The Wyoming way to tackle wildfire

The best defense against catastrophic wildfire is a good offense – sound forest management to improve forest health and reduce fuel loads. But state and federal land managers often do not have the luxury to invest; same as catastrophic wildfires consume forests, fire suppression dollars consume budgets.

The State of Wyoming is doing its part to reverse this trend. Recent fire seasons in Wyoming have been mild, leaving unused money from the state’s suppression fund. The governor’s office, with approval from the state legislature, made the money available for the removal of mountain pine beetle-infested trees throughout the state. Two $1 million grants were created for the work, under the direction of the Wyoming State Forestry Division.

Wyoming Forest Health Program Leader Les Koch explains that several state partners were identified as potential cooperators for the funding; a number of conservation districts stepped up immediately to the challenge. “They’ve been the main force,” he says.

Both the Weston County and Crook County Natural Resource Districts (NRD) were rewarded funding for mountain pine beetle mitigation projects. The efforts aim to treat tens-of-thousands of acres – much of it private – throughout the region with the help of dozens of partners and a combined budget of close to $800,000. Both projects are at the midway point of the two-year funding.

The Black Hills Regional Mountain Pine Beetle Working Group holds monthly in-person meetings where partners advance projects from their on-going action plan. Weston County NRD District Coordinator Lacey Gurien was one of 22 attendees at the April meeting. The group works across state boundaries to include players from South Dakota State Forestry, and welcomes diverse stakeholders from local timber companies, county weed control, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resource Conservation Service, local RC&Ds and representatives from the U.S. Forest Service.

Individual projects in year one of the grant included GPS tracking and treatment of more than 45,000 beetle-infested trees, of which 12,000 were salvaged by a local lumber mill.

“In my years working on conservation efforts this is the best collective I’ve seen,” says Gurien, “Federal and state partners and other groups coming together with landowners. It’s truly an all-lands approach to addressing the problem.”

Weston County NRD also brings landowners to the table for education and planning. The district helps organize lunch-and-learn workshops that educate landowners on topics such as how to identify mountain pine beetle infestation, why management improves forest health, and how management can help prevent against future beetle attacks. Says Gurien, “Naturally, they want their land to be a viable forest and they want to do their part in stopping the (beetle) epidemic.”

Gurien is also working with Jeremy Dedic of Wyoming State Forestry Division on educational outreach. The two bring harvested material containing live beetles into the classroom where they discuss a range of topics, such as the positive effects forest management has on wildlife. The kids can see galleries of larvae in the chunked wood and gain an appreciation for the need to manage the current beetle epidemic. “Visits begin with kids having blank looks on their faces, but once they start interacting with the samples they become more engaged and they form opinions and ask questions,” Gurien says. A couple students are currently exploring using the topic for their science project with assistance from Wyoming State Forestry.

The highlight of the program may not be the amount of beetle-infested wood coming out of the Black Hills but rather where that wood is headed. One of the great obstacles in treating public and private beetle-infested forests has long been the assumed low-end value for the material being extracted. The beetles leave a blue stain that some view as a defect; the Council of Western State Foresters released a brochure recently, however, supporting the use of the material, noting blue stain lumber will not weaken over time, is not a form of mold and is just as durable as non-stain lumber.

Koch says there is plenty of demand for the blue stain material in Wyoming. “We have a growing niche market for it, especially the log furniture… tables, chairs, beds – anything you can imagine,” he says.

Todd Anderson and his son operate a construction company in the region and began incorporating blue-stain wood into some of their projects recently. Anderson recently completed a 3,500-square-foot bungalow which utilized blue stain material he gathered from a local mill. Anderson purchases it unfinished (requiring an additional 20% labor cost) but has found a demand. “Not only does the blue bring out grains, but for an affordable wood you get a lot of character. I think it’s beautiful… and appreciate that it reduces the risk to our forests.”

The work excites Gurien, who admits she knew little about the epidemic before relocating to Wyoming earlier this year. “We’re making a difference by treating dead trees,” she says, “but just as important we’re salvaging all we can and trying to get ahead of the beetle.”

To learn more about these projects, contact Weston County NRD District Coordinator Lacey Gurien at 307-746-3264, or via email at