The Scourge of the Bark Beetle

June 24, 2012 § 2 Comments

Bark beetles have wreaked havoc on the native pine and fir forests of North America. The inner mountain west ponderosa pine forests have been particularly hard hit by the mountain pine beetle. Millions of acres of pines have been killed by this tiny, seemingly innocuous insect. A female beetle will bore through the bark of the tree and tunnel through the sapwood, laying eggs. The larvae will hatch in the spring and feed off the tree. The beetles also transmit a bluestain fungi, which when combined with the beetles, deliver a fatal blow to the tree. Once a tree has been inflicted with bark beetles, there is nothing that can be done to prevent the tree’s death.

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The health of our western forests is an emotionally charged issue, as I saw first-hand when I worked for a consulting firm in Arizona. We worked with local communities to write Community Wildfire Protection Plans. Local residents, forest personnel, environmentalists, state legislatures – all agree the forests are unhealthy in their current state. Decades of mismanagement have resulted in stands of trees that are far too dense – forests are literally choking themselves to death. But all the interested parties seem to constantly talk past each other, and little gets done to fix the problem. The forests haven’t been allowed to burn naturally and in turn haven’t been thinned properly. Bark beetles move in as they prefer dense forests. Trees are killed by the beetles, leaving behind stands of kindling, waiting for the next fire. When fires do start, they can be catastrophic, as the flames use the dead trees and smaller diameter trees as ladders to climb up into the crowns of the taller trees. And when large areas are completely burned, without immediate action to clear the charred logs and replant the pines, other species, such as scrub oak, may instead repopulate the area. It’s a vicious cycle that unfortunately has played itself out far too often.

We are told that a lack of resources (read: money) at the federal and state levels prevents us from bringing the forests back in balance. The money could become available; of course, it would just have to be taken from somewhere else. It just isn’t a priority. Private firms cannot do it alone, as it doesn’t pencil out to simply thin the forests of smaller diameter trees, a few larger ones, and beetle kill trees. I’m oversimplifying things here but that’s the gist of it. It’s going to take a little bit of creative thinking to get things moving in the right direction. Perhaps state and federal governments could partially subsidize private companies to clean the forests. Small diameter trees can be used for firewood or for making pallets, or be chipped for mulch. Larger trees could be slabbed out for timber. Beetle kill trees present another unique challenge. The bluestain fungus leaves the sapwood permanently stained a bluish-gray. The heartwood remains unstained, but the longer a dead tree is left standing, the greater the chance of rot. Many of the beetle kill trees are simply burned.

A few energetic folks are trying to market the blue stained pine as a alternative-look wood. They are likely swimming upstream, though. Blue (and perhaps green) is about the one color in the spectrum we don’t associate with wood. Cool colors on wood just look wrong to our eyes. If you live in the west do a search on Craigslist for “beetle kill” or “blue stain pine”. Chances are some brave soul is trying to create a market for the wood. I wish them success, because for every tree that sells means one less standing dead tree in the forest.

This weekend I picked up my own blue stain pine from a local sawyer. The tree was a 200-year-old ponderosa pine from Central Oregon that was destined for firewood. The pictures below shows the classic markings of a beetle kill pine – blue sapwood and unaffected heartwood. These particular boards are a full 30″ wide. I’m not sure how I’ll use them, but the more I look at the rainbow of colors in the wood, the more I like the look. 

Stephen Shepherd, in his own unique style, recently wrote an open letter to the President of the United States and Congress about this very issue.

Colorado State University has some good information on the mountain pine beetle here.


§ 2 Responses to The Scourge of the Bark Beetle

  • Tico Vogt says:

    I reforested about ten acres of our property 17 years ago here in upstate New York. It can be called a “tree farm” but that’s not the term
    that appeals to my mind. It is a young woodland with many varieties of trees. Much time has been spent pruning branches on the Red and White Pines, and recently the Spruces, allowing one to walk through and to reduce risk of fire hazard with dead branches reaching to the ground. It already survived a fire caused by a neighbor’s dropped cigarette.

    NY State helped me in planing and gave a small fiscal aid for my early efforts in creating trails and maintenance work. The Senior Forrester told me that in about 15 years the first pre-industrial thinning would take place. That was two years ago. There are roughly 800 trees that need to be thinned out, well beyond what I have the resources to deal with. They have all been pruned up about ten feet, are about 35 feet tall, and average 8″-10″ in diameter.The bottom line is that nobody will take them for free and I have contacted many loggers, homeowners, people with outdoor furnaces, woodworkers, builders, you name it. So, I resorted to girdling the trees.

    The Sirex woodwasp, “one of the top 10 most serious forest insect pest invaders worldwide” is now infesting stands in western NY State, heading in our direction. Our woodland is a sitting duck, as it were, with these several hundreds of dead trees offering a perfect home.

    The loggers won’t take the logs for pulp: fuel prices are too high to come get them, they need to be ten feet longer to make it work. Homeowners, builders, too much labor. So, disaster waits.

    • Eric Bushèe says:


      Thanks for the East Coast perspective. We need to make it a collective priority to bring the forests back in balance. Let’s hope we get there one day.


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