Researchers: Hardwoods could bring timber jobs

The trees are largely ignored in Idaho's forest-products industry, but one group sees possibility for change.

THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEWJuly 1, 2014 

Alex Benson, of the Idaho Department of Lands

Alex Benson, of the Idaho Department of Lands, carries boards from trees at the University of Idaho Sandpoint Research Station. The trees were planted 20 years ago to monitor growth characteristics and potential forest products.

KATHY PLONKA — The Spokesman-Review

SANDPOINT - Trudging through a densely planted patch of birch trees in spitting rain, Ronald Mahoney spotted one more. He yanked the chain saw into action, sawed a V-shaped wedge into the trunk and finished it off with a clean cut from the opposite side.

The birch, particularly beefy and marked with a blue ribbon, came crashing down precisely where Mahoney wanted it.

"You can see how fast it's growing," he said, squatting over the stump and tracing the circumference with his fingers. "Each one of these rings is a year. This one's growing maybe three-quarters an inch in diameter every year."

In Northwest forestry, where Douglas fir is king, Mahoney is trying to reintroduce hardwoods for commercial use. They are native species, he said, because "they're in the fossils." Soil types and climates vary widely enough here that small patches can be profitable.

"You can do things on this scale and involve a lot of people making a living and be easy on the environment," he said. "This is kind of like small farming."

Deeper in the patch, another chain saw buzzed to life.

Mahoney, a 65-year-old retired forestry professor from the University of Idaho, was about halfway through leading a small crew in logging about six dozen hardwoods from the school's research station. For 11 hours, the team - consisting mostly of students, members of the school's chapter of the Society of American Foresters - cut, piled and loaded eight species of trees. They'd been grown from seed sources ranging from Pennsylvania to Idaho to northern British Columbia.

They were planted more than two decades ago, when Mahoney, with the help of then-graduate student Yvonne Barkley, began studying how hardwoods grow in the heart of conifer country. The Sandpoint station was one of several patches in the Northwest and Canada where Mahoney and Barkley planted more than 30 species of trees.

Mahoney tracked the growth of paper birch trees. Barkley, now a U of I associate extension forester, wrote her master's thesis on the black cherry after two years of research.

"A lot of the ideas we had were right on track," Mahoney said. "We know there's a potential to grow a lot more species here than what's seen in the wild environment."

Mahoney said harvesting Douglas fir makes for great large-scale timber production in areas of coastal Oregon and Washington, it also creates a monoculture in inland areas such as Idaho. That monoculture is susceptible to disease and, quite frankly, is boring.

"(Hardwoods) are pretty much ignored as far as our commercial timber industry is concerned," he said. It's not the fault of the companies, he added - it's simple supply and demand: Hardwoods are too scarce to be considered a viable resource.

Mahoney said he's convinced small landowners - particularly those who moved from Eastern states who consider the broad-leaved trees "old friends" - and some city governments to start planting hardwoods. Local forestry officials in Sandpoint, Coeur d'Alene and other Idaho cities have been receptive to trying new species of hardwood.

But data and research on their growth patterns is hard to come by in the forestry industry, he said.

For his study on paper birch, Mahoney partnered with the Canadian Ministry of Forestry, which also wondered if the trees could grow sustainably. The wood is a popular source of furniture and food utensils, particularly chopsticks. Some of Mahoney's best trees at Sandpoint grew from seeds gathered near Fort Nelson, B.C., where Mahoney said there has been talk of building a large chopsticks factory nearby.

Barkley's black cherry study began in 1991 after she and Mahoney found a box of seeds left over from a study in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Based on the growth patterns, Barkley said, they decided to "expand this idea of alternative tree crops."

"It has clearly thrived," she said. "It's really cool because from the initial idea, trialing them out, caring for them now - to be cutting them down, it's the full circle of forestry, basically."

This summer, the school's forestry club is harvesting the most usable trees into 8-foot logs to be made into cutting boards, display cases and other furniture for the University of Idaho's Moscow campus - all the while discovering the sustainability of small-scale logging.

"They're learning a lot of skills, and even learning teamwork, see?" Mahoney said, pointing out a student who spotted a struggling friend. "Log too big? Get a buddy."

Pat Mahoney, Ronald's son and the current chairman of the club, said, "What's really cool about this project is that we're going to be taking a wood product from the stump to the finished product. That doesn't happen that often. Usually it changes hands a couple times."

Squinting in the rain, shards of sawdust stuck to his face, Ronald Mahoney said his passion for the outdoors goes back to his childhood growing up in Pennsylvania.

"When I was a little kid, I climbed up in a tree for the first time and felt right at home," he said. "I felt such an affinity for that tree, and that never changed. I've been in love with trees my whole life."

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