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Voyageur's Best Features of 2003

Forest Management

Forest Management from the stump to the product
SmartWood involves seeing the forest through the trees
by Cyndy Brekke  |  March 18, 2003

The day began with tours of forest manage-ment sites, producers and manufacturing, but the focus was SmartWood. On Tues., March 11, officials from the County Land Department and SmartWood coordinators, led County Board Commissioners and interested individuals on a tour, to better understand what SmartWood certification is all about, see the process of forest harvest from the stump to the product, and discuss the impact of forest products which earn the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label.

While the SmartWood program may raise eyebrows on some folks, Assistant Land Commissioner, Mark Jacobs, is steadfast in his belief in the benefits, carrying a positive outlook on the impact to the forests, environment, recreation and economy.

“The benefits can include a diversity of forest products, including pulpwood and saw logs, habitat for wildlife species ranging from deer to woodpeckers, clean water to our lakes and streams, and a variety of forest recreation opportunities,” Mark recently wrote in an editorial. The problem with getting this program off the ground has been educating the public and getting businesses to take the chance. “... Market demand hasn’t matched up well with the capabilities of the local businesses... Consumer awareness of SmartWood is low, because those involved have been hesitant to promote products they weren’t prepared to deliver.” According to Mark, this ‘disconnection’ between consumers and manufacturers needs to end in order for the demand for FSC labeled products to increase.

SmartWood involves seeing the forest through the trees, ever mindful of the future health and value of those forests. Certified forests are evaluated, using international standards, which are based on the approach taken by forest management and, taking into consideration, how that approach is implemented. A forest is certified as ‘well managed’ if the management practices meet or exceed the standards criteria.

On Tues., the focus was on how forest stands are being managed for the future, what constitutes a ‘well managed’ forest, and the ‘chain of custody’ of the trees harvested, from the forest to the manufacturer or mill. “Today, we’re going to look at some forest management sites and some of the other types of things that we do, and make the connection between what’s coming out of the forest and what’s happening in the local industry,” Mark began explaining.

The first stop was in a hardwood oak stand, then to a stand of primarily oaks in Jewett Township, a tract of land which is county land and where thinning has been done for a few years.

Mark explained what the objective is at this and other sites like it. “Oak is a long-living tree species, which can live in excess of one hundred years. These stands in here are probably in the 70 to 75 year old range. Most of them have been thinned once already. About every 10-15 years, we can come in here and thin these stands and increase the growth on the better trees.” The forest managers use a system called Crop Tree Release, which consists of foresters walking through the woods and finding the nicest, highest-quality, straightest tree. Then, some of the defective trees around it are cut out, giving it increased growth. The crown expands, which allows the tree to grow faster.

“In essence, over time, we’re putting the growth on the highest-quality trees in the stand,” Mark continued. The final harvest will probably take place when the trees are between 100 to 120 years old, so there are quite a few years ahead. “Our goal is to have oak trees that are in excess of 20-inches in diameter, because they’re the highest value saw logs that we can get off this type of property.”

Before the final harvest, they set up what is called a Shelter Wood cut. This is where a heavy thinning is done to open up the stand to sunlight. “The acorns from the highest-quality, genetically superior trees are the ones that regenerate the future stands, so we can maintain the quality that we have in here.”

The quality outcome depends a lot on the care taken by those thinning it, which is usually left to local loggers, who purchase permits to log state and county lands. The oak stand in Jewett Township was done by a smaller outfit, using a cable skidder. Bigger equipment can be used, but the skill of the operator is what determines how much scarring occurs on trees left standing. Part of the success of the oak stand can be attributed to the care taken by the logger who thinned it. On the approximately 100 acre sale, the county received $135 per acre. Of the volume of wood taken out, 27 percent was actual logs and 73 percent was pulp wood, which is considered a successful thinning, since many defective trees were taken out for pulp. However, each time it is thinned, the percentage of saw logs will increase and, henceforth, the value will increase as well.

“This type of management accounts for about between 35 and 40 percent of the total acres that we harvest during a year,” Mark said. “State-wide, the average is about 12 percent. We [Aitkin County] are higher on the curve and do a lot more selective management than most other agencies in the state.”

The tour group then walked into the stand to take a good look around at the very impressive, managed oak stand. Some of the trees were still earmarked for removal, but the nicest trees were being left. “If you look around here, there’s still some pretty nice trees,” said Bob Kangas, forester with the Aitkin County Land Department. “Those are the trees that will make money for us, the loggers and the saw mills. Everything with hardwoods is sold by what they call ‘grade’. It’s not like aspen, where if you have 20 cords per acre, you get the same amount of money for that 20 cords, whether they’re good or bad. Hardwoods are a totally different story.”

Logs cut for veneer are more valuable than those cut for saw logs, so the higher grade the tree, the more it’s worth. This select, forest management practice is what qualifies Aitkin County’s forests as SmartWood. Loggers are not required to have certification, only those who take it after it’s cut.

