Logging: Biography of a Tree

Tracing a tree’s life from pre-seedling to the shelf is quite a complex path. There is the history of the land the tree grows up on. There are the multifaceted land management regulations and the scientific decisions that are part of forest managers’ 50 year silviculture plans[1] that determine the conditions in which the tree lives. The simple existence of a tree often involves many more variables than one might anticipate. Once a tree’s life of growth has ended (a human decision for trees destined for wood products), there is the mill process, which determines the tree’s next life, or lives.

Just as a human being’s life trajectory is significantly influenced by the physical, political, cultural, educational, and health norms of the environment it is born into and grows up in, so is a tree’s. The lifespan and determinants of health of a tree are very much effected by whether the tree takes root on public land, nonindustrial private land, industrial private land, or elsewhere. The educational background, culture, politics, and environmental health values and practices the owners and forest managers operate from determine decisions regarding the tree and the forest, and how the tree and the forest are interacted with. Because most of us can probably imagine the natural, unmediated life course of a tree, the life we will follow will be of a tree in an “intensively managed” forest on industrial private land.

Following the life of a tree, especially on intensively managed timberlands, has proven to be a challenge. None of the larger timberland companies I contacted would grant me a brief informational interview (and of those I contacted, only one actually responded to my inquiry at all). I did get to speak with a United States Forest Service (USFS) forester, but not without great wariness on his end, and with his charge to manage forests in a way to help them return to late successional and old growth status, his work comes from a very different perspective than intensive forest management.   In all of Washington state, I could only find one lumber mill tour, which fortunately turned out to be very informative. Forks Chamber of Commerce hosts the tour, and has worked with local companies to provide a glimpse into the logging and lumber mill processes. Not only did they take us through a mill on the tour, but they also took us into the woods.  I do not know if the timber we saw on this tour were intensively managed or not; however, the process would be very similar to that which our tree, whose life course we are following, would experience.


My personal primary intersection with the life of our tree is through recreation, 0745_a1_desatone of the “nonwood products” of forests. So it was only appropriate that the night before the Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour that I stayed among the community of trees whose lives I was investigating.  This stand is on public land, though that does not preclude the trees from being harvested.


The tree that we are focusing on, however, grew up on in an intensively managed forest on industrial private land. Though the USFS forester told me that it was inaccurate to equate (for general layman’s understanding purposes) silviculture to agriculture because the product is not food[2], there are a number of principles in the operations, product and business goals of each that seem quite similar. Indeed, the USFS is actually under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), though the USFS forester’s explanation was that this bureaucratic relationship developed because USFS tree plantations were more common in the past, at least in the forest he manages.[3] The fact that the language of “plantation” and tree “farm” are used; that there is human intervention to facilitate the genetics of the seedlings planted; that fertilizer and pesticides are used; that soil quality is important to timber quality; and that the gathering of the plant is called “harvesting” [4] – suggest similarities with agriculture. The guide of our tour, a retried forester, said the comparison to agriculture could be made. Perhaps this difference in perspectives is a difference in the philosophies of managing forests with different goals (i.e., conservation versus preservation). These factors, whether associated with agriculture or not, determine the environment our tree grows up in, and influences its life course.


Forests managed purposely for the product outcome of timber are aptly called “timberlands”. Stands in these timberland forests,2632_a1 and forests that nonindustrial landowners may be wanting to manage for profit or even for the reduction of fire hazard, can be opened to bidding.  Landowners state their estimate of the timber sale, and prospective buyers investigate the stand and create their own estimates, based on the grade at which they want to sell the lumber. Payment can be made by final volume, or cash bids may be made up front before the stand is cut.[5]


Along the way, some of the roads leading to our tree remain open; IMGP5033others are closed.  Boundaries are marked and communicated.  IMGP4982And at least in the area of these markers, the boundary was strictly followed.  5039_cropThere is also communication to recreators and others who pass through, warning of active harvest areas,  and even of pesticide application.




But before the harvesting begins, assessments must be made to ensure logging operations do not violate state, federal or landowner regulations, and that appropriate science is followed. IMGP5322For example, unstable slopes must be determined, in order to ensure a strip of trees are left to prevent landslides, such as this cluster of trees in the middle of the converging slopes.  Maps may be crosschecked through software to ensure archaeological sites are not being disturbed. Riparian management is taken into account: trees need to be left to shade streams, and practices must follow requirements outlined by the federal government to protect the salmon and endangered species habitats.[6] Companies along the timber supply chain are also beginning to opt-in to forest management and chain-of-custody certification practices (such as Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative), which establish sets of practices that take into account more holistic environmental needs and ethics (ecosystem, social, etc.). Companies must follow these practices in order to receive and maintain certification.


