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California's Tree Die-Off Gives Life To New Business

SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST (KPIX) -- Deep in California, in the Sierra National Forest, there are more dead trees than live ones. And figuring out what do with them is a towering task.

Forest Supervisor Dean Gould sees the evidence every day of the state's massive tree die-off, a crisis that's claimed more than 102-million trees over eight million acres in the past seven years.

"It's unprecedented. A whole variety of conditions had to happen simultaneously and they did," Gould said.

The biggest culprit: a severe drought, which left the trees vulnerable to beetles.

And all those dead trees are creating other concerns. "Now we have a lot of fuel on the ground," Gould explained.

He says while many dead trees in remote areas will be left in place to decay, tens of millions of others that could topple onto roads and power lines or clog paths for firefighters, or fuel fires, have to go.

"If it's in a highly accessible area, we want to get it down."

Most of the dead trees are being trucked to biomass plants where organic matter is turned into energy.

At the Rio Bravo Rocklin Biomass plant in Placer County, plant manager Chris Quijano says his plant receives between 25 and 40 truckloads of California's dead trees each day.

"It's pretty available to us right now. It's good fuel for the plant," Quijano said.

"We take that woody waste material and put it in a boiler," Quijano explained. He says the flame generates heat, which generates steam, which creates electricity.

Biomass is considered a renewable energy source, because plants can be replaced with new growth. Burning biomass releases carbon emissions.

But that's far from the only use.

On a normally quiet street in Oakland, the formerly beetle-infested trees are being turned into tables.

"We got into this because we want to solve a problem," said Sam Schabacker, the co-founder of Sapphire Pine,, a start-up that uses lumber from California's devastated forests. The wood is known as "Beetle Kill Pine," because it comes from trees infested by the bark-beetle.

Sapphire Pine co-founder Sandra Lupien says the pest, when alive, causes a fungus, that leaves behind a bluish hue.

"It changes the color tones of the grain, so it creates these beautiful colors." The wood is dried in a kiln to kill the fungus.

Schabacker says he got the idea after living in Colorado, which had a similar tree die-off 20 years ago. He says California's dead trees are unique because of their coloring and size.

"They're beautiful, they're one of a kind."

While beetle kill wood has a lower grade than wood from healthy trees due to its markings, Schabacker says it's generally just as strong.

Scott Leavengood of Oregon State University's Wood Innovation Center agrees, saying it's "quite suitable for furniture."

And Lupien says there's another good reason to put it to use. "Instead of cutting down healthy trees, we can use trees that have already succumbed."

It's a use the Forest Service's Dean Gould hopes could call attention to California's tree die-off.

"It is dire," he said, "But there's another side to it. Let's acknowledge it for what it is and take advantage of the opportunity to raise public awareness."

The founders of Sapphire Pine agree.

"We're really hoping people will have deeper conversations about what is happening with our forests in California," Lupien said.

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