Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hardwood Management: Challenge and Opportunity

This week we began a major hardwood logging project on a portion of our Wolf Lake Camp timberland.
First a brief history of this stand. Since we purchased the "Hartley Estate" nearly 30 years ago, we have only harvested in this stand one time, back in the early 90's. That harvest was merely a salvage operation in which we picked up a number of mature trees that were either windthrown or damaged by a severe windstorm. At that time we made the risky decision to not harvest the Paper Birch in the stand. Typically most or all Paper Birch is harvested along with other products whenever an entry is made. The reason for this is simple. Paper Birch is considered a high risk "leave" species, because of its reputation of being intolerant of stress and disturbance. We have set out to prove that this assumption is not always correct.
We are in the business of producing high quality Paper Birch products. For that reason, we have developed methods of carrying this species to long rotation. This stand is proof that this can work in the right stand. The photographs which accompany this post show some very nice mature Paper Birch. We are harvesting many of them, but leaving enough to provide seed for the regeneration we are seeking.
The photos also show a number of other products which we are promoting, each of them also challenging but worthwhile. You will notice blue ribbons which mark young White Pine which we planted or seeded in naturally following the logging disturbance in the early 90's. These trees have struggled to establish themselves under the dense foliage of the nearly full hardwood canopy which remained from the salvage harvest. These remaining trees still have vigour, and many of them have good form. These young trees will now take off in growth, and will likely increase in height by over 12" per year. Returning the White Pine component to our hardwood sites is a priority of ours... more on that in later posts.
In the photos you will also see young Hard (Sugar) Maple trees with blue ribbons. These trees were selected by my father (Jack Rajala) and me as the best candidates to become valuable crop trees. This is almost unheard of in the northern Minnesota forest. Hard Maple is a wonderful and valuable wood species, and a valuable component of a mixed hardwood forest. The species benefits from being able to regenerate well following a light thinning, because it is the most shade tolerant of our hardwood species. However, the species faces tough challenges from a quality standpoint. Overcrowding of the thriving young Maple stems and deer browse (a tough challenge for many of our desired species) are the major challenges we face. Only a small percentage (less than 10%) of the Hard Maple poles are viable candidates for carrying to maturity for sawtimber. Dad and I inspected every pole in this stand and selected the trees that you see ribboned in blue. This is a time-consuming process but well worth the effort.
Also, please note that we have left numerous "snag" trees for insect and wildlife purposes. We have also left the best of the Red Oak for both an acorn crop, and ultimately a few spectactular veneer and sawlog trees. Some of these will die before the next harvest - that is the chance we take and again is worth the risk.
That leads finally back to the desired future of the Paper Birch component of this stand. We are purposely cutting this stand aggressively, in order to provide plenty of sunlight to the forest floor. This will give the Paper Birch a fighting chance to compete with the Hard Maple regeneration. Without the canopy opening and resulting sunlight, the shade tolerant Hard Maple will choke out the Paper Birch. In some sites that is OK. But not here - we want this stand to maintain a high percentage of Paper Birch. Leaving some of the best of the medium and large diameter Paper Birch in this cut is yet another level of risk. We need the best of the trees to maintain the best genetics in the seed source. But doing so means that we are leaving Birch behind for a SECOND time. Unheard of!!!
There will be 3 possible outcomes for the Paper Birch trees we leave. One is that they will die and fall down before we get back them. This will happen to at least 1/4 of them. That's a calculated risk we are willing to take. Another possibility is that the tree will survive to the next harvest, but will be affected by the stress of warmer soil temperatures, resulting in increased red-heart, "fleck", and other lumber "defects". The final and most desired outcome is that the red-heart will stay confined to the very center of the tree, and the final years of growth will be snow-white, for which our Paper Birch is famous. I have included photos which show both types of color. Note the phot of the 3 harvested Birch trees that have been bunched together after felling by the "feller-buncher". The butts of these trees show red centers and white outer rings. The veneers shown in the next product photo are from the Red Heart center of the tree. This photo was taken at the outfeed of the drier at the Rajala Veneer Company operation in Deer River, MN. They are strikingly beautiful. We are having some success in marketing this as a great look in its own right. (These veneers are destined for plywood for cabinet and door manufacturers). However, there's no denying that the ultimate and classic look which we desire is the clear white fiber that is shown in the final photograph - a package of 16' Select Grade lumber (quite rare and valuable) at our planer mill at the Rajala Mill Company operation in Bigfork, MN.
This process is important. If the future of the Northern Minnesota forest is to include long rotation hardwood and pine forests, and if quality Paper Birch, Hard Maple, Red Oak, and White Pine is to be a part of that forest, we must continue to increase our ability to both grow the trees and make valuable products from them. The investment that we have made in the management of our hardwood and pine stands is immense. It is truly the opposite of "walk-away forestry". The investments we have made in unique manufacturing and marketing processes to take advantage of all parts of the harvested trees is equally great. This is truly a win-win for the community, the forest and the economy. We are succeeding, and we will continue to improve. We hope and trust that others will continue to be encouraged to do the same. Feel free to contact us at any time for more information.

1 comment:

RedFlagLife said...


Thanks for taking the time to detail some of the complexities of forest management. Too often, we in the concrete jungle are critical of the forest products producers as environmentally destructive. And we do so without any knowledge of how businesses with a long term perspective on forest productivity and health in combination with the economic drivers can work. We are also a bit blind to the impact of our own consumption habits' impact on the environment, and how that consumption creates economic incentives for some forest products producers to take less of a long term perspective on forest health. Please keep the education coming, and thanks for running your business with our environment in mind.

Brent Frei