Written by Madeline Bodin
This article is reprinted from the Summer 2019 edition of Woodland Magazine with permission from the American Forest Foundation
Caude Burlingame has no problem identifying any tree on his roughly 300 acres of forested land scattered
throughout four parcels in the northwest corner of Montana. “If a tree is dying, I can figure out why.” His goal as a Tree Farmer is to leave his land in better shape than he found it.
Even though he has a deep knowledge of trees and how to manage them, a stand of trees on land he purchased recently had him baffled. He was particularly concerned about the grand firs there, which were being attacked by beetles.
“This was a distressed property,” Burlingame said. “It had been logged a couple of times in the last 20 to 30 years and was kind of junky. I didn’t know if I could find a logger interested, because there was not enough profit. As a landowner, I just wanted it cleaned up.”
Burlingame had started working with Idaho Forest Group (IFG), a Coeur d’Alene, ID-based lumber company, when he harvested trees on one of his properties just a few miles from the Idaho border. IFG foresters Russ Hegedus and Skyler Hoefer had been helpful in the past, so he turned to them again for advice.
Hegedus and Hoefer were happy to help Burlingame figure out how to improve the trees on the new property. They, like Burlingame, are thinking about the future, with a common goal to support sustainable forestry for the long term. Helping Tree Farmers like Claude Burlingame with the whole process is part of that commitment.
“Our commitment to the Tree Farm program and educating landowners to take good care of their forests is just a part of our company’s culture,” said Erin Plue, director of community outreach for IFG.
To assure sources of timber for the company long into the future, sustainability is a key company value, Plue said. “Keeping privately owned forests healthy – helping to protect them from disease and catastrophic fires – is important to that sustainability,” she said.
IFG pays a premium of $5 per thousand board feet for Tree Farm certified wood,” said Angela Wells, the American Forest Foundation’s (AFF) western region Tree Farm manager. “Another way that the company is extremely helpful to the American Tree Farm System is that for every thousand board feet of Tree Farm certified wood that comes into their mills, they donate $1 to the state’s Tree Farm Committee.”
The company’s foresters also serve as Tree Farm inspectors in remote areas. Throughout the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), inspecting foresters make sure a property’s management plan meets the certification standards for good forest management.
“IFG started out with one little mill in Laclede, ID,” said Plue. The mills were acquired, and the culture of each contributed to the company as a whole. “That’s what makes us so authentic,” Plue said.
“Now we have six sawmills and a finger-joint facility in the Inland Northwest region which includes Idaho and Montana. That makes us one of the top 10 lumber producers in the country. But we’ve retained the character of a small company.”
IFG is still privately owned, Plue said. Unlike other large lumber companies, the company is not an industrial forest landowner. “We are completely dependent on purchasing timber from other landowners,” Plue said. How much timber varies from mill to mill, but about 30 percent of IFG’s lumber comes from private landowners.
IFG forester Russ Hegedus is an excellent example of the company’s commitment to private landowners and the American Tree Farm System (ATFS). He’s been a Tree Farm inspector, an instructor of Tree Farm inspectors, and for two years he was president of the Idaho Tree Farm Committee. He’s proud of how Idaho’s Tree Farm program has grown and changed over the last several years. He’s also proud that, as a forester for IFG, his Tree Farm activities are not just permissible, they are encouraged.
The Role of Family Forests
Family forests are important to all of the issues facing forests and rural economies today, said Paul Delong, AFF’s senior vice president for ATFS and conservation. In the Inland Northwest, for example, family forest landowners play a big role in reducing risks from wildland fires and tree pests. Through markets for their wood, they are supporting rural economies and providing stability for rural communities, he said. From national policies to local action, “AFF is supporting family forests, so that they can play these vital environmental, economic and social roles,” Delong said.
For Nancy Myers, a family forest landowner in western Montana, fire prevention played an important role in her relationship both with ATFS and IFG.
Two years ago, Myers was told to pack her bags and anything irreplaceable, such as family photos, and be ready to evacuate her home as the 26,310-acre Sunrise Fire crept closer.
It was the risk of a wildland fire that motivated her to reach out to IFG. Myers didn’t want to see her beautiful, 153-acre forest property lost to the wildland fires that have swept the West in recent years. She treasures the lush and green place, and wanted to make sure it stayed that way.
Myers reached out to IFG through friends, that put her in touch with Hoefer, the IFG forester serving her area. Hoefer walked the property with Myers and suggested steps she could take to reduce the fire risk. He also recommended that she have her property and her forest management plan certified through ATFS.
“I’m kind of new at being a Tree Farmer, but I’m excited to be a part of the American Tree Farm System. I think it’s a great program for the stewardship of our land,” Myers said.
The plan that Myers and Hoefer made included several elements that would make the property more resistant to a catastrophic wildland fire. Most of the dead trees were removed, the dead underbrush was cleared and the trees were thinned. Beyond the tree management, there are now two roads that give fire-fighters access to the entire property.
