Colorado’s forests, particularly along the heavily populated Front Range, teem with smaller trees, those with a diameter of about 4 to 8 inches.
The dense pine canopy is a potential catastrophe waiting to go up in flames, according to wildfire experts. In a wildfire, smaller trees act as “ladder fuel,” allowing flames to move from ground level to the canopy of the forest, where they can quickly spread, devastating vast tracts and anything in them, including houses.
Those stands are also a potentially vast stock of wood resources. So taking care of the fire problem by tapping the profit potential would seem a natural solution. But making small-diameter timber an economically viable venture is a puzzle that experts have been trying to solve for generations.
The problem is not that there is no marketable use for such trees. It’s harvesting it that is uneconomical, particularly in less important timber states like Colorado.
“The cost is up to $1,000 or more per acre to remove the material,” said Kurt Mackes, an assistant professor of forestry at Colorado State University. “If you put that up against the value of the material, it doesn’t even begin to cover the costs.”
That explains why the amount of small-diameter timber harvested annually in the West is roughly one-tenth of what should be taken to maintain healthy forests, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
While limited, there are still viable uses for small-diameter wood, from Christmas trees — long a prime outlet for small-diameter wood in Colorado — to wooden fencing and pellets for wood stoves.
In Colorado, however, locally cut wood faces stiff out-of-state competition, even on low-return products like firewood. Some 90 percent of the firewood used in Colorado comes from out of state.
“In the 1980s, the state Forest Service could run a thinning project on private land, and that could be supported by selling it as firewood,” said Jeff Thomas, the principal consultant with Colorado Forest Products, a venture to promote marketing of local timber. “That’s no longer the case.”
Now, it’s simply too cheap to import wood harvested elsewhere by timber operations much larger than any in Colorado.
Raul Bustamante runs United Wood Products in Longmont, which manufactures products like posts and fencing material with small-diameter timber purchased from contractors.
If the wood is not the right size or good quality, however, he’s forced to saw it up and package it as firewood, which cuts into his profit margins.
Firewood, he said, “is a byproduct — we’d prefer not to do it.”
Craig Jones, who retired from the state Forest Service’s Boulder region last September and now works with Colorado Wood, said the fact that much of the standing timber in Colorado forests is smaller means the state will never likely be a major player in certain wood markets, such as construction.
But even in the case of posts and poles, “a lot of it’s still being brought in from Canada,” he said.
According to Jones, the same economic issues keep other small-diameter ventures from flourishing.
For example, pellets for wood stoves are roughly a $13 million annual retail market in the state, he said, “yet we produce no pellets in Colorado.” The same is true of the $10 million retail market for animal bedding.
Much of this wood could be used, U.S. Forest Service officials say, but it will require contractors to think differently than they have about product use.
“If there is some type of product that can come out of this process, we encourage that, but frankly, that’s not our priority,” said Mark Martin, planning team leader for the Boulder Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. “(Our crews’) job is thinning — they can’t wait for technology to catch up.”
To that end, the Forest Service in June announced $3.7 million in grants to eight Western states, including Colorado, to expand the market for small-diameter timber.
The federal agency also is a partner in the Colorado Wood Utilization and Marketing Program, formed three years ago with CSU and the state Forest Service. About a year ago, the program spun off Colorado Forest Products, a venture to encourage the use and sale of Colorado-grown small-diameter timber.
“Anybody who has products that are more than 50 percent Colorado wood can join our program, and we’ll publicize their products,” Thomas said. “The idea was that consumer awareness would help (people choose Colorado-harvested products).”
Colorado Forest Products’ mission is an uphill one.
According to a report by Colorado Wood, cost factors have led to a dramatic drop in infrastructure to handle small-diameter wood.
“There are less than five mills with any capacity in the state to provide real employment or wood-utilization options. Those mills with capacity to deal with low-value, small-diameter material in quantity have all but disappeared,” the report states.
Dan Len, who oversees the Arapahoe and Pawnee National Grasslands for the U.S. Forest Service, is considered an expert in small-diameter utilization. He said problems with expanding the marketplace are not exclusive to the West. He saw the same issues when he worked back East, he said.
“The technology is there to do just about anything with wood you want to, but it’s expensive,” Len said. “The smaller the pieces, the more expensive it is.”
Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-684-5291, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.