Seeing the forest for its trees
Cooperatives promote sustainable forestry and tap green trends
By Pamela J. Karg
think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree" opens Joyce Kilmer's famous poem memorized for decades by millions of schoolchildren. Now the poem could very well serve as the rallying cry for a growing number of woodland owners who are sustainably - and cooperatively - managing and marketing their timber.
"We're trying to identify and capture a growing area of interest," explains Tom Thieding, president of the Sustainable Woods Cooperative in southwestern Wisconsin. "People are looking at green construction, energy efficiency, where their products are coming from and how those resources are managed. And this isn't just happening with individuals. You're seeing more municipalities talking about 'green construction.' We're committed to managing our forest lands in a sustainable way, logging them with discretion and building efficiencies into how we prepare that lumber for the marketplace."
Almost three years old, the Sustainable Woods Cooperative includes 85 members who own 10,000 acres of woodlands that stretch across some of the same landscape that Frank Lloyd Wright, John Muir and Aldo Leopold called home. Three hours away, a second sustainable forestry project is taking shape in the Mississippi River coulee region north of LaCrosse, Wis., and Winona, Minn.
Other woodlot owners across the two states are also discussing sustainable forestry practices and the formation of cooperatives to process and dry the harvested wood. Credited with getting landowners to think sustainably about their forests and helping give birth to these new cooperatives is Jim Birkemeier.
Birkemeier's Timbergreen Forestry is nestled against the Baraboo Bluffs, a national natural landmark designated by the U.S. Park Service because of its unique bio-diversity and geological treasures. On his 300-acre farm purchased by his family in 1973, Birkemeier has patiently brought his forest back to full vigor while reaping increased financial rewards.
"When I started talking about sustainable forestry, all I did was get people irritated," Birkemeier recalls. "The industry was making big money off the forests and landowners didn't think their timber was worth managing."
What is sustainable forestry?
Economists rank the forest products industry as one of the world's most important for both the global economy
and the environment. It represents close to 3 percent of the world's gross economic output. In the United States, an estimated 10 million non-industrial private forest (NIPF) owners (individuals, partnerships, trusts and clubs, for example) control nearly 60 percent of commercial forests.
East of the Mississippi River, NIPF ownership is estimated at over twothirds of the region's timberland. In the West, the majority of forests are in public ownership. The 261 million acres in NIPFs protect watersheds, provide wildlife habitat, offer scenic beauty and supply nearly 50percent of the timber harvested in the United States, according to the USDA Forest Service. This supply is critical for many large wood products manufacturers. Weyerhaeuser Co., for instance, harvests nearly 60 percent of its timber supply from NIPFs nationally, and 90 percent of these lands are in the South.
Birkemeier maintains that landowners would act differently if they were educated about sustainable forestry practices. Annual property and capital gains taxes can discourage sustainable forest management. Without proper estate planning, some owners are forced into decisions that can prevent them from passing forests from one generation to the next. Woodland owner's immediate financial cirumstances too often determine wheter forests will be managed sustainably or not. Birkemeier went to work, calculating icome gains and training people to take a new look at their woodlots - to see the forest for its individual trees. To prove his ideas, he took an inventory of every foot of his own forest.
The forest Products Buyers Group defines sustainable forestry as woodlots that are "managed with proper consideration for the needs of the entire natural ecosystem of the woodland. Generlly, this means that timber is harvested in such a way that protects local water sources, maintains biodiversity in the area, and respects indigenous rights. Today's generally accepted standards for sustainable forestry take into account many different types of forests and ecosystems, social concerns, the imapact on the community, and profiability."
Following what he learned in college forestry classes and from the sustainable forest management practices used by Wisconsin's Menominee Tribe, old, dead and fallen trees were hauled out and processed into usable board feet.
"I built a sawmill with solar kilns and ended up developing a better income for this family farm than I could have done making hay or raising cattle," Birkemeier explains.
He worked with a nearby Amish community and their horse-drawn equipment to carefully and efficiently harvest logs. The solar kilns added more efficiency into his system and proved that quality board feet could be produced. And Birkemeier found buyers willing to pay more for the lumber because of the extra measures he took.
