In California, producing timber comes with plenty of challenges
In the mid-1800s, thousands flocked to the mountains of western California when the discovery of gold in a lumber mill sparked the famous Gold Rush. And while this accidental discovery caused some loggers to drop their saw and pick up a pickax, it wasn’t long before timber was once again being felled.
Forestry practices have evolved over many decades, yet, without experience and the right tools, success in the timber business can be almost as challenging as mining for gold once was.
Sierra Pacific Industries, based in Anderson, California, is a third-generation, family-owned forest products company that owns and manages nearly 1.9 million acres of timberland across California and Washington.
Mark Gray is the reforestation manager for Sierra Pacific’s Coast Cascade region in western California. He’s been involved in reforestation for more than 20 years, and before that he spent 14 years as a herbicide contractor to the forestry industry. But even with his extensive experience, California always presents fresh challenges.
“There are many variables that can affect your approach to forestry here,” says Gray. “For instance, there are major differences in rainfall and elevation over short distances. We face the constant threat of both destructive drought cycles and wildfires. Add to that, the rugged terrain this mountainous area is known for.”
That’s not all, he says. Unpredictable pine beetle infestations are common and kill many trees, but also results in the harvest of healthy surrounding trees to prevent further infestation. Then, there’s navigating and complying with the plethora of state and federal regulations. Altogether, it’s enough to keep the most experienced forester on his or her toes.
Vegetation management means life or death for trees
Each year, Sierra Pacific puts 6 million trees in the ground across its ownership, made up of multiple native species like Douglas fir, white fir, hemlock, ponderosa pine, sugar pine and incense cedar — all blended to maintain biological diversity.
“Specifically, in the last 10 to 12 years, we have been focusing on planting more diverse species, not just Douglas fir or Ponderosa pine,” says Gray. “Tree diversity shields against beetles and other forest health issues, but also gives us more options at harvest time because lumber values shift.”
A significant amount of Gray’s time is dedicated to vegetation management around these new plantings. Using herbicides as a part of vegetation management plays a key role in prepping sites for planting, and then for protecting newly planted seedlings from weeds and brush that rob trees of precious soil moisture and nutrients.
“Vegetation management to us means our trees live or die — it’s that simple,” says Gray. “Without protection, those seedlings don’t make it. So, using the right herbicides to control weed pressure is essential.”
Finding herbicides that fit in this environment isn’t easy, which is why foresters here rely on each other for help. Sierra Pacific, along with several local timber producers and related companies, is a member of the Sierra Cascade Intensive Forest Management Research Cooperative, which researches new herbicide chemistries for use in forestry vegetation management.
“This is a fraternal industry and foresters here lean on each other for better methods of doing things,” says Gray. “And we want to pass our knowledge down to the new generation of foresters, and ensure the sustainability of this industry for years to come.”
A new tool for foresters comes from an unexpected place
In 2012, the Cooperative began trials with a promising herbicide called Pindar® GT herbicide from Dow AgroSciences — another member of the Cooperative. Pindar GT had been registered exclusively for use in the California tree, nut and noncropland markets, but when the research and development team at Dow AgroSciences reviewed the list of weeds and brush seedlings it controlled, and its tolerance to species of conifers, they saw a potential fit in forestry.
That tree tolerance would be tested and show the ability to safely apply Pindar GT right over the tops of seedlings, eliminating the common and laborious practice of shielding them during an application. Furthermore, Pindar GT was formulated to be safe for use around crops, which may be adjacent to forested acres. And its proven long-lasting residual control would reduce application frequency.
Pending trials and label approval, it was decided to make the herbicide available under the trade name Cleantraxx™ herbicide to the Industrial Vegetation Management market for use in forestry in certain states (California, Oregon and Washington), and also noncropland sites such as roadside and utility rights-of-way.
Gray and Sierra Pacific played a key role in the trials. Several test plots were set up in various locations on Sierra Pacific acres. “The first year of testing was an experimental crash course, as we did our best to try and account for all the environmental variables we deal with,” says Gray. “But it’s always fun to get new chemistry to work with, and in subsequent years we got the hang of it and started seeing some really positive results.”
The Cooperative’s results helped confirm the potential seen by the Dow AgroSciences research and development team.
“In our trials, we applied it right over the tops of delicate seedlings — without injury to them — to control broadleaf weeds, annual grasses and germinating brush,” says Gray. “And we discovered how sticky Cleantraxx is — it doesn’t move from where it’s applied and sets in the soil with much less rain. We saw clean lines of control, where other herbicides could wash away, costing us weed control.”
