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The turning aspens stand out among the beetle-killed forest on Wolf Creek Pass on Sept. 16.

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Editor's note: A previous version of this story identified the cooperative as Wood Source Fuels. It has been corrected to Forest Management & Marketing Limited.

In 2002, a massive blowdown and a spruce beetle infestation snatched the life from hundreds of thousands of trees in the Rio Grande National Forest in south-central Colorado. Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas thought he had time to make the best of the destruction.

A similar beetle infestation in the 1940s that had impacted 60 percent of a 225-square-mile portion of the Flattop Mountains resulted in Dallas’ counterparts from that era logging high-quality timber for homebuilding through the 1990s. Dallas estimated he had 20 to 30 years to do the same in the Rio Grande.

But just a decade after the lush conifers in the Rio Grande were attacked, he found that some of the trees had deteriorated to the point that they would be worthless to traditional markets. Without a market, Dallas’ role becomes “custodial,” waiting for a stray spark to ignite.

“The way we’re going now with the current forest dynamics, I am going to have limited management ability,” Dallas said. “There’s no way I can actively manage the spruce zone unless something changes.”

But change potentially is on the horizon: With the help of visionary private investors and a $200,000 U.S. Forest Service grant, an unprecedented multistakeholder cooperative could equip the Rio Grande and forests throughout the United States with tools for landscape-scale management.

The ‘perfect lab’

When Phil Seligman looked at the Rio Grande National Forest in early 2013, he saw land that was ripe for wildfire.

“This place was ready to pop,” said the president of Wood Source Fuels, noting that intense drought and beetle kill facilitated the explosion of the 109,615-acre West Fork Complex fire later that summer.

In Colorado, more than half a million acres of trees were impacted by insects and diseases in 2017, Colorado state Forest Service reported. For the sixth year in a row, spruce beetle was the state’s most widespread and damaging forest insect pest, with 206,000 acres of active infestations detected, about 67,000 of which were new.

Since 2002, 617,000 acres of high and midelevation forests in the Rio Grande have been infested by spruce beetles. Although spruce beetle activity has decreased dramatically (from 93,000 acres in 2016 to 47,000 acres in 2017).

Seligman has shipped timber with Union Pacific Railroad for more than 10 years, building a network of partners in the logging industry across the country. In 2010, he became involved with biomass after Tri-State Generation & Transmission asked him and Nate Anderson, a research forester with the Rocky Mountain Research Station, to conduct a study on the viability of generating electricity from biomass at the Nucla Station power plant. He estimated that biomass was almost as cheap as coal.

Although Tri-State passed on the opportunity to adopt biomass as a fuel source, the study planted the seed of cooperative forest management in Seligman’s mind. Seligman then arrived in the San Luis Valley and found a “perfect lab” to continue the work on biomass utilization that he and Anderson had started in Nucla. In addition to biomass, other end uses can include everything from landscape chips to animal bedding, with companies already expressing interest.

Unlike in most laboratories, though, Seligman’s work in the Rio Grande National Forest could alter its wildfire conditions for generations to come.

An unprecedented partnership

Seligman met Dallas, and the two began the uphill battle to form a cooperative that engages every player in the biomass market: buyers in the across the county and overseas, Union Pacific Railroad, an insurance company, tire distributor and forestry equipment dealer, among others.

After years of arduous negotiations, Seligman secured a $231,700 Wood Innovations Grant from the U.S. Forest Service in 2017 to create the cooperative — Forest Management & Marketing Limited — and invest in market expansion.

“The co-op represents people who see potential in our forests to be healthier and a resource,” Dallas said. “All you have to do is look at a map of the Union Pacific Railroad and see that it has tracks that go through other forests and almost any of those forests have a large scale die-off for one reason or another.”

Seligman said, “This was a tool built for the Forest Service. We feel that working with an entity like this that gives the Forest Service necessary contracts that they need but have historically had trouble getting.”

A critical collaborator is the Union Pacific, which will transport the biomass to processors and producers.

The cooperative plans to start construction as early as December on a chip plant in Antonito that would employ six to seven people and pull wood from the Carson and Rio Grande national forests.

If Seligman’s biomass estimations add up, they could build a larger biomass conversion plant that would employ about 200 people and source from the Carson, Rio Grande, San Juan and San Isabel national forests.

In the Rio Grande National Forest, 3,208 acres (and growing) are available for biomass harvest.

“We have a continental-scale problem, so if we can involve four forests, that’s a big deal,” Seligman said.

The extra jobs from the chip and conversion plant, the railroad, on-the-ground logging, and other related operations could bring economic help to one of Colorado’s most distressed counties. Between 2016 and 2017, Rio Grande County lost 11.5 percent of its businesses and 10.9 percent of its employment. Its poverty rate is 19.2 percent at a time when the state as a whole added 14.3 percent more jobs and expanded its business sector 7.2 percent.

“My jurisdiction starts and stops at the forest boundary, but we have a wider interest,” Dallas said.

“The forest is an integral part of the communities in the area; we’re part of their fabric given our employees live here, send their kids to school here, and what not. So to the extent that we can play a larger role, we’ll take it.”

A framework for proactivity

At the bare minimum, that responsibility is to protect residents and the area’s assets from fire.

It’s a challenge threatening the country and that has led to an explosion in fire suppression costs. In 2017, the costliest fire season on record, the Forest Service footed a $2.9 billion bill for more than 71,000 fires on more than 10 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Acres burned to date in 2018 have surpassed 8.2 million.

“When are we going to become proactive and not reactive?” Seligman said. “We’re spending so much money on fire suppression, and the more money we divert to it (instead of mitigation), the bigger the next fire season will be.”

Seligman and Dallas believe the cooperative, if successful, is a key piece of that transition.

“The possibilities are larger than this room, larger than this forest and we know that,” Dallas said. “Even if (we) can change one or two of these dynamics in here, we are advancing the needs of forest management in sites across the U.S. impacted by spruce beetle, lodgepole pine and others.”

Twitter: @lizmforster Phone: 636-0193

Twitter: @lizmforster

Phone: 636-0193

Liz Forster is a general assignment reporter with a focus on environment and public safety. She is a Colorado College graduate, avid hiker and skier, and sweet potato enthusiast. Liz joined The Gazette in June 2017.

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