Energy-Charged Epidemic

An exploration of the mountain pine beetle infestation reveals its depth, possible ways to combat it, and uses for millions of acres of dead wood
By Anna Austin | April 05, 2012

Letting nature take its course has historically been one of the most effective ways to deal with natural disasters, as oftentimes these matters are out of the hands of mankind. Occasionally, however, there are ways to mitigate these occurrences while drawing value from them.

The great pine beetle outbreak of the Rocky Mountain West is a good example. The epidemic has swept across the forests of Colorado and Wyoming, devouring more than 3.5 million acres of forests, and it stretches all the way from Mexico to British Columbia, where more than 40 million acres are infested.

While there’s been no way to stop the epidemic, the worst in recorded history, huge efforts are being made to manage the affected forests to prevent forest fires. The harvested beetle-killed wood is being used for a variety of applications, including unique furniture, wood chips and wood pellets for heat and power production 

 Daniel Tinker, forest ecologist for the University of Wyoming, says there are three main reasons for such a rampant epidemic, and while some of the materials should be removed and used for bioenergy and other purposes, some should be left alone.

Beetle Basics

Four primary species of bark beetle are active in the Rocky Mountain West, according to Tinker. “They are all specific on different trees, so pretty much all trees have a bark beetle attacking them right now,” he says.

Adult pine beetles, precisely the size of a grain of rice, enter the trees during the summer and dig birthing galleries, where they lay their eggs. This happens just underneath the bark in the layer of the tree called the phloem, where nutrient transport takes place, Tinker explains. Once the eggs hatch into larvae, they feed on the phloem layer, essentially interrupting the transport of nutrients up and down the tree. “More importantly, the beetle introduces a fungus into the tree,” he says. “It’s a symbiotic fungus that relies on the bark beetle, and the larvae feed on the spores of that fungus during the winter.”

Blue stain fungus is its common name, and it clogs up the water conducting field, or xylem. Within about 60 days, the tree is dying of thirst and can’t transport water from the roots to the leaves, so it dies.

So what’s the reason for an epidemic of such a caliber? “Conventional wisdom is that there are three reasons, and one is that we don’t have as cold of winter temperatures as we have had historically,” Tinker says. “If the winter temperatures get cold enough at the right times of the year, in early November or late April, and stay cold for several days, it can kill the larvae. We don’t have those temperatures as frequently anymore.”

The second reason is the fact that the West is coming out of about 10 years of drought, so the trees are already stressed. “A lot of the time they can fight the beetle off, if they’re healthy and have plenty of resources and water,” Tinker says. “As the beetles drill in, they’ll produce a lot of pitch and sap and (they pitch) the beetle right back out of the hole, but they can’t do that when they are drought stressed.”

Last, many of the trees across the West are just the right age and size and in the right kind of forest structure to support this kind of an epidemic. From Tinker’s perspective, there’s really nothing that can be done to stop it, but the state of the forests should begin improving. “It’s kind of running it’s course now,” he says. “The beetles are running out of resources and we’re having some wetter winters and springs, so the trees’ health is improving a little. I’m not sure we can prevent it from happening again—beetles come in about 30-year cycles—but we haven’t seen one to this extent in recorded history.”

Many people believe the pine beetle problem can be resolved by intentionally managing the forests so they are not as dense. Tinker says that isn’t necessarily true. “Forests kind of do that on their own,” he says. “And some papers have printed that we’ll lose the lodge pole pine in North America, but that’s just not true.”

Moving it Out

There’s a good mixture of trees left in the wake of the pine beetle epidemic, as some are tall, old trees and many are young. “So we’ll have a nice mix of ages and species, though some areas will shift to a dominant species,” Tinker says. “In my opinion ecologically, it’s been catastrophic in some ways, but it’s a big natural thinning event that probably needed to happen.”

A lot of the forest material is dead, however, and in some places it needs to be removed, especially hazard areas. “I don’t think we need to go in and clear all the dead wood out to try to prevent fires,” Tinker says. “A lot of times fires are inevitable, and some dead wood is important to the ground and small animals. But, there is an opportunity to get it out in a lot of places and make use out of it, including bioenergy purposes.”

Mike Eckhoff, a forest scientist at Colorado State University, points out that biomass is the one renewable energy source that can hurt people if it’s not used. “Colorado has been at the forefront in using the material for bioenergy,” he says. “We see a lot of push towards biomass electricity, but for Colorado, thermal makes sense. With the cold weather and rural communities, it’s a critical point that needs to be made.”

