Colorado Mountain College forest expo sheds light on sustainable wood products

This article was first published in the Steamboat Pilot. By Nicole Inglis.

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Sawdust flies as Greg Gingrich keeps on eye on his work while cutting a tree into boards Saturday at Colorado Mountain College. Photo: Joel Reichenberger.

Steamboat Springs — The 42 concentric rings in the core of a lodgepole pine being passed around Room 213 of Colorado Mountain College’s academic center show much more than the tree’s year-by-year history.

There’s a story between the rings, where a spiral flush of pale blue wood shows where the mountain pine beetle’s saliva infected the wood with a fungus that eventually would lead to the tree’s death. It showed the tunnels through the bark where the beetles wove their design of destruction into the wood.

But Colorado Mountain College’s first forest expo brought in local and regional forestry experts and professionals to share their views on life after death for beetle-killed pine and other local trees.

The expo was organized by CMC student and sustainability studies major Gary Keeling, who will be graduating in a few weeks.

“A lot of what we’re taking away from sustainability studies is that we have a disconnect between the consumer products with the natural resources,” he said. Dead trees are “a natural resource, and we have a huge amount of resources, so that’s huge to be able to make use of that.

“That closes the loop.”

John Twitchell, of the Colorado State Forest Service, spoke about the lodgepole pine and its uses while outside in a parking lot Randy Edmond gave a demonstration on sawing the blue-stained lodgepole pine wood on a mill.

Trent Jones, owner of Mountain Pine Manufacturing, shared how he is using the beetle-killed wood to launch a business making wood strand mulch for erosion control. He said it’s a safer, more effective, longer-lasting and sustainable alternative to straw.

“The goal with forestry is, ‘Go get the best value out of the piece of wood you have,’” Jones said.

And that doesn’t necessarily mean lodgepole pines.

Jim Ficke, of Natural Resources Consultants, said that when he’s making defensible space or thinning forests for clients, he’s looking at what the leftover wood could become.

He said choke cherry wood is hard with a beautiful grain. Sarvis berry wood also is strong and light and would make great handles for tools like axes and hammers or even tent stakes. He looks for interesting burls or woods that someday could be turned into bowls, ladles or fine art and furniture.

“We’re trying to make products out of this wood that would normally go in the slash pile and get burned at the end of the year,” he said.

Forestry experts think the worst of the pine beetle epidemic is over, but the dead trees remain. Keeling said it’s thought the peak of pine beetle wood mitigation won’t come for another five years as the housing market, and thus lumber demand, begins to pick up.

But while the lodgepole pines can breathe a sigh of relief, the spruce bark beetle is beginning to cause extensive damage to spruce trees in Southwest Colorado. Another epidemic could be on its way, but with it could be more opportunity to sustainable products.

“It’s not easy being a tree,” Ficke said.