Beau Miller, IVM specialist with Dow AgroSciences, helped set up some demonstrations and organized tours for foresters to see the results.
“We appreciated the involvement Dow AgroSciences had in the trials, it shows a commitment to the industry,” says Gray. “The bottom line is that if you bring us good products, we’ll use them. And Dow’s products are good.”
After the necessary approvals, Cleantraxx received a Special Local Needs (SLN) label for use in California forestry, and now has SLNs for use in forestry in Oregon and Washington as well.
Moving from test plots to large-scale applications
Gray and other reforestation managers at Sierra Pacific didn’t waste time in getting Cleantraxx out on acres they were reforesting.
As you’d expect, these acres contain a wide variety of weed and brush species to control, including snowbrush, deerbrush, squaw carpet, manzanita and several grasses. For site prep, Gray started using a mix of Cleantraxx with Accord® XRT II specialty herbicide. “We go in and spray, and there is no waiting to plant because of the excellent crop tolerance,” says Gray. For conifer release once seedlings are in the ground, Gray uses just Cleantraxx.
Sierra Pacific goes the extra mile in its site prep, as part of an overall commitment to ensure the land it forests is well maintained. At many sites, crews accumulate massive burn piles of remaining scrap to reduce fuel for potential wildfires. Also, bulldozers are brought in to break up soil compaction from years of past logging and create ridges in the soil. This process is called contour subsoiling and it serves to reduce erosion and save moisture for trees by increasing infiltration of water.
Repairing the devastation after a wildfire
California’s average growth cycle for timber is 60 to 80 years, so it’s devastating when that cycle is cut short before harvest. And nothing interrupts a timber cycle quite like a wildfire.
In the fall of 2014, the King Fire scorched over 97,000 acres of land in El Dorado County, California, including more than 17,000 forested acres owned by Sierra Pacific, enacting a major unplanned reforestation effort. On the front lines is Rob Fecko, a reforestation forester for Sierra Pacific’s Camino district.
“After a wildfire, the first step is a salvage harvest — to try and recoup any remaining timber of value,” says Fecko. “Then, we can begin the normal site prep process.”
Fecko has been using two herbicide site prep treatments on the King Fire acres. For a springtime application, he uses a mix of Cleantraxx and Accord XRT II as a broadcast spray. “We have been seeing exceptional residual control using Cleantraxx at only 3 pints per acre,” says Fecko.
For a fall application, he uses a mix of Accord XRT II, Milestone® specialty herbicide (which has a California SLN forestry label) and imazypyr. “This mix gets great results as well,” says Fecko. “The residual control will hold easily through spring, and most times up to a year, so whenever I come back, the ground is ready to plant.”
Seedlings are already in the ground at the King Fire site, and a rotational herbicide treatment plan is in place using Cleantraxx and, in some cases, using both Cleantraxx and Transline® specialty herbicide to keep it that way.
“We treated 3,700 acres in late 2015 and early 2016, 1,600 acres of which were treated with the Cleantraxx mix, and we plan to treat at least another 3,500 acres this year,” says Fecko.
A ground crew of 20 can cover between 60 and 80 acres a day walking and spraying, usually at an application rate of 15 gallons per acre. Ground treatments are most common, in part because aerial applicators are scarce.
“The first year is critical because if you don’t get the brush, it will grow over the seedlings by the third year and you’ll have to go back and respray everything,” says Fecko. “When you get good residual control, it allows you to manage it differently in the future and just spot spray the woody species that might come back.”
Doing things the right way
There was never any doubt that the acres burned by the King Fire would be reforested, but the same wasn’t true at another site destroyed by fire. In the summer of 2008, near Redding, Sierra Pacific lost 12,000 acres to what was known as the Moon fire.
“The site of the Moon fire has some of the roughest terrain imaginable and no one was sure it was worth the trouble and expense to go back and replant,” says Gray. “But, ultimately, it was decided to reforest those acres because it was the responsible thing to do. We didn’t want to leave that area to be overtaken by whatever vegetation happens to come in.”
It’s how Sierra Pacific has always operated — pushing to make things better — despite challenges. Whether it’s taking extra time and effort with site prep, responsibly reforesting acres, or using the best herbicides.
“Cost isn’t the only consideration; it’s all about doing things the right way,” says Fecko. “And it’s great to work for a company that does business like that.”