The wood killed by mountain pine beetles is infused by a beautiful blue stain. Despite its distinct appearance, a blue-stained log receives a lower price at the mill. But Ryan Palma, owner of Sustainable Lumber in Missoula, has developed a business based on the natural beauty of locally available wood, with a major focus on beetle-killed ponderosa pine.
Palma's business works because of several remarkable partnerships. He relies on the wood-crafting skills of three Mennonite families in Gold Creek, an independent logger and small mill operator in Racetrack, and a small staff in Missoula to make it all work. Together, they transform what was originally low-quality wood into high-quality flooring, table slabs, custom doors and a variety of other products. This network employs 18 people, plus a few part-timers.
"I like the color," Palma says of the blue wood, "but mainly I like the fact that we are using it—that it is going all over the country. Putting a [blue stain] table from Montana in New York is pretty cool."
Interestingly, just as Palma's business relies on strategic partnerships, so do the mountain pine beetles that supply his blue-stained materials. Woody tissues contain almost no nutrients, and alone, cannot sustain the beetles' young. The insects partner with two species of fungi that provide the things that wood does not—nitrogen for making proteins, sterols for making hormones and more. In return, the beetle fulfills its end of the bargain by transporting the fungi from tree to tree, ensuring that the fungi also have food. The beetle has even evolved small "suitcases" in its shell to carry the fungi safely to the next tree. While many are aware that blue-staining in pine is the result of beetle attack, few people know the stain is actually created by fungi.
Palma is less interested in how the blue stain is transferred as he is in selling his products to new customers. After only three years in business, Palma has shipped to every state in the nation. Even a homeowner from Calgary—which has more than its fair share of blue stain these days—bought some. Palma says it's because the customer considers the color of Montana blue-stained wood superior to Canadian.