Four years ago, the trees on Larry Lipson’s property in western Montana began to die. Not just one or two, but 10,000 of them. The culprit was the mountain pine beetle, which has ravaged 23 million acres of forests in the U.S. since 2000.
With his father and stepmother, Dave and Nadine Lipson, he owns 37,000 acres that includes a cattle ranch, a resort and a 10-mile stretch of the Blackfoot River, other parts of which were featured in the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It.” The infestation had the potential to ruin their business, which banks on the area’s scenic beauty.
“Having a resort in Montana with no trees is a big problem,” Lipson said.
So rather than watch the bugs turn the land into a tinderbox for wildfires, the Lipsons decided to take steps to stop the beetles in their tracks. In the process, they found a way to turn their ravaged wood into something useful: a material for making accessories for Apple products. Their story offers lessons in adapting when an environmental crisis hits and, more broadly, how to be resilient in the face of adversity.
The mountain pine beetles that descended on the Lipsons’ ranch have coexisted with pine trees for millenniums, but as temperatures have risen in recent years, the insect’s range, population and winter survival rate have grown. The beetles now inhabit trees from Southern California all the way up to the Northwest Territories of Canada and as far east as South Dakota.
“From an evolutionary perspective, it’s very similar to a pack of wild dogs attacking an elk,” Andrew Liebhold, an entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service, says of the beetles’ prowess. “When they gang up on the tree in large numbers, they’re able to overcome its resistance.”
The Lipsons’ challenge was to shut down the pack.
“We had scouts that hiked through the forest, identifying trees that were infected,” Lipson said, adding that the needles turn a burnt-red color. The next step was to isolate those trees by thinning around them, then cut them down and haul them out. Within two years, their corner of the infestation was under control.
But now they had thousands of tons of lumber to dispose of. While other landowners burned the wood or sent it to mills to be mulched into sawdust, Lipson, a self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur, was eager to find a better use.
He learned that beetle-kill timber retains its structural integrity if harvested before the natural decay process begins. He reasoned that the wood could be used for flooring, framing and moldings in projects on the ranch, which has more than 50 buildings, so he sent 16 feet of raw timber to a mill for processing. What came back surprised him: a shimmery, blue-tinged wood. The mountain pine beetle, he found out, carries a fungus that produces a natural blue stain.
“We thought it was pretty spectacular-looking,” he said.
That further motivated the Lipsons to make something out of the wood. Last June, they started Bad Beetle, which makes accessories for Apple computers, tablets and phones. They also hope that the company will raise awareness about the mountain pine beetle infestation.
The accessories “have the ability to reach people who are interested in eco-minded issues,” Lipson said.
In January, Bad Beetle started offering iPhone backs and iPad stands on its website and has sold 730 so far. This summer, it will roll out cases for MacBook computers and iPads. Should Apple, which doesn’t require a licensing agreement for the products, become interested in selling Bad Beetle items in its stores or online, Lipson says, he’ll be prepared.
“We have a stockpile of blue-stain pine that will provide the raw material for Bad Beetle products indefinitely,” he said.
Were his supply to somehow run out, replenishing it would be easy. Some 20 billion cubic feet of such beetle-kill timber is standing in 12 Western states, by Forest Service estimates. Private land with gently sloping contours and good access to roads provides the easiest and most profitable harvesting and manufacturing opportunities.
Bad Beetle is not the only company using this wood. Judson Beaumont, a furniture designer who owns Straight Line Designs, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, creates cabinets, benches and children’s treehouses with beetle-infected two-by-fours. He estimates that in the past three years he has sold about 75 items at $1,000 to $4,000 each.
“It’s probably been my most successful run of furniture pieces,” he said.
John Stein, president of Kirei, a company based in Solana Beach, Calif., says architects and interior designers have been enthusiastic about the beetle-kill wood panels it began selling six months ago.
When they hear the back story, “it resonates,” he said.
That’s especially true in the West, where many prospective buyers have firsthand experience with the beetle infestation.
The Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory based in Madison, Wis., has worked with insect-killed wood for 50 years and is now using it as a component in plywood-like panels. The state of Colorado has exempted beetle-kill lumber, sawdust and furniture from sales tax and estimates that the value of items made from trees felled by the mountain pine beetle and the spruce beetle will hit $22 million this year.
The byproducts of two environmental scourges in Southeast Asia have similarly been transformed into furniture at the hands of Bannavis Andrew Sribyatta, founder and design director of a Miami design firm, Project Import Export.
He obtains dried water hyacinths and liana vines — both considered destructive plants — from his home country, Thailand. He weaves them into chairs, chaise lounges and wall panels for individual and commercial clients, including a Nobu restaurant in Los Angeles.
The story behind his creations often “seals the deal” for potential buyers, he says.
“Our work doesn’t stop at the point where I tell the customers about the product,” he said. “They tell their friends. It’s a topic of conversation.”
The effort involved in transforming these raw materials typically results in higher prices. Bad Beetle’s iPhone backs, for instance, cost $69, whereas silicone ones by fashion designer Marc Jacobs sell for up to $48 and resin hard cases by Kate Spade are $40.
Given the industry’s youth, it’s not yet known how many consumers will pay a premium for such products. But according to Thomas Lyon, a professor at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, the beetle-kill wood could be a tough sell.
Since it would otherwise go to waste, the timber that’s used can be considered sustainable. The response to sustainably produced wood has been underwhelming so far, Lyon says, adding that people tend to open their wallets enthusiastically only for items that affect their health or are showpieces. With wood products, those criteria rarely exist.
“Typically they’re hiding behind your walls,” he said. “Nobody can see that you bought sustainable wood.”
Buyers, however, could consider high-end furniture or hand-held tech accessories as a kind of wooden bling that’s worthy of their dollars.
If businesses can “transform the color into a positive so that it becomes something cool, then it may sell for a premium,” Lyon said. “But it won’t be because it was sustainable, is my guess.”