When life gives you pine beetles, make picture frames

The problem is a familiar one to Colorado residents by now: two million acres of dead trees, forested mountainsides turned entirely red. The high country has been turned into a giant tinderbox by a beetle the size of a grain of rice.

The solution? Not to stop the pine beetle. There's no way to prevent the epidemic from killing off the entire population of lodge pole pines in Colorado within five years, says Greg Aplet, senior forest scientist at The Wilderness Society. The only thing anyone can do now is find a way to deal with all the dead trees.

Capitalism to the rescue?

"We see a way to take a local liability and turn it into an asset," says Steve Smith, the founder of the Colorado Beetle Kill Trade Association (BKTA) in Breckenridge and a Texas-based entrepreneur who owns Evergreen Land Company, which in turn owns a large amount of land south of Vail. Smith plans to build a "lifestyle-oriented village" on that land, and he wants to use trees killed by beetles to do it.

The problem is, right now the trees are a financial loser. The lodge pole pine is relatively small in diameter and therefore mostly uninteresting to timber companies. But much of it can still be used for lumber, and the rest could be turned into pellets or, with enough money, biomass fuel.

So the trick is getting the trees down and processed so that the businesses that might be able to use them can do so and not lose money on it.

The money is out there, and the government has shown tangible concern for the problem. Bill Ritter signed a bill on June 10 making available $3 million to communities for preventative logging, and the U.S. House of Representatives held a joint subcommittee hearing on June 16 specifically to address the beetle problem.

That means there's the potential for a great deal of public funding for private enterprise. It's a bridge between the two where the Colorado Beetle Kill Trade Association comes in. Smith started the association last summer with two business owners, Matt Dayton, of Timber to Logs in Breckenridge, and Lorne Curl, of Colorado Blue Logs.

"None of us individually have the clout to get the government's attention," says Smith. But by joining together, they hope, "to create the business mass to encourage the government to do what it needs to do."

At least, that was the idea at the beginning. But now that the government seems to be paying attention, the more interesting function of the Trade Association might be convincing the private sector to invest in beetle-killed wood.

To that end, the association opened a "blue wood" showroom near Breckenridge, in a building owned by Full Circle Design Group. Blue wood is another name for beetle-victim tree; it's called that because the beetles emit a blue fungus as they're burrowing into the tree to try and stop the tree from drowning them in sap -- and a successful invasion dyes the outer rings of the tree. Not all blue-wood products are actually blue -- just the ones that use the outer rings of the trees.

The showroom has all sorts of combinations on display -- blue and white trim, white cabinets, siding that's stained so dark it doesn't even look like pine. The front desk is a showcase of many different finished blue-wood samples.

Since the showroom opened to private business on June 8, it's done well over $12,000 in sales. Two commissions from Summit County -- one for fences and the other for the siding on the recycling facility -- contributed the majority of that total, says BKTA Acting Director Rich Dziomba. It sold a log cabin, a workbench and a coffee table in the first couple days of business. All of those items were built by BKTA members.

Anyone who might use beetle wood can join the association, from hobbyists making chairs in their basements to developers like Smith, who's put over $100,000 of his own money in to start the association. Now, however, the BKTA is in the process of becoming a (c)(6) non-profit agency so it can raise money on its own.

Dziomba is also talking to ski resorts about getting involved. Copper Mountain expressed an interest and offered to allow someone with a mill and a small business to use one of its mountain-based storefronts rent free for the first several months to make something like picture frames while visitors watch. Dziomba is also talking to various chambers of commerce in the area, trying to arouse an interest in beetle wood.

"People are interested in going green, doing something, and this is where I see the value of the trade association," he says. "We're shipping in bamboo from India for hardwood floors when we can use this stuff."

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