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Today's Timber Industry
By Leif Enger
November 17, 1998
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Part of Our State, Our Forests

Though old-growth forests were long gone, Minnesota's timber industry revived in the 1980s when new technology made the ubiquitous aspen tree a desired commodity. For a decade, Minnesota had the fastest-growing timber trade in the country. But even as pulp, paper, and chipboard mills continue to expand, questions have arisen about whether the forest is growing as fast as the businesses it supports.

WHEN GEORGE BOORMAN WAS A YOUNG LUMBERJACK in the 1920s and 30s, the men used axes and crosscut saws and horses. And they cut big pines - nothing scrawny.

Boorman: I never worked in a camp where we cut popple - aspen was weeds, you know? If they was in the road we'd cut 'em and drag 'em out of the way.

Boorman witnessed the end of the giant sawlog era. By the mid-30s the great white pines were all but gone, and huge tracts of forest land were starting to come back as pulpwood - jack pine and aspen. Sixty years later, these are the trees everyone wants. No one calls them "weeds" any more.

Third-generation logger Robin Walsh swivels inside the beeping, blinking cockpit of the family Ponsee, a logging machine with a robotic arm.

Walsh: What I'll do is extend the boom out and grab hold of the tree. The boom goes out 33 feet so I can take quite a few trees without moving.

The Ponsee's arm grips a jack pine. An automated chains cuts it off at the base. The pine tilts and spiked rollers force the trunk between a set of heavy blades. Limbs drop away, the trunk is sliced into clean 8-foot logs. Describing it takes longer than doing it.

The logging tradition has turned inside out from George Boorman's day. The trees are smaller, the machines are bigger. The workforce is much smaller; there are fewer than a thousand full-time loggers today, compared with 30,000 at the turn of the century. Yet timber is still Northern Minnesota's economic engine; a $7 billion industry that starts right up here, in a computerized cab.

Walsh: I have a little nephew who's three now, and he just loves sitting in here. I let him help me push the saw button. It's like a video game. You're sittin' here lookin' out a window, pushin' buttons, makin' it do what you want it to do.

Loggers like the Walshes cut 4 million cords of wood annually in Minnesota. That's a pile four feet wide, four feet high, and 6,000 miles long. About half that woodpile is aspen, which grows so fast and migrates so easily, it invaded much of the pine forest land which was logged off early this century. Tall and slim with smooth greenish trunks and trembling leaves that turn gold in autumn, aspen is sought by the paper industry because its dense fibers make strong paper. It also makes good OSB (Oriented Strand Board), the sheeting you see on new homes before the siding goes on. Minnesota has so much aspen, that in the last 15 years, paper and OSB plants spent $3 billion building new factories, or expanding old ones.

The Potlatch company has three Minnesota OSB plants, like this one, in Grand Rapids. A log riding the automated line is debarked, sawn to short lengths, and fed into what's called a "waferizer," from which it emerges as a pile of thin flakes a few inches long. The flakes pass through cylindrical twirling dryers as big as school buses, then are aligned in crisscross layers and permeated with resins and wax before being pressed into sheets. "Stand back," says plant manager Randy Anderson, "the presses breathe heat."

Anderson: We have about 2,000 pounds per square inch on the mat, and about 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperature's actually what activates the resins.

Though OSB factories like this one employ hundreds of Minnesotans, this is highly automated manufacturing; you can walk much of the line without seeing a soul. That and cheap aspen have made OSB so economical to produce, it now claims 50 percent of the market once owned by plywood. Ron Salisbury is Potlatch's vice president for Minnesota wood products.

Salisbury: If you went in a plywood mill in the early 80s, it wasn't unusual to have 300 workers laying up the plywood. Today, you look at an OSB plant, it takes 22 people to run an eight-hour shift. That's everyone from guard to supervisor to quality control. Very efficient in terms of the man-hours it takes to turn out a quality product.

Remember that 6,000 mile pile of wood? OSB accounts for 2,000 of those miles all by itself. Simultaneously, the paper industry has mushroomed: every major paper producer in Minnesota has expanded since 1980. All this growth is driven by aspen and, says Dr. Jim Bowyer, who teaches Wood and Paper Science at the University of Minnesota, by those famous spotted owls in the forests of Oregon.

Bowyer: The Pacific Northwest, which has about the most productive forest lands anywhere in the world - we as a nation have decided there are reasons we shouldn't use vast parts of that region for timber production. One person's tragedy is very often someone else's gain, and I think in fact, for a 10-year period starting in the early 80s, we had the fastest-growing forest industry in the 50 states.

But all that growth put pressure on Minnesota forests and on the industry they support. Environmentalists contended too much logging was underway. The state sponsored a Generic Environmental Statement, or GEIS, designed to guide future timber policy. The GEIS has been denounced by environmentalists who say it's too industry-friendly - allowing, for example, a possible increase in logging to 4.5 million cords per year. Industry spokesman Wayne Brandt says the increase wouldn't hurt the forest a bit, but says pressure from environmental groups has already taken a lot of trees off the market.

Brandt: U.S. Forest Service has decreased the amount of timber it puts up for sale. The DNR has decreased what it puts up for sale. There's only so much shifting between landowners that can occur.

In the past, the industry bought about half its trees from national forest, state, and county land; the other half from private landowners. Brandt says with public sources scaling back, the price of raw timber is climbing. Some manufacturers now import a percentage of their pulp from Canada.

Brandt: There's a difference in the price of standing wood, before it's harvested. The spread between Minnesota and Ontario is 30 bucks a cord. Theirs is $5, ours is $35 a cord. If the trees in Minnesota continue to become more costly, manufacturing plants have only two choices: find less costly fiber or shut themselves down.

The first option may be difficult. Environmental studies show in a decade or less there could actually be a shortage of Minnesota aspen of the size used in paper and OSB. Meanwhile, mills in Canada and the Southern U.S. are giving Minnesota producers more competition each year.

Nichols:: The clone is an NM 6. Actually a cross between a black poplar from Europe and a maximizia from Japan, and you can see it's grown, well, 26 - 27 feet now.

To supplement what may be a shrinking wood supply, the industry is turning to science. Boise Cascade is one of several paper makers playing with aspen genetics. This NM 6 clone, 26 feet tall, is just two years old. In a fusion of forestry and agriculture, the company has leased 700 acres to test thousands of hybrids. Research head Tom Nichols describes the ideal aspen.

Nichols: The perfect tree would be almost a hundred percent fiber. Thinner bark would be ideal, nice white color, insect resistance, disease resistance. The ideal-sized fiber - not too long, not too short.

Though still experimental here, Boise Cascade has an 18,000 acre fiber farm in Washington state. The trees there reach 80 feet in six years, and are cut for pulp. Every paper maker in Minnesota is either experimenting with hybrids or considering it. The University of Minnesotaís Jim Bowyer says in a culture torn between consumption and preservation, growing wood fiber as an agricultural crop may be an important compromise.

Bowyer: In the U.S. every year we use more wood than all metals, all plastics, and all cement combined, and yet our willingness to put up with the effects of producing basic raw materials appears to be at an all time low. Somehow we have to come up with a way of reconciling the two. The stuff has to come from somewhere.

Despite wood-supply worries, Bowyer believes the U.S. market for paper and OSB will continue to drive Minnesota's timber industry. At least one market analyst has predicted a slowdown for the industry in 1999, followed by a recovery in 2000 or 2001.