could offer more timber sales if it had more money from Congress.Missing millsOne salvage timber sale in Summit County's Williams Fork Mountains, northeast of Silverthorne, contains more than 40 million board-feet, or enough wood to build more than 1,000 homes. A huge pine beetle infestation there killed more than 100,000 acres of lodgepole pines. A board foot - one of the standard measures of timber - is a board one inch by 12 inches by 12 inches.That project alone has helped create the glut of beetle-killed logs on the market here, Wettstein said, adding that part of the problem is the lack of ability to process the logs.The closest lumber mill is the one in Montrose, more than 150 miles away and the next nearest is in Price, Utah, approximately 300 miles distant.
"Over the last two decades local mills have been eliminated," he said.The glut of beetle-killed timber is exacerbated by lack of milling facilities said"In Colorado there's only one big mill," said timber specialist Bob Garcia, part of the Forest Service Regional Office that oversees national lands in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and parts of Nebraska and Kansas. "The (cost of) the haul there makes some sales uneconomical," Garcia said. But the situation is not isolated to Eagle County or even just to Colorado, Wettstein added. "The entire Rocky Mountain region is seeing huge pine beetle outbreaks from Canada to Mexico," he said. "There are hundreds of thousands of dead trees in the White River alone."Fire or bugs?Loggers and lumber mill operators are often critical of environmentalists for opposing timber sales. They said it makes it more difficult to operate. Even the Forest Service acknowledges environmental appeals have slowed its processes."In the late 1990s it got harder and harder to make timber sale," Wettstein said. "We just sold less and it was harder for loggers to make a living. We still get appeals on every timber sale. We're talking about dead trees. It's frustrating."Part of the reason may be a change in how the public believes forests should be used, forest officials said. Conservation and recreation are now driving decisions, they said.
One such environmentalist, Rocky Smith of Colorado Wild, criticized the Forest Service's plan to reinvigorate forests by cutting and thinning and selling lumber in salvage sales. Those sales often require new roads to be built to reach the timber. "We're not unalterably opposed to all salvage sales," he said. "In trying to reduce the impacts of insects you can do more damage than the bugs by building roads."While thinning live trees does slow the rate of infestation, it doesn't slow the overall epidemic. "It's still a problem because the bugs fly somewhere else. Once they get going, you can't thin fast enough to keep up with the bugs," he said. "There has to be a balance between reducing fuels and maintaining nature versus maintaining the forest values we all love. Cutting deep into the backcountry doesn't work."He called the thinning a "short circuit" of natural processes. A better way is to create fire protection zones around homes, Smith said, reducing the size of the "home ignition zone."Logging on burned-over areas that still contain timber also isn't a good idea, Smith said, because it can create soil erosion. "Fires, whether we like it or not, are part of the natural process," he said. "Once they get going, you just have to get out of the way."Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado