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Trees to Products: A Sustainable Route

By John Narney Recently my wife, Pam, and I attended the “Trees to Products Conference” in Wise, Virginia. The conference, sponsored by the Virginia Cooperative Extension in collaboration with the Southwest Virginia Chapter of the Society of American Foresters, provides educators an opportunity to get an in-the-field tour of sustainable forest-management techniques and observe the steps in wood product production. While not currently educators, we are Virginia Master Naturalists and thought this would be an excellent opportunity to enhance our understanding of forestry.

The first stop on our forestry tour was a reclaimed mining site. The area around Wise is hilly to say the least, and if you are standing in a flat area there is a good chance that it was a coal mine at one time. When the property owner sells the mining rights he tells the mining company how he wants the land reclaimed. Some of these lands have been developed, some are in pasture, and much of this has been reforested. We then toured federal and privately owned forests to see logging practices first hand. There was an emphasis on leaving trees near stream beds to maintain riparian borders. Timber cutters are required to post bonds to ensure that they protect water quality. In one area we saw a chipper the size of a minivan fill a semi trailer in less than fifteen minutes. Those wood chips went to Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy center which is designed to use up to 20% biomass for energy production. We saw areas that had recently been clear cut, with the exception of seed trees and a “den” tree, where the forest was starting to regenerate on its own. Leaving seed trees creates new growth through natural succession.

After the forest tour we visited wood product manufacturers including a saw mill, wood flooring company, a chip mill, and a paper plant. The impressive part of these visits was the realization that because profit margins are small there is very little waste in the whole process. Wood not suitable for logs is chipped and used for fuel. At the saw mill, saw dust is collected and sold for fuel and scraps go to the chipper. The flooring plant uses its saw dust to power the boilers that it uses to heat its kilns. The chip mill takes hardwood logs that are not suitable for lumber and reduces them to the chips that feed the paper mill. If no one told you there was a paper mill in town you wouldn’t know it was there. They use a closed pressure cooker type system to create the pulp so there is no paper mill smell.

A pine forest can be harvested in twenty or perhaps fifteen years but hardwoods may only be harvested once in a lifetime. This makes it important for the property owner to take advantage of the Department of Forestry, private consultants or industry foresters in creating a long term plan. Numbers prove the value of managed forestry in Virginia—there are 15.3 million acres of commercial timberland, our hardwood forest acreage today is 155% of what it was in 1940 and, for 2014, the ratio of the forest’s annual growth compared to harvest volume was more than 2.1:1 for softwood and 2.2:1 for hardwood species. Just like corn and soy beans, timber is a crop to be harvested and in Virginia it is harvested responsibly using environmentally sound practices with a goal of sustainability.

It is not a sin to cut a tree.

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