Go blue, save some green

  The mountain pine beetle is about the size of Lincoln’s head on a penny. In the last 10 years, it’s devastated 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pine in Colorado, a half-million in the past year alone. The swaths of dead trees color the mountainsides a sickly orange-brown. Now, communities in the hardest-hit areas are scrambling to figure out what to do with all the dead trees. Removing them is one thing. Turning all that dead wood into something useful is another.

One proposed solution cleared the Colorado House Finance Committee on Feb. 20 by a vote of 6-5 and is headed for the Appropriations Committee. House Bill 1269 calls for tax exemptions on the sales and use of wood salvaged from trees killed by pine beetles. Lumber, furniture, wood chips and wood pellets would be tax-exempt beginning July 1, as long as a wholesaler certifies that a product is made from salvaged trees killed in Colorado.

Rep. Al White (R, District 57), the bill’s primary author and sponsor, hopes that by providing financial incentives, “we can create a consumer demand” for beetle-kill products. “If we exempt state sales tax, and a county and a municipality decide to exempt their sales taxes as well—and that is an option in the bill— that could add up to a nice savings for a consumer.” White’s home district includes Grand County, considered the epicenter of the current infestation.

“The bill is designed to stimulate markets for beetle-killed trees,” says one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Christine Scanlan (D, District 56). Scanlan -- whose home district includes the hard-hit counties of Summit, Lake and Eagle -- would like to see local economies and small businesses benefit from the sale of beetle-killed wood products. Getting the trees out of the forest and making the enterprise economically worthwhile won’t be easy, she acknowledges. “We’re looking to help create a niche market for this type of wood, which we need to do something with,” she says.

Clint Kyhl, the Forest Service’s bark beetle incident commander for the Medicine Bow-Routt, Arapaho and White River national forests, says the 1.5 million acres of beetle-affected wood might seem like a windfall. However, he’s quick to point out that not all of the wood is readily available. If the local economies can find ways to use the dead trees, it could help decrease the costs for forest management.

“I’d love to see smartly developed industries for smartly developed markets, especially in terms of local economies,” says Tom Fry, wildlife and fire program coordinator for The Wilderness Society in Denver. However, he cautions that “we need to think carefully about how we remove trees, where we do it, and what the long-term looks like with regard to local industries and environments.”

Jeff Thomas, campaign coordinator for Colorado Forest Products, supports developing a variety of local markets. He says that beetle-killed wood has the potential for things like furniture and some construction, especially products like trim, siding and flooring. “It’s really beautiful,” he notes, with a distinctive blue stain created by a fungus introduced by the beetles.

But the bill does have its detractors, pretty blue tinge notwithstanding. Len Lankford, president and CEO of Greenleaf Forestry and Wood Products in Westcliffe, says that a tax exemption—which could average around 5 percent—isn’t really that much of a savings. Still, he agrees that it’s always a good thing to encourage small businesses, though one bill isn’t going to solve every aspect of what is a multi-faceted issue.

Ultimately, Scanlan sees HB 1269 as a first step toward more innovative ideas, not only with regard to the current beetle infestation, but also toward creating more sustainable forests in the future. “The beetle issue is on everybody’s minds because it’s so obvious,” she says. “But this is part of a long-term strategy that addresses forest health overall.”

The author is an intern for High Country News.
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