July 30, 2010

Fire on the Mountain. ~ John Spina

Handling the Colorado Beetle Kill Infestation.

The Colorado Rocky Mountains acted as my day care facility growing up.  Ever since I can remember my weekends were spent skiing, backpacking, rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, snowmobiling, cliff jumping, horseback riding, the list is literally endless.  I learned so much within those mountains, exploring the unknown truths of not only my surrounding environment, but also my physical and mental capacities, that I feel unequivocally at home there.  However, after graduating high school, I left my beloved Colorado and moved to Burlington Vermont, chasing an undergraduate degree.  Now whenever I return to Colorado, I find my home plague-ridden, comprised almost entirely of dead trees due to beetle kill.  Taking the drive north on I-25, one that I have done hundreds of times throughout my childhood, is now depressing.  The mountains I grew up in, which were once covered in healthy lodgepole pine and spruce trees, are now in such a sickly state, the environment has effectively been transformed from the awe-inspiring peaks of my memory, to some struggling and foreign land.

The Denver Post stated in a 2008 article that according to federal and state forestry officials, at the current rate, mountain pine beetles would kill a majority of the large-diameter lodgepole pine forests within three to five years.  An aerial survey taken in that same year reported that 500,000 acres of forests were newly infested with pine beetle in 2007, bringing the total up to 1.5 million acres since the first sign of outbreak in 1996, and leading officials to call the situation a “catastrophic event.”

Though the outbreak began in the northern reaches of the Colorado Rockies, it has begun to spread extensively due to drought conditions and unseasonably warm winters, which have created perfect breeding conditions for the beetles.  The beetles have always been apart of the eco-system here in Colorado, however due to the self-inflicted changes to our climate, the beetles are now thriving and taking control of our once lush forests.  Rick Cables, a regional forester said, “Dead and dying trees that were isolated to five northern Colorado counties last year can now be seen in some Front Range areas, as well as southern Wyoming.”  In Boulder and Larimer counties alone, there has been more than a 1,500 percent increase in beetle activity in 2008, escalating the situation to epidemic proportions statewide. These numbers have only increased in the past two years.

There are very few positive outcomes when dealing with such drastic circumstances.  The worst of these outcomes, is of course wild fire. With so many dead trees, felled or standing, something as frequent as a lightning strike could send all of the Colorado Rocky Mountains up in flames, endangering thousands of people’s well being.  Reports say that the infected forests of the Rockies will be susceptible to fire for the next 15 to 20 years and may share a similar fate to that of Yellowstone, which was ravaged, and still recovering from massive wild fires in the late 80’s.  Though the forests will eventually regenerate, much like after the gold rushes deforested most of the Summit Country Peaks in the mid-1800’s, it will take decades for the mountains to reach their full potential once again.

The other option in dealing with beetle kill is to try and control the situation by removing the dead and infected trees in attempts to slow the destruction.  Not only does this tactic limit the beetle’s ability to jump to healthy tress once it has drained the nutrients from another, but also it will remove fodder for potential wild fires.  Nonetheless, removing the dead timber is only half of the battle, for the infected trees must be put to use somewhere. CBKTA (Colorado Beetle Kill Trade Association) is a non-profit organization attempting to facilitate a coordinated effort among local businesses in recycling the dead or dying lodgepole pines in Colorado that have resulted from the beetle infestation.  EverGreen Land Company originally founded the organization in 2008 to begin the process of recycling the dead trees by building log cabins. A year later it encompassed over 60 companies, a slew of individual members, and even elected local officials.

Because there are so many dead trees, the removal process is quite complicated. Formerly, the forest service would have companies bid on the right to harvest the area. However, because the market is flooded with so many dead tress, the commercial value has dropped. CBKTA therefore has begun to push the forest service to take matters more into their own hands by suggesting that the forest service remove the trees in hard hit areas at their own expense, in order to remove the immediate hazard.  In addition, they must then have a place to safely store the timber for further uses. Many of the trees are now being bought by big businesses that bring the timber to landfills and simply throw them away.  However, if properly handled, the influx of this natural resource could have far-reaching effects in the local mountain communities. Not only would it create jobs, with the forest service as well as in the production and construction industries, but also it would properly recycle the wood and reduce our dependency on deforesting healthy forests around the country and even the world.

A recent article in the Financial Times brought a rather progressive idea for recycling this excess wood to my attention, one that has been used for decades in places like Scandinavia, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and is even beginning to take hold in the UK.  Instead of using this influx of timber to merely build log cabins, a process the Financial Times referred to as “jumbo ply,” or cross laminated timber could be used to create all sorts of buildings, public and private.  In this process, pieces of timber are pressed and laminated together, just like standard ply, only up to 50cm thick, giving the final product the strength and durability to replace brick, concrete, and even steel, not only in the framing, but also in the entire formation of a building.  Though the adhesive is a bit of an environmental concern, contractors are beginning to use a non-toxic, water-based adhesive that is more eco-friendly.  In 2009 just outside of London, in Hackney, a group of architects built the World’s tallest solid-wood residential structure, measuring nine-stories and containing 19 private and 10 subsidized units – even the elevator shafts are made of wood. On top of this, the new building prescribes to the standards set by the Passivhaus, an efficiency certification program created in Germany in the 1990’s, establishing targets for a new building’s energy efficiency and air quality, making the new building 90% more efficient than standard houses.

However, aesteticlly, this is not some weird, modernized, wood building.  The wood is not visible from the outside, being finished with a painted plasterboard shells around the wood constructs, making it look like any other building from the outside.  Marco Lindi, one of the first residents of the building, said in the Financial Times article, “the timber construction gives the whole building and each flat a very warm feeling which I think cannot be achieved in a steel or concrete constructed building” he went on to say, “[even] the soundproofing is excellent: we cannot hear our neighbors at all.”

Supporters of this process also point out the fact that wood is a renewable resource and, in addition, it helps with our atmosphere’s intake of CO2.  Substituting one cubic meter of wood in place of brick, concrete, or steel, saves on average 0.8 tons of CO2.  With the current state of the Colorado Forests and the massive overhaul needed to protect the local environment, the excess wood could be a huge help in jump-starting this environmentally friendly industry in the US.  Though there is some precedent, Martin Despang a professor at the university of Nebraska has already built a school using such materials through companies like Cambia Wood, Smart Wood, and ThermoWood.  The industry could greatly help deal with our beetle kill problem as well as our environmental concerns.

John Spina currently attends the University of Vermont in Burlington where he will graduate with a double major in history and political science in 2011.  He writes sports for the school paper, the Vermont Cynic, as well as publishes weekly articles in the Mountain Ear, a local Nederland paper, and works as an Intern for the Elephant Journal. He loves spending time outdoors with his dog, McKinley, and being home in Colorado working for the summer.

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