Invasion of the beetles, and a rancher's revenge

How one rancher got his revenge and prospered

New York TimesNews ServiceJune 10, 2013 

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 United States 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 says.

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 millennia, 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 M. 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 says, 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, 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 says.

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.

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.

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.

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