There’s a silver and blue lining to a massive pine beetle outbreak in the San Juan National Forest in Southwest Colorado.
The round-headed and mountain pine beetles have wiped out more than 10,000 acres of ponderosa pine forests in the past few years in the Lake and Cow Canyons area east of the Dolores River. They are continuing their destructive path, encouraged by trees weakened from drought and by overcrowding in a forest in need of thinning.
The stands of dead and dying trees are not highly valued for conventional lumber because of their weakened structure.
However, a secondary decorative and mining use for the trees has emerged because of a symbiotic relationship between the beetles and the fungus that comes with a beetle invasion. The beetles carry a fungus that feeds their young and infects the trees, creating distinctive coloration in the wood.
So-called blue-stain ponderosa features blue-gray streaking, with occasional highlights of yellow, purple and red, all caused by the fungus.
Aspen Wall Wood, on Colorado Highway 184 south of Dolores is known for its aspen paneling. But last year, owner David Sitton decided to expand operations and take advantage of the blue-stain ponderosa available in the forest.
“We kept getting interest, so we began logging and milling the blue-stain. Our first batch immediately sold, and the market has really picked up,” he said. “We are taking what was thought to be waste timber and turning into a really nice product.”
He expects to bring in 400 semitrailers of beetle-kill ponderosa to mill into blue-stain paneling. Buyers use it for ceilings, floors and walls to get a rustic, softly colored look for lodges and cabins.
The bright side to the beetle outbreak is that it impacted mature trees, allowing the fungus to penetrate deep into the grain of the wood.
“We’ve been credited with the bluest, blue-stain pine on the market,” Sitton said. “Ours is about 70 percent blue, when the rest of the market is typically 30 to 40 percent blue.”
There is a 2-5-year window to log blue-stain pine for milling into decorative paneling, he said. After that, the wood becomes dry and prone to splitting.
Westfork Lumber Co., a mill west of Dolores, is also taking advantage of the blue-stain ponderosa, said manager Clay Tillia.
The drier wood is ideal for making mine shaft cribbing used in the coal industry. The lumber is stacked to fill voids after the coal is removed, which helps prevent tunnel cave-ins.
“The miners love it because it does not shrink, so they don’t have to go back and add wedges as often,” Tillia said.
Because the wood is dry and light, more of it can be shipped per truckload. The locally produced rough-cut cribbing is used in coal mines near Scofield, Utah. Tillia estimates that 1.5 million board feet will be milled for mine cribbing this year from the blue-stain ponderosa in this area.
The company also mills the blue-stain into fence stays sold at Basin Co-op, at 16032 U.S. Highway 491, and into smaller pieces sold to build chicken houses.
In his spare time, Tillia also uses the blue-stain pine to make doors and furniture.
“It’s a side hobby. I’ve made barn doors, dressers, a coffee bar and a headboard that slides open into a gun rack,” he said.