Forestry for fun and profit. Well, fun.
June 16, 1983
Trying to grown anything in Illinois other than corn or soybeans has been a challenge for a long time. The secret to growing trees—of which Illinois once had a great many more—is to try to grow them like row crops. Or so said the experts I quoted in this piece.
The sentiment is hardly original, but it remains apt: I think that I shall never see/A soybean lovely as a tree. But I confess that I seldom paused to consider trees—Illinois trees anyway—in their manifold economic aspects. It is an error I hope not to make again.
The cause of my education was the most recent issue of Illinois Research, the quarterly published by the University of Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station. (Your dentist doesn't get it? Have him write Agricultural Publications Office, 123 Mumford Hall, 130 W. Gregory, Urbana, 61801.) Gary Rolfe, head of the university's forestry department, notes therein that while Illinois ranks in the top ten U.S. states in wood use, it languishes in the bottom five in wood production. Of the 14 million acres of woods which graced the state 150 years ago, all but four million have been cleared, leaving only about 11 percent of the state forested. The national average, I was surprised to learn, is 30 percent.
However, as is pointed out by George Weaver (who is Rolfe's counterpart at Southern Illinois University), "Illinois forests are minor only on a relative scale. In absolute terms they represent a major resource." For example, some three million acres of Illinois are being farmed that reasonable men and women would agree probably shouldn't be. These acres include steeply sloping land (whose soil is eroding at ruinous rates) and floodable bottomland. If these acres were planted in trees, the state would realize reduced soil erosion, improved flood control, and expanded wildlife habitat—lots of what Weaver described insufficiently as "potentially significant benefits."
Alas, goodness seldom pays in this world. Allan Mickelson, a forester with the state Department of Conservation, writes that a typical hardwood "crop" sold for lumber may net its owner $10 per acre per year, and only after waiting fifty years for it to mature. This will never do. Concludes Rolfe and his colleague Robert Herendeen, "Limitations on forestry in Illinois are primarily economic rather than political or biological."
It was not the first time I had heard that plaint. A few years ago I spent a pleasant afternoon in the company of Mr. A. C. Hart of Arenzville, Cass County. Much of Cass County is sand country, part of that belt of sand left behind by a younger, more vigorous Illinois River. The soil is more fit for melons than corn, unless one waters it. The soil tends to wander away with the wind too, which is a big reason why Cass and Mason counties, its neighbor to the north, have been the site of experimental tree plantings for erosion control since the 1930s.
One of the planters was A. C. Hart. The trees chosen for the job were pines—imports, since conifers are not really native to Illinois. (Less than one percent of the state's trees are conifers.) "Too far north for the short leaf or the loblolly," explained Hart as we bumped along a township road, "and too far south for the white, the red, and the Scotch." Pines adopted Cass County with few complaints. "They loved the sand. They need an acid soil."
"If someone asked me whether they should go into forestry to make money, I'd tell them no," Hart said without bitterness. "We used to pay people $5 a day. Now you have to pay them the minimum wage, and at the minimum wage it's hard to find people who'll work hard." Trees remain part of the local economy, however. Hart first marketed Christmas trees in the '30s, when one of his men took a truckload into Beardstown. "He was a good peddler. We made $47 that year. If we had to do it over again we'd pay more attention to Christmas trees. You can use rapid rotation, it's seasonal work, and the demand's good." Other people have paid attention to CHristmas trees; one sees side yards all over Cass County planted in rows of Douglas firs, most of which are shipped to be sold in St. Louis or Peoria. As for Hart's own holdings, he says simply, "You have to take part of your pay in aesthetics and erosion control."
Well, maybe a little money too. As Hart himself proved, trees grown for firewood or pulpwood can be harvested on a ten-to-twenty-year rotation instead of the thirty to fifty required to produce hardwood for lumber. (Christmas trees seldom take longer than twelve.) Most promising of all (especially for marginal lands) are short-rotation species like the autumn olive which can be harvested every three to seven years and used as paper pulp, for energy (burned directly or digested into methane), even chemical feedstock. It's all a matter of choosing the right mix of trees, technology, market, and merchandising.
One of Illinois's tree whizzes is Lester Arnold. He recently explained in a newsletter from the state's Department of Energy and Natural Resources that foresters have been telling private landowners for years to cull poorer hardwoods from their stands to allow the more vigorous growth of survivors, which can then eventually be sold as veneer or saw logs. Culled hardwoods make first-class firewood, but the economics were never compelling enough to make harvesting it worthwhile. To fix that, Arnold has developed machines to package cut wood, drawn up plans to burn wood chips from local sawmills to dry the firewood cheaply (allowing more rapid marketing), and has formed a not-for-profit firewood wholesalers organization to handle marketing. Such economies, Arnold predicts, will make possible the delivery by truck of southern Illinois firewood up and down the state—a market worth as much as a million bucks a year.
That ain't all. One of the ag experiment station's projects is a test of integrated forestry and farming, dubbed agroforestry. Rows of trees (pines, pecans, poplars—it depends on the intended end use) are planted in widely spaced rows. Conventional grain crops are raised between the rows for several years until the trees grow tall enough to shade the grain rows. (In the meantime, of course, the landowner has realized the profits from the grain sales, plus erosion control and windbreak protection.) In later years the land around and beneath the trees can be grazed by livestock, whose trampling, happily, prevents the sprouting of nuisance seedlings in the stand. Conclude researchers, "Agroforestry may one day be reasonably competitive with some of the [crop] systems that now require large amounts of fossil fuel," at least on poorer soils.
It is ironic, though not unexpected, that at a time when the state is looking for ways to increase the size of Illinois forests, Washington is trying to reduce them. In March, the USDA proposed to study the possible sale of more than a quarter—roughly 70,000 acres—of the Shawnee National Forest. Observers on both sides of the issue seem to agree that the economics of land being what they are, most of that land would be cleared for farming or grazing were it to revert to private hands. Complaints were heard from several quarters, including Cass County. There, Virginia's Bruce Armstrong warned in letters to editors that private owners "would cut down every tree that would produce a 4 x 4 board and bulldoze the rest. Just take a look around in central and northern Illinois."
We have, thank you, and are sobered by what we see, rather what we don't see anymore. Mighty oaks from tiny acorns still grow, but not without a tax break. ●
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