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Natural resources: Union Pacific may help transpot beetle-killed trees

by Tonya Bina
Sky-Hi Daily News

Grand County Commissioners were surprised last week to have been contacted by Union Pacific Railroad officials about the pine beetle problem in the region.

George Hix from Union Pacific Railroad phoned the commissioner’s office last Friday. He said the “railroad was seeking information on beetle-killed trees and the harvesting of such,” according to a memo from Kathy Etler, the commissioner’s executive secretary.

“The railroad is willing to work with jurisdictions on transporting the product out of the county,” according to the phone message.

Hix could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

County commissioners said they felt encouraged by the phone call. “It’s the first time the railroad has ever contacted us first,” Commissioner Nancy Stuart said.

Affordable transportation of beetle-kill material out of the county has long been considered a road block for area loggers. Since a rail line cuts right through the county, many have wondered if trains would be a viable answer.

Nancy Fishering, spokesperson for Intermountain Resources in Montrose ” the mill where most of the raw product from the county is being shipped by truck ” has another perspective.

The market is changing with America’s housing crisis, Fishering said.

“There is a reduction of demand for lumber, and there are temporary mill shutdowns all over the nation right now,” she said.

Lumber leaving the Montrose mill is going for pre-1975 prices, she said. Intermountain sends out some of its byproducts by rail.

“I think the logging industry would find it difficult to ship raw timber multiple states away (by rail) in a market like this,” she said.

Whether shipping by rail would be cheaper for loggers, she said she couldn’t speculate. She did say, though, that “Colorado doesn’t have enough rail capacity to do everything by rail.”

With a fixed infrastructure, the rail lines in Colorado and across the nation are busy, especially with coal transports.

Even with the amount of raw timber being supplied now, the Montrose Intermountain mill operates one shift daily.

“With way more land under public ownership in Colorado than private ownership, you have to have federal timber under contract for mills to work,” she said. “It takes up to three to five years under contract to open double shifts at a mill this size.”

Dead lodgepole pines take an average of three years before they lose marketability, Fishering said. When standing logs start to twist and get cracks, their value decreases.

“Every year it changes its value because it’s dead,” she said.

The Forest Service is racing against this process, with treatments through timber sales extended up to about 2009. After that, the value of the standing dead trees will drop significantly.

Once the wood is past dead, it’s harder to find a use for it. But that is where private enterprises, such as pellet plants, offer a solution.

The value of trees varies in Grand County. Loggers are taking out some that died three years ago and some that died just last year.

“It’s a dynamic situation,” Fishering said.

It’s estimated that 20 rail cars would carry the same amount of logs as about 60 truck loads.

“A rail car carries more logs than a truck does, so it may help our mill,” Fishering said.

“Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or tbina@grandcountynews.com.


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