Our tree, then, may be one of the ones left standing on the edge of a river, or on the steep erosion-potential section of a mountain or hillside, and may grow old and wide in girth. Or, our tree may be one of the ones destined to be cut, and in an intensively managed stand, that often means clearcut. If we compared the trees’ ages to human life years, that would mean, depending upon the species of a stand, a cohort of college-aged individuals would be cut, or a cohort of those college-aged students’ parents.


Our tree whose life we are following was indeed felled. But we did not get to witness. IMG_0915


What we did see in the field on the tour was the process of hauling and stacking logs for transport to the staging areas or mills.   A choker is put around a bundle of logs,  and a cable system hauls the trees felled on the steeper slopes  to the sorting areas. IMG_0892IMG_0920 Different tree species may be interspersed, and are sorted after they are cut. Machines like these delimb, measure and cut the logs.[7] Our tree went from vertical to horizontal.


Part of our tree is left behind in the scrap piles. IMG_0883 Some of these scrap piles are burned, some are transported to pulp mills, and some are be left to enrich the soil for the next tree farm.[8] Logs too may be left behind, which is helpful for the ecosystem: logs are important to salmon habitat, and they can help to stabilize and keep moisture on slopes,[9] which is helpful when fire danger is higher.


The main parts of our tree that will soon be transported to the mill may be tagged or marked on the way out of the forest; this indicates the property it originated on, for accounting and payment purposes.[10]  Our log now is stacked and waiting,  with the rest of its cohort.



At the mill, IMG_0856 the smell of cut wood is strong. Most often, logging and lumber mill companies and operations are under completely separate owners. The exception are the large companies owning timberland acreage around the world. The layout of the mill we visit[11] is compact, with conveyor belts running between the sections, like a Rube Goldberg machine. From an outsider view, not knowing much of the process, the operations appear efficient, precise and as having minimal waste (product or effort). IMG_0790Indeed, we are told that nearly everything is used so that there is very little, if any, waste. Even the bark splinters are used: they are either sent to the pulp mill, or used for the mill’s own steam generator.[12]



Our tree is brought into the efficient Rube Goldberg flow.  After passing through a section or two, it lines up  for the bandsaw.   The bandsaw starts at 14 inches wide and wears down to about 11 inches in a year, and is then retired. As our tree rolls up to the bandsaw, and is rotated for the choicest cut.0847_still

IMG_0813 0811_still_vidFYI       IMG_0822

As part of the mill process, hemlock is sent to the kiln, and wood goes through the planer. The products go through a quality check and are marked with a number to indicate their grade, which will determine their cost and construction use.[13] IMG_07980866_crop


At this point, our single tree is in several places serving different functions: it is part of the scrap pile back where it had grown up in the forest, to begin decomposing and provide a richer organic matter for the new forest to root in; it is being wrapped up to be sold and used by consumers for construction projects; it is being sent to a pulp mill and made into paper; it is being used on site to create steam energy for machinery at the mill.


Back on the slopes where our tree was growing not long ago, the land is being prepared for the new seedlings. IMG_1133There is a requirement that per acre there must be 300 well-established conifers within three years’ time. This means seedlings are planted about a year after the harvest, and by that three year mark, the new stand is about 30-50 inches high. IMGP5042Sometimes the replant is done in a way to try and mimic the natural diversity of tree species that initially grew on that land. The groundcover – it returns on its own.  As the trees grow, the stands are often thinned, to give more space between trees, and reduce competition for nutrient resources, which allow the trees to grow larger. Fertilizers and pesticides may be used. And within a few decades, the site, now rooted with the generation after our tree, is harvested, again.[14]





See the rest of the Logging in the Pacific Northwest project



[1] National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). Environmental issues in Pacific Northwest forest management. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. (Page 183).

[2] USFS Forester. (2014). Informational interview. 20 October 2014.

[3] USFS forester informational interview.

[4] National Research Council (U.S.), Page 180.

[5] Mesenbrink, R. (2014). Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour. 30 July 2014.

[6] Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour, R. Mesenbrink; USFS forester informational interview.

[7] Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour, R. Mesenbrink.

[8] Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour, R. Mesenbrink.

[9] National Research Council (U.S.), Page 64.

[10] Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour, R. Mesenbrink.

[11] Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour, saw mill operations at Allen Logging Co.

[12] Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour, R. Mesenbrink.

[13] Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour, R. Mesenbrink.

[14] National Research Council (U.S.), Pages 180-181.; Forks Logging and Lumber Mill Tour, R. Mesenbrink.