Making the Most of an Ecological Disaster: The Pine Beetle Kill

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he ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the recent flooding in Tennessee have underscored the devastating financial impact of ecological disasters. Some U.S. communities have tried to actually learn from similar events and rebuild their damaged economies.

The Rocky Mountain West, from Mexico up to British Columbia in Canada, has been under siege for several years now from an intruder the size of a grain of rice. The mountain pine beetle has infested and killed tens of millions of acres of trees, creating public safety hazards and forest fires of epic proportions.

Last December, the U.S. Forest Service committed $40 million dollars to clear more than 2.5 million acres of forest attacked by the beetle.

Widespread and Rising Costs

The pine beetle infestation was caused by a "perfect storm" of conditions. The Rockies have had a series of warmer-than-usual winters, without the sustained, minus-30 degree Fahrenheit temperatures needed to curb the insect's reproduction. There's also been a prolonged drought, which has further weakened the majority of the forest's mature and vulnerable lodgepole and ponderosa pines.

Whole stretches of forest in Colorado and Wyoming are now covered with rust-colored, dead pines. Some resorts have taken to clear-cutting entire mountainsides and valleys to lessen the risk of fire or falling-tree dangers for their guests.

The beetle infestation is also draining federal and state budgets, used to maintain parks for for tourism and camping.

According to Kyle Patterson, public information officer with the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the park spent $100,000 a year in 2006 and 2007 for mitigation work -- treating or clearing away hazardous beetle-affected trees in the areas most used by its visitors. That figure rose to $600,000 in 2008. And over the next five years, she says, "we are estimating we'll be spending about $7 million to do hazard-tree reduction efforts."

The Beetles Have Won the War

The park also contracted an Oregon-based company to come in this spring and autumn to selectively clear dead and dying trees that might threaten motorists along a scenic and very popular 12.5-mile stretch of park road. The company's winning bid for the work was $800,000 -- or about $64,000 per mile.

Most experts say the beetles have won the war, attempts to control them are moot and the infestation cycle can only be waited out.

But some groups are trying to turn the disaster into an advantage. The Colorado Beetle Kill Trade Association (BKTA) was formed in 2008 by a dozen businesses. "We were frustrated with trying to tie together resources," says BKTA founder Lorne Curl, "and united various organizations and interests who were trying to deal with the beetle-kill problem." The group now has about 200 companies in its membership and wants to create lasting jobs and tax revenues for the state -- by using beetle-kill lumber.

New Industries From Old, Dead Trees

Several industries have sprung up from the wreckage of the dead trees -- especially companies dealing with biomass, organic materials used as a renewable heat and/or energy source. Confluence Energy opened a wood-pellet plant in Colorado's High Country two years ago, near the affected forests. The wood pellets, it says, burn cleaner than standard cord wood and use materials that would otherwise end up rotting on the forest floor.

"We are therefore carbon neutral," says a statement on Confluence Energy's website, "allowing you to heat your home or business without emitting carbon that would not otherwise be released. This is a local energy source."

And California-based Cobalt Technologies recently announced a "breakthrough" in producing biobutanol -- an alcohol that, like ethanol, can be blended into gasoline. "Harvesting beetle-killed trees could produce low-carbon fuels and chemicals, establish a foundation for a sustainable biorefinery industry and create jobs, particularly in rural areas, said Cobalt CEO Rick Wilson.

"If we use only half of the 2.3 million acres currently affected in Colorado alone, we could produce over 2 billion gallons of biobutanol -- enough to blend into all the gasoline used in Colorado for six years," Wilson says. The company has also signed a partnership with Colorado State University to test biobutanol's viability in commercial vehicles.

Unique Blue-Tinged Beetle Kill Wood

There's also an artistic side benefit to the pine beetle infestation. The insects infect trees with a fungus that causes a unique blue tinge to develop throughout the wood. And that blue, pine-beetle-kill wood is now coming into demand among homebuilders and furniture craftsmen.

Ron McKey, president of Denver-based Flying Beds, says a growing number of customers are asking for beetle-kill wood to be used in their custom-made furniture. "I have people -- one in New Orleans, in Miami, one in Virginia -- that have all spec'ed [beetle kill pine] into their planning," he says. Just in the past year, blue beetle-kill pine has grown to about 15% of his furniture inventory, McKey says.

The mountain pine beetle infestation is a unique event, and not at all comparable to what has happened in Tennessee or along the Gulf Coast. But Lorne Curl has some advice for companies and businesses affected by these disasters. "They need to very quickly come up with a system of private and public partnerships that work together outside of the conventional limitation of civil partnerships," he says.

Curl points to the motto of his association: "We must become greater than the sum of our parts."
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