Managing for an epidemic that is now 3.3 million acres in size—or just slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut—is significant, particularly from a public health standpoint and in light of the energy crunch we’re facing, from Eckhoff’s perspective. “If there is a way to address both, by using that material to burn in pellet stoves or something else, it makes a lot of sense.”

Confluence Energy, a pellet manufacturer outside of Kremmling, Colo., is one company doing just that.

Pine Beetle Pellets
Confluence Energy is one of a few pellet plants in the state using exclusively pine beetle-killed wood, and has been since 2008. CEO Mark Mathis says that while the sentiment may be that there is an excess supply of free or cheap pine beetle-killed wood for the taking, that’s not the case.

“There was a bit of a misnomer out there. People came into [some projects] thinking that there’s so much of it that it must be free, but that’s just not true,” he says. “We actually had a bit of a shortfall of wood last fall when they started pulling firewood. Part of it’s an infrastructure issue, and since the material is often small diameter and cracked, the yields on the saw end of things aren’t very high because there are limitations on what you can do with it for higher value. The pellet side is the low-value utilization.”

So is there ever a point where the wood is so damaged it can’t be used for pellets? “The nice thing is that a lot of it stays standing vertical, and as long as it does that, it’s suitable for pellets for about five years,” Mathis says.

Confluence Energy is able to contract about 35 to 40 percent of its feedstock, and the rest is paid according to market price flow, Mathis says. And while the pellet business is rumored to be lucrative, he says right now there’s an over-capacity in Colorado, roughly 200,000-plus tons, while the whole residential market demand is about 70,000 tons. “When the pellet mills began in Colorado a few years ago it was great times, but as the cost of energy went up and more people entered the field, eventually there was this glut,” Mathis says. “It’s been kind of a boom-and-bust cycle, and the warmer winters certainly aren’t helping. The trick is learning where your markets are and adapting to those conditions. Pellets make sense from an energy perspective and public perspective, but there are other uses for this material that compliment the energy perspective, and they should be included.”

For some, vast opportunity may lie in exporting their pellets to overseas customers, but Mathis says that concept isn’t equal across the board, at least not for those located in states like Colorado. “One can only transport pellets so far, and because we’re landlocked, exporting into Europe where the market is big is not really viable,” he explains. “We may have a little cheaper feedstock, but that’s cancelled out trying to get closer to a port. Here, pellets aren’t a viable export market, and there’s only so much residential application. It’s a seasonal business, and it’s tough to run a plant 40 percent of the time and make any money.”

Along with building a pellet or bioenergy industry based on that material in Colorado come concerns about a temporary feedstock running out. “There has always been the sentiment that if you build a biomass energy industry, eventually you’re feeding the beast, but that hasn’t materialized as of yet,” Eckhoff says. 

In fact, there is actually too much material being left in the woods, according to Joe Duda, deputy state forester at Colorado State Forest Service.

Accessibility and More

 “One important thing to know is that the total U.S. Forest Service landownership is about 10 million forest acres, and generally only about 2.8 million are used for harvesting,” Duda says. “In all reality, the vast majority of the mountain pine beetle-affected timber is in some form of landownership where it probably won’t be harvested. If we were extremely optimistic, we’d say maybe 20 percent will get treated, but it’s probably close to half of that.”

That can be attributed to a number of factors, including land allocation, wilderness, lack of roads, steep slopes, and unstable soil. Overall, about one-third of the state is forested, and about three out of four of those acres are publicly owned and federally managed, according to Eckhoff. “So about 75 percent of the epidemic is on public lands,” he says.

And as Duda mentioned, Eckhoff says there are many factors that affect retrieval of the wood, factors that make utilizing it uneconomical. “There are supplies being made available, but we’ve had a number of contracts go no-bid because while the material there is relatively inexpensive, accessing, harvesting and bringing it back for manufacture and distribution is prohibitively expensive, especially with rising fuel prices,” he says. Typically you’ll find the material is so low value, doing anything with it beyond a 15-mile radius is problematic.”

In Duda’s professional opinion, there needs to be much more action than there has been on the lands that are available. “That’s whether they are private or federal, because we can make a difference,” he says.

 And if the pine beetle-affected states really want to be effective in creating a market for the wood, harnessing all possible value, that means making a broad array of products, everything from bioenergy to higher value use, Duda adds. “We just need to capture all the value we can.”
Author:Anna Austin
Associate Editor, Pellet Mill Magazine
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