The results? Peop e oo e at eir own woodlots with renewed interest. Environmentally, Birkemeier proved that sustainable approaches revitalized the forest because landowners selectively removed the worst trees first.
Jim Beeman of Hiawatha Sustainable Woods Cooperative agrees. A former forest products buyer and selfemployed mill operator, Beeman became disgusted over lumbering practices and helped start the Mississippi River coulee region cooperative. It has 53 members who own some 6,000 acres of woodland in western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota.
"I was doing what other foresters were doing," Beeman says. "I advocated clear-cutting of large, old oaks because the younger ones needed the light and space to grow. Everyone is trying to get the most out of their piece of the pie. Landowners didn't know any better than to take what they were offered by the buyer. Loggers knew they needed to do whatever it took to hold down costs and get the trees out so they could make money. And the corporations would make the money. It was an adversarial situation, up and down the line."
The logger had heard about Birkemeier and read about the Sustainable Woods Cooperative. With experience as a member of a food and an electric cooperative, Beeman and his neighbors met to discuss other approaches.
"No one else in this industry ever said you should be honest, open, selfsufficient until we learned that the whole cooperative umbrella offered us a difference from what was happening in so much of the rest of the corporate world," Beeman says. "Now, we're not trying to buy trees from our members. Instead, we're promoting the wise use and harvesting of them. That's a whole different way of thinking."
Violent windstorms over the past two summers downed an estimated 170,000 acres of timber in Hiawatha's region of the two states. Rather than cutting live trees, members are busy salvaging downed timber from their own lands. The logs will be processed into value-added flooring, millwork an or er products.
Certified wood an option
Salvaging downed timber is a pivotal approach to sustainable forestry. Through practices such as salvaging, landowners' lumber can become certified. The Forest Product Buyers Group defines the 'certified' label on lumber or wood products as signifying that the wood comes from a well-managed forest. The label, issued by an independent auditing organization, guarantees or certifies that the wood in the product was harvested from a forest that is managed according to a comprehensive set of environmental and social principles and practices.
As the wood goes from forest to processor to wholesaler, it is tracked and monitored by the certifier to ensure that the end product is kept separate from uncertified wood. This "chain of custody" by the certifier guarantees that the buyer and the end consumer know what they are buying and actually get what they are paying for.
The wood certification is voluntary. The label tells customers that the forest, its ecosystem, and local forest economies have been protected in bringing the product to market.
"But when we originally talked to forest owners, explained the costs and explored the benefits, not a single for est owner could believe this would pay off," Birkemeier notes. "The 10 to 15 percent projected increase in value for certified wood is dwarfed by a 13 percent per year stumpage price rise and the 200-percent variation in bids for logs from area sawmills. It appears the costs of the "chain of custody" would eat up any real increase in value of certified wood products. Individually, few small woodlot owners are likely to benefit from selling certified logs from their forest." However, that's where he believes a cooperative makes sense.
"A value-added cooperative that would sell certified flooring, millwork, architectural lumber and other wood products is a much better proposition for forest owners," Birkemcier says. "Producing high-quality wood products is very easy to do on a small scale. A group of owners can mill, dry and manufacture retail products, and will learn a lot about forestry in the process. The cooperative virtually eliminates the chain of custody. Certification makes sense and gives a special niche to make marketing even easier. If any premium is possible for certified wood, it will go directly back to the forest owner who manages the land. Higher demand for certified wood will mean lower marketing costs, giving another 'certified premium' directly to the forest owner to encourage even better forest management for the future."
Creating and targeting markets
Creating a market is key. According to Arnie Klaus, manager of Woodworkers Northwest, establishing sustainable forests requires a demand for sustainable forest products. "Today, the demand for certified wood products is still very low and the supply of these products is sparse; thus the investment of landowners, mill owners, and woodworkers is limited," Klaus said in a recent letter to members.
Based in Bellingham, Wash., Woodworkers Northwest is a non-profit, educational organization whose members represent all phases of woodworking: forest landowners, lumber recyclers, mill owners, crafters, wholesalers and retailers. Members share a common interest in creating a value-added, sustainable resource enterprise in timber-depressed communities. Klaus says members recognize a potential opportunity to lead a regional certified wood movement and introduce a brand name that is synonymous with protecting and nurturing the forest ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest.
