Colorado finally revived a timber mill on the Western Slope.
But after one month at the mill, Montrose Wood Products chief Jim Neiman has found he can afford to run it only three days a week.
“We have not been able to get enough logs,” Neiman said.
Meanwhile, 4.2 million acres of dead and dying beetle-killed pines sit in Colorado and Wyoming forests — some in areas prone to catastrophic wildfires.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack weighed into this dilemma Friday, calling for greater flexibility in Forest Service contracting to guarantee a consistent timber supply.
Viable sawmills are considered important links in the increasingly urgent task of restoring the health of overgrown forests. They can serve emerging industries that need wood fibers to create super-strong materials, Vilsack said, citing advances in automobile, electronics and armor technology.
But to stay in business, the sawmills require a steady supply of timber — “not for a year but for 10 to 20 years,” Vilsack said.
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who helped pull the Montrose mill out of receivership, has redoubled his own push to make appropriate logging feasible.
Given the numbers of beetle-killed lodgepole pines, “we ought to be able to do that,” Udall said. “One of the ideas I am exploring: Do you value the trees at zero dollars?”
Congressional action would be required to direct selective cutting of trees on public lands at no charge. Forest Service managers currently must charge loggers market value for trees — adding to costs of labor and diesel.
“We want to protect the taxpayer asset — the forest — but there are other assets that are at risk if we have catastrophic fires,” Udall said. “And one of the ways in which you might be able to protect taxpayer assets — like clean air and clean water and wildlife — would be to value the trees at a very low rate so that the cost model then works for the loggers, mills and industries we want to generate.”
Restoring forest health, after a summer of devastating wildfires, was the focus of a Forest Health Summit that Gov. John Hickenlooper convened in Denver on Friday.
The wildfires and ravaging of forests by mountain pine beetles — combined with drought and anticipated climate change — are raising concerns about water supplies that originate in forests. Participants representing conservation groups, the timber industry and public agencies hashed out possibilities for ensuring better spacing between trees in overly dense forests and a diversity of species that boosts resilience.
Forest Service officials conduct lengthy environmental reviews before offering timber on public lands. Rocky Mountain region director of resources R.E. Vann pointed out that the amount charged for tree cutting — around $5 per hundred cubic feet of timber — already is relatively low.
“I don’t think price is the main factor” impeding removal of beetle-killed trees, he said. “What is expensive is getting the product from the forest stump to the mill.”
While Neiman runs the revived mill, pines cut as a result of previous contracts commonly sit in piles — because moving the trees to mills isn’t profitable. Federal land managers say that, depending on weather conditions this fall, as many piles as possible will be burned.