Seeing is Believing II

The second part of an account of a week long excursion to better understand the forestry sector, forest landowners and the ways in which forested acres are managed, at incredible scale.
By Tim Portz | June 17, 2014

My last blog was written in anticipation of a weeklong immersion into the southeastern forest economy and the industrial wood pellet sector’s growing demand for wood fiber from that particular wood basket. As it happens, I returned from that trip just in time to unpack, repack and board a plane to Indianapolis for our International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, one of our busiest weeks of the year. Still, my time and experiences in Louisiana and Mississippi stayed with me, occupying my thoughts.

I checked in to my hotel in Baton Rouge late on Monday evening, having driven from New Orleans up the 1-10 almost entirely in the dark. Before the sun set, I was driving west along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain marveling at its enormity. Shortly after that, the last bits of twilight vanished and I would have to wait to get a firsthand look at any stands of southern pine.

Tuesday morning found Baton Rouge draped in a thick robe of fog. Our itinerary had us flying via helicopter about 140 miles north to Plum Creek’s Pearl River Nursery, but the fog grounded us for an additional hour. Our pilots waited patiently on the tarmac trying to diving how long it would take the sun to cook off enough fog to safely make our way north. A short time later, the pilots had seen enough and the decision was made to load up and take off. I readied my gear excited about the prospect of shooting from a helicopter. Within 15 seconds of lift off I realized that I’d have to hope for better conditions on the return flight. As the Sikorsky gained altitude, dense cloud cover surrounded the aircraft and visibility was reduced to nearly zero. As unsettling as this was, it was short lived and moments later we punched through this low cloud cover into bright sunshine. Unfortunately for me, the view was not one of miles and miles of loblolly pine stands but pillowy white clouds.

I spent the 45 minutes of flight time carefully scanning the clouds, looking for openings from which to catch glimpses of the landscape below. The snippets I was lucky enough to see certainly established that we were flying over miles and miles of forests.

The helicopter began to descend and once again became enveloped by clouds and fog. When we once again poked through the clouds, we were northeast of Brookhaven, Miss. dropping into Plum Creek’s Pearl River Nursery, the largest southern loblolly pine nusery in all of Mississippi. The nursery is situated along the southern bank of an east-west section of the Pearl River, which supplies the nursery with fresh water when Mother Nature doesn’t.

The Pearl River Nursery quickly became the first stanza in an epic poem of the enormity and sophistication of the southern wood fiber economy. Capable of producing nearly 60 million seedlings each year, the nursery has produced nearly 850 million seedlings since its first crop was sown in April of 1998. The nursery is a massive undertaking, built by Plum Creek long before anyone in the United States had ever heard of Drax. 

We spent the rest of the day visiting different stands of forest. 2 year forest. 6 year forest. 16 year forest in the midst of a commercial thinning. I learned that most forests are replanted with 650 individual trees, or stems, and that by the time the stand is ready to be harvested for saw timber, it has been thinned down to 100 stems per acre. These 100 remaining trees are massively important to the landowner as 70% of the acre’s value is found in these 100 trees. 

As most trips do, the things I saw and learned will yield multiple stories. You can expect to see a feature from this trip in the September issue of Biomass Magazine and the fourth quarter issue of Pellet Mill Magazine.

After spending the day in the hot sun, it was clear that our return to Baton Rouge would supply the visibility we were all hoping for. We boarded the helicopters in Brookhaven, Miss. and headed back to Baton Rouge. The scope of these forested areas is a thing to marvel at. Often I realized that as far as I could see in any one direction was forest and when you are flying at an altitude of 2000 feet, you can see a long way.

I shot photo after photo, each shot feeling slightly “better” than the one before. Occasionally, though less often than I would have imagined, we would fly over a stand that had recently gone through a final harvest. These patches of red clay earth offer the kind of imagery that I imagine and know alarmists point to when heaping uninformed criticism on the forestry sector generally and the pellet sub sector particularly. The problem with images, of course, is that they are a static representation of a fluid environment. These patches of bare red clay are not the end of the story of course, they simply mark the beginning of an entirely new stanza.