All trees standing in Aitkin County’s forests (including State land in Aitkin County), whether they’re being harvested for pulpwood, saw logs or veneer, are SmartWood certified. So, what about private lands? According to Aitkin County Land Commissioner, Roger Howard, landowners can have their’s certified as well. “They have to have an audit team from SmartWood come in and do the certification,” Roger commented. “There are costs associated with being certified.” Roger went on to explain that a cooperative is in the process of being formed in Aitkin County, by private landowners, for the purpose of sharing the costs of having private timber audited, inspected and certified. This cooperative would benefit landowners by helping them share the cost of certification, while making their trees more valuable. “We’re trying to open new markets for wood from Aitkin County,” Roger concluded. Of course, if a landowner isn’t following proper forest management practices, the timber probably wouldn’t qualify for SmartWood certification.

The ‘Chain of Custody’ that began in the forest moves, then, from the forest to the mill or manufacturer. How are the logs handled, and what happens to the logs or lumber? At Hawkins Sawmill, the tour continued, and Tom Hawkins explained what his mill does with the logs that come in. At the time of the tour, they were sawing aspen, not red oak. But he showed, and explained, the process. The Hawkins Mill, who employes 10-14 people, saws four million board feet per year. “We saw strictly for grade here,” Tom explained to the group. “Actually, 50% of our production is pallet and low grade lumber, for pallet parts and cants. The rest of it goes for grade.” The mill tries to get the maximum dollar out of each log. “The bigger and better the log, the better we can pay and the better the yield.” Hawkins Mill receives most of the logs from a 100-mile radius. Logs are marked to keep track of who brought which loads, and there was approximately 1,800 cords on site. Grade logs are mostly red oak, considered to be the best log around this area, although the market is good for white oak as well. Ash is a good grade, but there’s not a very good market for it. Grade lumber from Hawkins is distributed to wood crafts in St. Cloud, as well as to Savanna Pallets in McGregor. Lowest grade lumber from the mill goes for $250 per thousand board feet, while high grade goes for $1,350. The mill can saw logs up to 42-inches and the heart of the log is where cants are produced. “No matter what, there’s always a cant in the center,” Tom stated. “So the bigger the log gets, the more volume of high grade lumber.” What does the typical log yield? It depends on the log, according to Tom, but the breakdown is usually 50-50. “If we buy logs, ten-inches and up, our yeild is 50% pallet, 50% grade lumber. As those logs get bigger, our yield of lumber goes up. We make our money in lumber, not in cants.”

Hawkins became SmartWood certified, but then dropped out. Why? “I thought it would be a good thing,” Tom began. “Utilizing the wood the best way, forest management and all that. Then, when I went into it, I got certified last year but, no market. That’s why I got out.” Now, however, with the increased exposure, the market is projected to pick up.

From the Hawkins Mill, the tour group stopped at a five-mile ATV trail, before heading to the final stop in McGregor. Savanna Pallets has two sites in McGregor: the downtown site and the airport facility. “We started on this site in 1994-95, when we put the sawmill up,” explained Al Raushel, one of the owners of Savanna Pallets Factory. “And it was in 1997 when we built the large building on back and moved our pallet production from the facility downtown to out here. We do have plans to add on to this building in a couple of months and transferring more of our business from our downtown location to out here, and also transferring some of our Esko production to this facility as well.” Savanna Pallets employs 50 people at the airport site, while seven or eight people still man the old facility downtown.

Al and Larry Raushel have undergone the process of making their pallet factory SmartWood certified. “We went through the certification process a couple of weeks ago, we just received the final contract yesterday [Mar. 10]. So, for all practical purposes, we’re on board for SmartWood pallets, or FSC pallets,” Al said. “We’re actually going to start producing them next week, and today, we received three loads of certified logs from Aitkin County.”

“Our expectation is,” Al continued, “starting out, we’re going to have an order for five or ten thousand pallets, for a customer down in the cities. Our thinking on becoming certified was, on a fair sized order, we wanted to be able to offer that to our customers who are looking for that sort of thing. We’re sitting here in Aitkin County, and the county has already taken the initial steps in getting the land certified, so it made sense for us to be part of that.” Savanna Pallets receives many of their logs from Aitkin County, and would certainly like to have more, and they’re hoping that it’s something they can add to their list of services they can provide to their customers.

The tour group was given a walk-through of the factory, which produces 20,000 pallets per week in McGregor. These range from lighter, ‘one-time use’ pallets to the heavier, multi-use pallets. They are made, primarily, with wood coming from an approximate, 50-mile radius. One third of the lumber comes from logs, one third from cants and one third from four quarters.These pallets travel all over the country and beyond. Those that are destined to go out of the United States are heat-treated in a special bay, where the core temperature of the wood is heated to 150º degrees farenheit, to kill any insects.

Al and Larry’s goal is to create a more professional pallet company. “When my father was starting the pallet business, they had a tendancy to be relatively small shops with ten employees or so,” Al said. “We’ve kind of taken this business and created a bigger manufacturing facility here, trying to automate, and we’re trying to serve a wide variety of customers in the whole gambet of products they’re looking for, whether it’s aspen pallets, hardwood pallets, heat treated, FSC, or whatever, we want to be able to offer that.”

So, ‘Chain of Custody’ is complete, from the forest, to the mill or the pallet factory. Aitkin County has 225,000 acres of certified forest, and 390,000 acres of state land, in Aitkin County is certified as well. It’s time to make the connection: Forest management isn’t just smart, it makes good ‘cents’.

This article first appeared in the March 18, 2003 issue of the Voyageur Press.