Beetle aftermath: Sprouting new industries
December 17, 2013
Early in 2008, Matt Cudmore's neighbor introduced him to a website with instructions on building skis. For fun, Cudmore figured he'd give it a shot. After five months working out of the garage in his Glenwood Springs home, Cudmore took his first pair of homemade sticks out for a spin.
"They were dimpled and warped, definitely not retail quality," Cudmore said. "But they were the funnest skis I'd ever been on."
That first pair burgeoned into a small business. Cudmore initially used lumber from the local big box store. But living near the White River National Forest, one of three national forests most heavily impacted by the mountain pine beetle, he decided to go local. He used a clear topcoat to showcase the wood's unique blue-stain, resulting from a fungus the beetles carry. He called his company "Meier Skis," (after his wife's maiden name) with the tag, "skis from Colorado trees."
But for a small operation like Cudmore's, wood from those Colorado trees is difficult to secure.
“The thing we’re helping (businesses) work on is creating greater awareness that when you use Colorado forest products, you’re doing something good for the environment.”
Colorado State Forest Service CoWoods Program
"I have to hunt for it," he said. "What I need is for a mill to pull the boards, look at it, and if it's clear, set it aside for me."
Trent Jones also found an innovative way to utilize the beetle kill wood surplus in the Steamboat Springs area. Like Cudmore, Jones lived near one of Colorado's top three forest systems most devastated by the mountain pine beetle, the Routt-Medicine Bow.
He worked as an accountant for a small excavating company, Rogue Resources. After winning contracts with the U.S. Forest Service removing hazardous roadside trees, Rogue invested in a sawmill to turn its harvested trees into marketable lumber. But the trees had been dead for so long, the outer layers became cracked and useless, at least for structural lumber. The dead lodgepoles had too much waste.
"You can sell it for sawdust and chips, but there's not a lot of value in that," he said. "We needed to find a product that creates more value in the outside of the tree."
Jones found the solution in WoodStraw, a product made for erosion control. It had already been used in the Pacific Northwest. Researchers contracted by the state of Washington found it was resoundingly successful in preventing erosion after disturbances like wildfire and construction work. More importantly, it didn't spread invasive seeds like the most commonly used erosion product, agricultural straw. It's locally sourced and cheaper than other common products, like coconut-based fiber blankets. And it can be made from almost any part of a tree.
Looking at the loads of harvested trees his company brought in, and the more than 1 million acres of the Routt forest with nearly all its mature lodgpole dead and slowly degrading, Jones knew he was on to something.
In 2001, as the pine beetle epidemic gained steam, a Colorado State Forest Service study found Coloradans consumed over $1 billion worth of wood products annually. These products ranged from lumber to Christmas trees to firewood to mulch. They spent another $3 billion on value-added wood products like doors, cabinets, furniture and flooring. Clearly, Colorado has a market for wood.
But even with all the state's 21.3 millions of forested acres, 90 to 100 percent of the materials was imported from Canada or other states. With the economic slump, that precentage is expected to have gotten worse over the past decade.
Now, as the economy rebounds, Joe Duda with the Colorado State Forest Service sees local opportunity. He'd like Colorado's need for wood products be taken care of locally, and local entrepreneurs are finally finding innovative ways to make use of all that beetle-killed wood. But according to Duda, two barriers still stand in the way to creating a vibrant local forest products industry. The first is access to an affordable and reliable supply of wood, like in Cudmore's case. That's because loggers and mills have a hard time securing timber contracts on federal forestland, which has a trickle-down effect on small wood products start-ups. The second barrier is securing funding to get started.
Creating a market
Duda directs the CoWood program, which works to use Colorado wood by creating a market through local businesses.
For now, the program focuses on developing beetle-kill timber products because of the need to remove its hazards. The more than 3 million acres of dead trees have become an incentive for timber harvesting so foresters can eliminate falling tree hazards and reduce biomass for wildfires. The Colorado State Forest Service counts more than 120 businesses in the state that manufacture products with beetle-killed wood. It continues its efforts to promote Colorado-sourced wood products as tools for preventing wildfires, enhancing wildlife habitat, inhibiting insect infestation and reducing carbon footprints by getting consumers to buy locally.
"The thing we're helping (businesses) work on is creating greater awareness that when you use Colorado forest products, you're doing something good for the environment," Duda said.
As a marketing tool, CoWoods has developed the Colorado Forest Products™ program. Like its companion campaign "Colorado Proud™" in the agriculture department, it's meant to raise consumers' awareness about the benefits of purchasing locally sourced products.
Especially promising are products like Cudmore's and Jones's, which add a much greater value to lumber than if it were simply processed into planks, sawdust or firewood. But as their stories show, the growing wood products industry also presents real challenges.
A U.S. Forest Service economic assessment released last fall found that although Colorado has some of the largest quantities of salvageable beetle-killed timber in the West, there aren't enough businesses available to process it economically. When loads of harvested timber flood the few sawmills around the state, lumber prices drop and facilities don't make enough to cover harvesting and transportation costs. But the assessment found that if federal or state subsidies were available to promote more wood products businesses in Colorado, bringing it up to pace with other states with thriving timber industries like Idaho and Montana, these industries might have a chance to flourish.
After finding a wood waste solution in WoodStraw, Jones secured funds through the Colorado State Forest Service's Business Loan Fund, a provision passed by the Colorado Legislature in 2009. His was only the third Colorado forest products business to receive a loan through a state forest service partnership.
He also won a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Called the Value-Added Producer Grant, its funds typically go to farmers taking products like corn or wheat and somehow adding value beyond what it would normally fetch at market. Jones's enterprise was the only forest products business to receive an award in 2012.
Jones used the funds to buy the necessary equipment and patents to manufacture and sell WoodStraw. He formed his own company, Mountain Pine Manufacturing, which still operates at Rogue Resources. He utilizes most of Rogue's employees, whose work is seasonal and unpredictable.
"The logging industry is very, very tough," Jones said. "Hopefully WoodStraw helps us keep more of our people working."
Industry on the cusp
While the CoWoods program is making headway with securing funding for beetle-kill timber startups, it's second biggest challenge – supply – has yet to be solved.
Based out of his garage, Cudmore's initial startup costs were low. But last spring, he moved his ski-making business to a 3,000 square-foot space along Highway 82, the artery linking Glenwood Springs to skier meccas in Aspen. He expects to produce around 700 units this year. He has retailers throughout the West and as far away as Munich, Germany. But while plenty of dead trees stand in forests, a steady processed timber supply remains a problem. Cudmore does his best to make do. He's driven far and wide across western Colorado with just his Chevy Suburban and snowmobile trailer to secure quality wood and haul it to his shop. The search for timber has yet to slow him down.
"I didn't think we'd get this big this fast," he said. "The skis are awesome, they're winning reviews left and right. But what happened with the beetle kill, it's the whole package people are digging."
When asked if the successes in stories like Cudmore's and Jones's meant Colorado's local wood products industry was on the cusp, Joe Duda was cautiously hopeful and ever the forester.
"With the amount of work I see that we need done, we should be able to grow and expand the timber industry," he said. "The landscape would benefit from the management."
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334.