The damage being done to forests in the western United States and Canada by the mountain pine beetle (MPB: Deondroctonus ponderosae) is approaching catastrophic proportions. Cody Hawkins, public affairs specialist with the Forest Service, Bark Beetle Incident Management Organization Team, said more than 5 million acres in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota have been affected by the MPB, with lodgepole pines suffering 75 to 80 percent of the damage.
“The MPB has been a threat to the lodgepole pines in the past, but in 1996 we began to see significant damage,” said Hawkins. “Our big push now is to educate the public about the imminent dangers posed by the dead trees, [which are] falling at an ever increasing rate. To date there have been no injuries, but with many miles of roads and trails and forest recreation areas affected, we are concerned about the safety of the public and the U.S. Forest Service employees.”
Also of concern is damage from falling trees to power lines. In Colorado, for example, beetle-ridden trees threaten more than 550 miles of transmission and distribution lines. Essential water supplies are also at risk and water quality for millions could be affected, said Hawkins. Headwaters of rivers in both Colorado and Wyoming that supply water to 13 states are in the middle of the affected area.
Outbreaks of the insect, previously called the Black Hills beetle or Rocky Mountain pine beetle, can result in losses of millions of trees, particularly ponderosa, lodgepole, scotch and limber pine. During early stages of an outbreak, attacks are limited largely to trees under stress from injury, poor site conditions, fire damage, overcrowding, root disease or old age. However, as beetle populations increase, MPB attacks may move to any large tree in the area.
Signs and symptoms of MPB attack include popcorn-shaped masses of resin, called “pitch tubes,” on the trunk where beetle tunneling begins; the pitch tubes may be brown, pink or white. Dying or dead trees also will have red pine needles.
Uses Abound for the Fallen Timber
Earlier promotion efforts by the Denim Pine Marketing Assn. helped grow interest in beetle-damaged timber. But the need to make use of damaged lodgepole pines is even more critical today, said Bruce Ward of Choose Outdoors.
In addition to promoting the benefits of these pines, Ward is campaigning for a name change. “We want people to use the name Rocky Mountain blue stain instead of beetle-kill pine for obvious reasons.” He said he likes to refer to the unique blue-colored wood as an “exotic domestic” species.
“There are issues facing us that include fewer sawmills in Colorado due to the economy plus restrictions on timber cutting. Uses for the wood are still evolving, but it is already being used for flooring, cabinetry, paneling, siding, furniture and also pellets,” Ward added.
Brad Pickrel, owner of Mountain Heart Woodworks, in Kiowa, CO, is also finding ways to use the damaged pine. “We make custom tables, chairs, furniture and cabinetry, fireplace mantles and anything the customer wants essentially using lodgepole pine stained by the beetle, which we call blue pine,” said Pickrel.
Pickrel has been working with the blue pines for five years. “We have a small sawmill and cut all our own lumber for use in our full workshop. The beetle situation is out of control and the mountains will never be the same, but it is rewarding to have something beautiful come from the devastation. Blue pine is actually very attractive wood — every piece is different. We like to use a clear finish to let the wood ‘talk’,” he said.
According to Hawkins, there are signs of the infestation declining, mostly due to the fact that the hosts — healthy trees — are no longer readily available. “Our goal is to rebuild the forest with more diversity. A mix of lodgepole pines with other species will help keep this problem from happening in the future.”
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