Can Utah profit from its dying forests?
More than 1 billion cubic feet of beetle-killed trees could be pulled from Utah forests, but harvesting the timber is not economically viable since the state lacks the mills and markets to absorb this resource, according to a new assessment by the U.S. Forest Service.
Even so, at least one Utah mill owner sure would like to try.
John Blazzard, owner of Blazzard Lumber, concedes that much of the bug-bitten wood isn't worth pursuing.
"Those trees have been dead so long they are cracked open," he said. "It's hard to make anything out of them other than firewood."
But Blazzard would like to have greater access to the Engelmann spruce, which are succumbing to beetle infestations in the Uinta Mountains. He said he could double the output at his Kamas operation to 3 million board feet without any upgrades at his mill.
Across Utah, though, clearing thousands of acres choked with dead timber would require a massive public investment, states the Forest Service report released Monday by its Southern Research Station. Same goes for Wyoming and Colorado.
"Salvage doesn't always pay off. Sometimes the cost of removing the wood, getting it to the mill and administering the sale is greater than anything you could get for that wood, so it is out of reach economically for people who want to cover their costs," said lead author Jeff Prestemon, a forestry economist based in North Carolina. "In Utah, it's particularly difficult to harvest these stands. They are on steep slopes and in high elevations that aren't near roads. You might have to build temporary bridges."
The possibilities are different in Idaho and Montana, states with robust lumber infrastructure, and on the West Coast, whose evergreen forests have not been as hard hit by the beetle infestation sweeping the Intermountain area.
"Places where timber-product markets are strong are likely to have profitable salvage," the report states, "while places where product markets are weak would need sizable public expenditures to achieve appreciable reductions in the amount of dead standing timber."
During the past decade, a native pest, the mountain pine beetle, has devastated forests across the West, chewing through more than 40 million acres. Nearly 20 billion cubic feet of standing dead timber could be salvaged on 20 million acres in 12 Western states, according to Prestemon's assessment. About 88 percent of this wood, a disproportionate share, is on national forests and three-fourths are in Utah and four other Intermountain states.
The epidemic has spurred a contentious debate about what to do with the dead trees.
The Forest Service is under pressure to get some out while they still have value and to reduce the threat of wildfire, but environmentalists worry that aggressive salvaging would do more harm than good.
Complicating the story for Utah: the sharp decline in its timber industry since the 1990s. Some blame the Forest Service's decision to reduce harvests; others point to soft prices from a flood of Canadian wood on global markets.
Either way, Kamas, on the western edge of the Uintas, has seen at least three mills close, according to Blazzard. The three that remain have scaled back operations.
"Others have shut down because the Forest Service went so long without selling anything," he said. "That's why we have the beetle problems. They weren't aggressively harvesting."
Working against Utah's timber industry is the small size of its mills and their older technology, rendering them less competitive and less able to work with small-diameter timber, according to Scott Bell, who serves as the woody biomass utilization coordinator in the Forest Service's Intermountain regional office.
But there are other options besides traditional lumber products. Blazzard has looked into producing wood pellets and mulches from compromised wood, for example, but the costs are high. Then there is energy production from biomass, but wood cannot compete with cheap natural gas and coal.
Bell touted promising research underway at Utah universities exploring how to convert otherwise worthless wood into a charcoal-like product called biochar, along with synthetic oil and gas. Biochar burns like coal, although it is far more expensive. But, unlike coal, it has many other uses, such as amending disturbed soils for mine reclamation and as a filtration medium.
"If we could develop that kind of industry, this waste material could sell for a higher price," Bell said. "You would be able to reduce the cost of treatment and we could treat more acres [of forest] with the dollars we've got."
More on 'Our Dying Forests'
The following link from The Salt Lake Tribune's award-winning "Our Dying Forests" series provides stories, photos, videos and maps examining Utah's and the West's devastating beetle infestation • http://tinyurl.com/qbpsk5h