"But now there is an economic paradox, the chicken-and-egg paradox of risk and demand," Klaus says. "These woodworkers are dedicated to creating a certified wood products movement but cannot risk the costs associated with certification until there is a market demand. Some of our members are certified, but most are not, and we do not have a complete chain of custody, or vertical integration, of certified woodworkers. They are waiting for the demand." "What we're trying to do and can accomplish, I think, is connect the end user with the forest," Wisconsin's Thieding explains. "We just need to make sure we're talking to the right people about our products because competitive pricing will be a challenge." His cooperative has targeted home construction designers, who exercise much control over the materials used. Thieding says board members are also working with the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance to better understand and target potential customers.
"But this is somewhat comparable to the organic foods market," he says. "Price is an issue. It's a barrier and we'll have that to some extent. But, through processing, we're hoping to capture some efficiencies so we're a little more competitive on price." Like their Wisconsin counterparts, Natural Balance Forestry Cooperative in Everson, Wash., assists landowners with forest management planning and sustainable forestry certification. Yet the co-op targets local artisans as buyers of its wood and then markets highquality, value-added wood products. "As a leader in the sustainable forestry movement, Natural Balance harmonizes human economy with forest ecology," explains Fenton Wilkinson of the co-op. The Sustainable Woods Cooperative received $26,780 from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, under its Agricultural Development and Diversification program. These funds are enabling the co-op to research marketing and sales potential for certified sustainable wood products. This money was in addition to a $15,300 grant the co-op received in 1998 from Wisconsin's Rural Economic Development program, administered by the state's department of commerce. This grant was used to develop a long-term business plan, and leveraged an additional $15,300 in funding.
"People are interested in 'green' construction. In addition, there are governmental units such as the Madison (Wisconsin) School District that are looking at incorporating more 'green' materials into their buildings," Thieding says. "We believe we can deliver a product that meets people's functionality expectations, and was harvested and handled in a responsible way."
Thieding adds that Sustainable Woods is also one of the first cooperatives to combine the forest management component with processing, marketing and sales of the lumber. "Each of us could do it alone," he says. "But the challenge is doing it as a cooperative because you're trying to accomplish something on a little bigger scale and you're trying to service the needs of a good number of landowners. We want to show that this can be accomplished using the cooperative model."
Basic co-op education needed
As cooperative members, though, Thieding and Beeman see education as key to the success of their new organizations. Many of their landowner members are urban or suburban dwellers who inherited the land, purchased it for hunting or picked it up as an investment. The co-ops spend time educating landowners about theirforests, how to manage them sustainably and why those practices can increase the value of the lumber. But the members are also two or three generations removed from -farm organizations like cooperatives.
"The only other [co-op] experiences our members may have had are credit unions," Thieding says. "But even that was limited. So we went back to Co-op Education 101, and it's been successful. We also gave them the by-laws to read and that really helps them understand that the control and ownership goes beyond just a membership certificate." "Actually, it's pretty easy to start a cooperative for sustainable forestry because your potential members have heard so many bad stories about the logging industry," adds Beeman. "Local word-of-mouth spread that this was a new option."
The concept of equity was an important one. Potential members understood the sustainability concepts, but the marketing and processing sides required start-up cash. The state grants helped spur member investments.
Both cooperatives rely on members for sweat equity, too. Sustainable Woods has nearly completed one solar kiln, built by member volunteers on Saturday mornings. The cooperative's three to five-year plan calls for up to eight kilns, a sawmill, warehouse, boiler kilns and a sales office. By the end of 2000, they hope to have completed a kiln, the warehouse and a sales office.
The Hawatha co-op anticipates building similar facilities. But leaders from both co-ops admit it's been slow going. "We've had so much to take care of right away, and it seems people need time to adjust," Beeman notes. "Everyd-iing moves slow. To make things happen is really challenging. At the same time I say that, however, it's also very rewarding when we accomplish a task. I've never come across a group of people that has ir been as satisfvinv to be a part of."