In a former potato field near Boardman, Ore., sunlight slants through the branches of tall, leafy trees.
Deer have moved in, and even a cougar. But this is a farm, not a forest.
The trees are fast-growing poplars that can grow taller in seven years than a typical tree in a North Idaho forest can grow in seven decades. They’re planted in precise rows, part of a Potlatch Corp. plantation.
The Spokane-based timber company expects to get 20 percent of its wood from poplar plantations within a few years. Not far from the Potlatch fields, Boise Cascade Corp. is harvesting its first crop of six-year-old hybrid cottonwood trees and feeding them directly into its nearby paper mill at Wallula, Wash.
“It’s pretty incredible what they’re doing there,” said Jon Johnson, a Washington State University professor who researches poplar hybrids.
On more than 30,000 acres stretching along the Columbia River, the two timber companies have installed thousands of miles of drip irrigation lines that deliver carefully controlled measures of water and fertilizer to the trees. Planted as bare sticks about 8 inches long, the genetically engineered trees grow 10 feet or more every year. Some are 50 to 75 feet tall.
“They’ve essentially turned the desert into a forest,” Johnson said.
The trees provide wood fiber to keep paper mills running at a time when more traditional timber supplies are uncertain.
But they also may hold the key to a new kind of timber industry - one far less dependent on forests.
The two timber companies say they see “fiber farming” as a supplement, a good way to add wood to their traditional timber harvests. But if the companies can find ways to use poplars for more than just pulp for paper mills, the entire dynamic of the timber industry could change. Instead of fighting for the right to log on public lands, timber companies could concentrate on harvesting their own fast-growing trees.
“I don’t know of anyone who’s figured out how to tap into that,” said Boise Cascade spokesman Doug Bartels.
“It would be a new frontier, really, for the industry,” said Richard Folk, a forest products professor at the University of Idaho.
Johnson believes the technology is ready now, and it’s just a matter of getting farmers and mill owners together to try something new - something that could pay off big 10 years down the road.
“It’s a very straight wood. It takes nails and screws without splitting. In fact, it’d make very good core stock for furniture,” Johnson said.
Poplars are a hardwood that includes species of aspens, cottonwoods and willows. Their fast-growing wood isn’t as strong as that of slow-growing pine and fir trees. But Johnson said, “There are ways of engineering around that.”
Timber companies, including Boise Cascade, are increasingly turning to “engineered” wood products - boards and beams made of layers of glued-together veneers. This new kind of lumber is designed for strength, while using less wood.
Pioneered by Boise-based TJ International, engineered boards and beams also can come in large sizes without requiring the cutting of rare, old-growth large trees.
Boise Cascade moved into engineered wood products six years ago and now is the second largest manufacturer, behind TJ International.
“You’re using less wood fiber and lower-value wood fiber, which makes a lot of people happy,” Bartels said. “You’re getting more stretch out of the resource, but you still have the same strength.”
Big changes in the industry could come if the two new technologies - engineered lumber and farming fast-growing trees - could be combined.
Johnson likes to point out that in the six or seven years hybrid poplars take to grow to lofty and harvestable size, pines and firs grow to the size of Christmas trees - six feet tall.
Johnson sees timber companies of the future moving toward the fastergrowing trees.
“We might even see a shift in land ownership where they may be abandoning more traditional forestry areas and purchasing marginal agricultural lands to grow these fast-growing species.”
Using hybrid poplars for engineered lumber or plywood requires letting them grow for about 10 years, so they’re at least 12 inches around - big enough to peel into veneers. Johnson has some trees at WSU’s experimental farm in Puyallup that have grown that big.
Some companies have used those trees experimentally to make plywood or “oriented strand board”, which uses wood flakes glued together.
“They’ve found it very satisfactory,” Johnson said.
But Boise Cascade and Potlatch have quicker turnarounds in mind for their Columbia River plantations.
Boise Cascade has planted its 20,000 acres of trees within about a 50-mile radius of its Wallula paper mill. That way, there’s little transportation cost. The trees are harvested and ground into chips right in the field. The chips are used in paper-making, while branches and bark are used for fuel at the mill.
Boise Cascade is harvesting 75-foot-tall trees that it planted in 1991.
Potlatch will harvest its first crop of hybrid poplar trees in 1999. It’s planting about 4,000 acres a year, with 12,000 planted now and a 22,000-acre farm to fill.
“It would require a little over 400,000 acres of forest land to produce what we’re going to produce off 22,000 acres of intensively managed tree farm,” company spokesman Kevin Boling said.
The move into intensive, computer-controlled farming isn’t cheap. Boling said the company has invested millions into the operation.
“When it’s all planted to trees, it’ll be the single largest drip irrigation operation in the United States.”
When Potlatch harvests the trees, the company plans to chip them in the field, then carry them by barge, truck or rail to the company’s paper mill at Lewiston.
“It is perishable,” Boling said. “It discolors just like a banana. So the quicker we can get it here, the less time we need to take processing it and the fewer chemicals we’ll need to bleach it.”
The Columbia Basin land where the two companies are growing their trees has long, hot summers that give the trees plenty of sun and plentiful, although expensive, irrigation water from the Columbia River.
But various species of poplars can grow in different climates. The University of Idaho has an experimental plot of poplars growing near Sandpoint, with some success. A small poplar field planted in Lewiston has thrived despite winter flooding. Although neither of those Idaho plots has grown as fast as the Columbia River trees, they also haven’t required intensive irrigation.
Johnson estimates 100,000 acres in Oregon and Washington are now planted in poplar plantations, with most of it being grown for fiber for use in paper-making.
Boise Cascade is so pleased with its poplar plantations that it’s considering starting them up near its other paper mills in Alabama, Louisiana and Minnesota.
“Growth rates were beyond our hopes,” Bartels said.
Boise Cascade is hoping things like fiber farming and engineered wood products will help it keep going in the face of uncertain timber supplies.
The company traditionally cut timber from its own land for a third of its wood supply in the Northwest, and relied on national forests for most of the rest. In the 1990s, as national forest timber harvests have declined, private wood lot owners have filled in with their trees.
But Bartels said private timber has all been coming on the market at once because of the demand. “We know you cannot sustain that level of harvest on private lands,” he said.
Soon, he said, “There’s going to be quite a deficit here and we’re starting to see some of that already.”
“People still desire paper and wood products,” he said. “We have to look in new directions today to be able to do that.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 Color)