Andy Eckberg, another IFG forester, feels that one of the most significant benefits of Tree Farm certification
in the Inland Northwest is the mutual recognition program that lets family landowners fill out one form to qualify for ATFS certification, the US Forest Service’s Forest Stewardship Program (FSP), and eligibility for Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grants for timber stand improvement projects such as tree thinning.
”As long as you have a forest management plan you can get costshare funding to thin your property,” Eckberg said. “The thinning supports sustainable forests, the health and vigor of the trees, and manages fuels.”
Myers said, “I know that it’s not a guarantee of preventing a forest fire, but the work done would really decrease the effect of a fire. The most important thing is that the forest is healthier.”
Between the work that has been done and a wetter, milder summer in westernMontana this year, Myers is breathing easier when it comes to fire risk. She’s looking forward to learning even more about her forest through the Tree Farm program and working with her IFG forester.
AFF has worked with both the NRCS and the US Forest Service, which oversees the Forest Stewardship Program, for mutual recognition, Delong said. Having one application to cover certification for three programs is an efficient way to get landowners into the Tree Farm program, get the forest certified as sustainable where that is important, and also make it easier to participate in programs run by state agencies and the NRCS, he said.
The mutual recognition is “a work in progress,” Delong said. “Under the ATFS certification program, we have to revise our standards every five years,” he said. That means recalibrating the agreements. The other entities are also making revisions and additions, so the requirements are always changing.
Working for Rural Communities
John Aaron loves trees. He’s been a smoke jumper and worked in timber stand improvement with the US Forest Service. He jokes that he has pet trees – 80 acres of them. When Aaron bought his land in northern Idaho it had been recently cut without a thought to sustainability.
For decades, he just waited for the trees on his land to recover. But while Aaron showed patience, insect pests, particularly bark beetles, did not. For the last 25 years, Aaron had trees harvested every year to stay ahead of beetle infestations. Because he loves trees, it was important for him to do this sustainably.
He was satisfied with his sustainability strategy, having worked with the US Forest Service and taken classes and workshops over the years to learn more. But when he started selling timber to IFG, it brought his management capabilities to the next level.
Aaron’s ATFS certification grew out of his conversations with Hegedus. Because IFG’s foresters are so involved with ATFS, it’s not unusual for the benefits of the organization to come up while the foresters are talking with family forest landowners, Hegedus said. “We encourage landowners to look into it, but we don’t push it on them.”
What Aaron appreciates most about being a Tree Farmer and working with IFG is the access to continuing education. “Russ has always been great,” Aaron said, “I can always get the latest information about where we are with this insect or that,” Aaron said.
Aaron appreciates the premium he gets from IFG for the timber from his ATFS certified Tree Farm as well, but it’s what that premium stands for that is more important to him. “What was attractive to me is that they have a higher standard for the places they buy timber from. I like that they are in this for the right reasons, that sustainable forestry is that important to their business.”
IFG has a deep commitment to rural communities, Plue said. It’s important to the company that the communities in the region are livable and sustainable places. “It’s how everything we do works. We invest ourselves in the community, and that investment comes back to us.”
Building Helpful Partnerships
“One of the things the American Forest Foundation continues to do is advocate strongly for national policies that help landowners, whether that is direct help for landowners through programs like cost share programs or by advocating for markets for wood,” Delong said.
AFF’s Western Region Tree Farm manager Wells said that despite the volatility of the wood product markets, IFG, as well as other family owned and operated sawmills and forest product manufacturers in the West, continue to demonstrate commitment to sustainable forest management and forestry-dependent communities by investing in new facilities, equipment upgrades, and foresters who support the good work on family forest lands.
That relationship plays out in big ways across timber markets, but also in small ways, such as expert foresters helping a family forest landowner make important decisions about the health of the forest.
After Hegedus and Hoefer walked Claude Burlingame’s newly acquired western Montana property with him, they told Burlingame that the post and pole market had been particularly good, and that this property had plenty of lodgepole pines suitable for that market. Between the beetle-threatened grand firs and the lodgepole, they suggested, Burlingame would have no problem getting a logger interested in the job.
Even though those posts and poles wouldn’t be going to an IFG mill, Hegedus and Hoefer were thinking about the long-term productivity of the property.
“I wasn’t aware of that niche market,” Burlingame said. “The timber market is changing all the time. This is what Russ and Skylar do every day, and I don’t. Foresters can really help you find a place for your trees where they are worth some money,” he said.
Finding the right partner makes all the difference in managing your forested land in a way that reflects your values, Burlingame said. Tree Farm certification makes partnerships like these attractive to companies, like IFG, that value family forests.
“I’ve found that the IFG foresters have the same passion for trees and wood that Tree Farmers do.” If you don’t have that in the people you are working with now, Burlingame advises his fellow Tree Farmers, “keep looking.”