Mention a timber harvest, and most people envision a clear cut-nothing but stumps left in what appears to be total destruction. In the case of trees harvested to supply the domestic hardwood flooring industry, however, that's rarely the case. Today's hardwood forests that are managed for timber production are usually carefully monitored and harvested for sustainability. After the loggers move out, a casual onlooker may not even recognize that the forest was recently harvested.
To observe hardwood forest management firsthand, Hardwood Floors spent a day in a northern Wisconsin forest managed by Laona, Wis.-based Nicolet Hardwoods Corporation and its forester, Al Murray. Based in the heart of the Nicolet National Forest, the company owns and manages about 40,000acres, and is a supplier to sister company WD Flooring, also based in Laona. In this area of the state,about 75 percent of the people make their living off timber production,either directly or indirectly.
The 10-year harvest rotation maximizes growth while minimizing value loss and mortality. All species of trees are managed regardless of value or size. Lower-value hemlock and soft maple are retained for species diversity. Giant red and white pines, which provide"super canopy" nesting sites for bald eagles, are managed individually and are salvaged when they die.
Bey now "bucks" the tree into usable lengths. He uses a measuring stick,marked with foot measurements, to calculate where he'll cut the tree for maximum log value. While the tree was standing, he examined it for defects and noted where it tapers. Now, he does the same thing on the ground and cuts the tree in even-numbered increments to get logs between 8 and 16 feet. This tree will result in about 600 board feet of lumber, or approximately 125 square feet of flooring. A typical log such as this will result in about 30 percent No. 1 common and higher grade lumber, often used for cabinets and furniture; 40 percent 2A and3A lumber, which is milled for flooring and other uses; and 30 percent heartwood,which is used for pallets and furniture framing. Top wood, not part of the board foot measurement, is utilized to a minimum diameter of 4 inches as pulpwood,which is made into paper.
Foresters examine stumps and log piles following cutting. An examination of this stump reveals that the tree was probably cut at the right time: If the tree were left for much longer, the heartwood would grow and radiate out, decreasing the value of the tree.
The maple stump also reveals some "curly" figuring. Curl and bird's-eye are disfigurations that are highly sought after by lumber customers, who pay a premium for them. Scientists are still unsure what causes these natural effects.
Now Bey uses a contraption called a "forwarder" or"skidder" to move the logs from the woods to the logging road. The compact machine moves through the forest with surprising ease, and most small trees and plants in its wake spring back up after it passes over them (photo below). Such small and maneuverable machines are becoming hard to come by, as the trend in logging is toward larger equipment and higher production. Such large equipment works better in clear cut harvests and places such as pine plantations.
With the volume of timber transported, road maintenance is crucial to the logging operation: Nicolet maintains about 200 miles of its own roads, with its own bulldozer, road grader and road-maintenance crew.
The most careful forest management can’t do anything about Mother Nature: A tornado the previous week wreaked havoc on the forest. From aerial photos of the damage taken by the U.S. Forest Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, along with his own observations, Nicolet Hardwoods forester Al Murray estimates that about 1 million board feet of timber was knocked down. Loggers are now concentrating on removing as much of the downed timber as possible before it starts to rot. Murray guesses it will take between 60 to 70 years of management for the forest to recover to the health and age classes it had before the storm.
While stories often appear in the mainstream news of illegal logging and rampant deforestation in developing nations, there is one such country that has a longstanding tradition of sustainable forestry. Myanmar (formerly Burma), with the most extensive stands of teak in the world, has had a formal forest management plan in place since 1856, when the country was part of the British Indian colony. German forester Dietrich Brandis, now widely considered the father of tropical forestry, was hired to create a plan to manage the teak supply for the future.
Under Brandis’ plan, the forestland was divided into a series of grids. Only teak trees that were over a certain diameter in a grid could be harvested, and the harvest rotated among the grids so that by the time the rotation returned to the first grid, there was a new supply of age-appropriate trees ready for harvest.
Today, although the country is ruled by a military dictatorship, the stringent teak management plans are still in place. “They want to maximize the profitability of that marvelous natural resource, so they do it,” says Chuck Dean, president at Wilmington, N.C.-based Dean Hardwoods, who has visited the country many times and has been buying Burmese teak for more than 30 years.
Harvesting of the logs is done much the same as it was a century ago. Usually, the oldest trees are “girdled,” meaning that a ring is cut into the sapwood around the tree. Once the dead tree has lost the required amount of moisture—typically about three years later—it is cut and pulled out, usually by elephants, which have a minimal impact on the remaining forest. Most often the logs are then transported by floating them down streams and rivers.
In reaction to the Myanmar regime’s human rights violations, among them the repeated arrests of democratic activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, today the U.S. government bans the purchase of teak lumber from Myanmar. So, companies such as Dean’s must buy material from sawmills in Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other countries that import raw Burmese teak logs. “Unfortunately, it has no economic impact except an adverse one on us, because it makes it more difficult to get the timber,” Dean says.
Although he no longer can buy directly from Myanmar, Dean still has personal relationships with Myanmar officials. “We don’t have any formalized relations with them and don’t directly do business with them anymore, but we have some friends,” he says. “It’s been my naïve hope that through some of those friendships, those person-to-person relationships, gradually the dictatorship would melt into some form of democracy.” —K.M.W.