The Lore of the Pines

Politics, myth, and money in Minnesota's dwindling north woods.

Clearly, one reason why white pine evokes such strong feelings is a sense of guilt. It's hard not to feel at least vaguely embarrassed when looking at the old pictures of men putting saws to giant trunks, of logs jamming rivers and vast stump landscapes. A few years ago, writer William Cronon picked up on that feeling in an essay called "The Trouble with Wilderness," which chronicled how environmental debate had focused on protecting nature by fencing it off.

Places like the Boundary Waters (or, in a smaller way, Little Alfie) drew their emotional pull, Cronon argued, from the hope that there, humans' environmental sins might be expiated, the scars of the past erased. It was a hope especially seductive in a world where environmental destruction continued apace: The last pristine places came to represent "an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world."

Of course, set-aside "nature" never was as wild and free as we'd like to think. The BWCA, for example, is a much different place than it would have been without human intervention. Eighty percent of its forest have been logged. Its trails, portages, and campgrounds are cleaned up and brushed out, at great expense, each year. Most important, the wildfires that were an integral part of the northwoods ecosystem--at times consuming tens of thousands of acres in an afternoon--have been gone for the better part of a century. White pines, like many other species, depended on those fires. And though there's growing interest in returning fire to the area, it will never burn the way it used to--there are too many commercial forests, cabins, and campers nearby.

Which leads to an odd situation. If you fence off a stand of pinus strobus alone in Minnesota today, it's possible that it will grow very old and look like some of what was once here. It's also possible that in the understory, few if any white pines will come up--because, in part, of the fungus brought in during an earlier effort to restore them. And finally, it's possible that if the story of the white pine's return to Minnesota is ever written, one of its heroes may be a big-time sawmiller.

Rajala (pronounced "Ry-la") owns Rajala Companies, which makes dimensional lumber, paneling, and the stock for everything from moldings to window sashes. At its peak, the firm's Grand Rapids mill sawed something like 5 million board feet of white pine each year. Today it's a bigger operation, but only a fraction of what it cuts is pine.

Rajala Cos. also owns some 35,000 acres of timberland, almost all of it covered with white pine. A few thousand acres are old growth, but most are the result of 25 years' worth of planting. Rajala, who talks about his trees the way some people discuss roses, has done much to disprove foresters' contention that rust, weevil, and deer had made it impossible to get white pine to grow in Minnesota. He and his workers have watered, pruned, thinned, even stapled pieces of paper to buds to protect them from browsing. "We've planted roughly 2 million seedlings," he says. "The first million got chewed up pretty bad, and the second million is in good shape and on its way."

Rajala's success doesn't mean every square inch of white pine in the state needs to be turned into a nursery in order to survive; as some of the remaining untouched parcels show there is still some regeneration capacity left in the pine. By the same, token his is as good a model of a living, breathing, and working forest as any. One environmentalist who's walked it says you feel "as if you're in old growth, except that there are stumps here and there."

It's worth noting that Rajala gets no subsidies to plant his trees, and--other than some nice PR--no special favors. And if he lives to be 100, the first trees he planted will still be at least 30 years away from prime sawtimber age. "I'm never going to harvest a tree that's been planted under my watch," he says. "It makes no difference to me. I just look at it as a long pipe. I'm drawing water off that pipe that's been supplied at the other end. The trees I've planted, someone else will draw off that pipe. Trees are that way. Our plan is to grow big trees. Sawmillers love big trees. Unfortunately, the public does too." He laughs.

Rajala, of course, is no saint. Though he says one day his mill--whoever owns it by then--should be able to meet all of its white pine needs from the trees he's planting now, he also harvests plenty of wood from public and private lands. He's also a member of and frequent spokesman for Minnesota Forest Industries, a trade group which has argued that the national forests are harvesting only about half as much as they should. If the feds were to cut trees the way the group has suggested, they would be running at double or triple the rate Rajala does on his own land.

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