Saving The White Pine

Minnesota Features

August 17, 2016

LAKE magazine

In the brilliant sun, the warming snow sticks to our snowshoes, weighing down each step. We are snowshoeing on Jack Rajala's breathtaking Wolf Lake property, some 5,600 acres north
of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, with 26 miles of shoreline on 13 different lakes. The hills are covered by birch, oak, fir, spruce, red pine, and -- most meaningful to Rajala -- mature white pine. The cabins on the property, all with a view of the water, were built by timber man Guilford Hartley in the late 1800s. Since Rajala (pronounced Rye-a-la) bought the property in 1977, it has been his retreat and, more importantly, the place where Rajala Companies' sawmills and millworks find much of their timber.

To avoid damage  by deer, the terminal bud of a white pine must be protected until the tree is at least five feet tall.
Photos by Tom Roster

Climbing from Little Wolf Lake, Rajala pauses in a clearing. Bare mature maple and scattered basswood rise starkly toward the sky. Growing in their shadows are young white pine trees, roughly our height. Each wears a small cap of white paper that Rajala stapled in place to discourage hungry white-tailed deer from munching the top buds and deforming or killing the trees. 

"I see I missed a few," says Rajala. "I did this at night. It's the
best time. The wind is down, and with a headlight I can see the buds better than in the natural light." Rajala's nighttime stapling is often serenaded by the howls of wolves. "It sends a chill up my spine. They know exactly where I'm at. They know what I smell like. And after all these years, they've decided I wouldn't taste good.

When Rajala first brought the property, only around 3 million board-feet of pine grew on it. "We have significantly more now because we've been growing these trees even bigger and have cut very little of it," he says. But the forest that now thrives on this land has been hard-won. "One thing you can't do is just walk away from these," he says of the young white pines. "You have to stay on them year after year after year until they're up and going."

Jack rajala is a timber man, the third generation of a family of timber men who played a part in cutting down all but a few remaining stands of the white pine forests that once covered central and northern Minnesota. They left little in their wake but stumps, wood slash, and thickets of aspen, what historian and author Agnes Larson -- a 1916 St. Olaf College graduate and history professor who chronicled the white pine industry in Minnesota -- called a "vast area of wastelands."

Yet Rajala is also a conservationist, one of the foremost advocates -- and practitioners -- of returning big stands of white pine to the Minnesota forest. After public foresters had more or less given up on planting the tree in meaningful quantities because of disease and deer depredation, Rajala and his family bought thousands of acres for the express purpose of planting millions of trees, mostly white pine. It's safe to say Rajala will give the rest of his life to the white pine, with the faith that the trees he plants will grow big enough to enjoy and harvest, long after he himself is gone.

Don Arnosti, who often butted heads with Rajala in the 1990s, when Arnosti was head of Audubon Minnesota, says that Rajala has two distinct sides: On the one hand, he's a hard-nosed logger and forest-products businessman. On the other, he's an ardent conservationist and white pine steward. 

Arnosti notes that these seemingly conflicting aspects of Rajala's personality coexist "somewhat uneasily." He recalls both the political Jack Rajala, who would occasionally testify before Congress and "strenuously argued to increase the harvest of public land," and the environmentalist Jack Rajala, "a very genuinely committed, long-term-thinking conservationist in the old-fashioned sense of the word: conservative, conserve, save."

"He always viewed [the white pine] as a long-term investment that was good not only for his family but good for the forest and future generations," says Arnosti. "The white pines he's planting -- not a one of them will ever personally benefit him. And yet he was
a real apostle of that."

W

hite pines grow fast and straight. The wind whistles through their fine needles, five to a bunch. When mature, the white pine grows more than 150 feet tall, the tallest tree in Minnesota's forest. 

Perhaps no other tree so defines the image Minnesotans have of their home state. Whether white pines frame the view from a lake cabin, grow in untouched stands in Itasca State Park, or rise up from a needle-covered campsite in the Boundary Waters, they are a cherished part of Minnesota. 

The vast white pine forests that once covered the northeastern United States grew particularly tall and thick in central Minnesota, between the Mississippi to the west and the
St. Croix to the east. White pine was one of the most valuable species of tree in the forest, prized for the lightweight, knot-free lumber that built the towns and cities of a growing region. Loggers set upon the forests in the mid-1800s, sending the cut timber to mill, first by river, then by railroads, and finally by truck. 

Loggers had moved to northern Minnesota by 1900, when Rajala's grandparents, both native-born Finns, homesteaded their farm near Bigfork, Minnesota. But with only a few cows, chickens, pigs, and horses, says Rajala, "really, their livelihood was the woods." To earn a living, his grandfather worked for various logging camps every winter. 

Most of the loggers, says Rajala, were "men on the run from broken lives someplace." Many spent their money as they earned it. "Bigfork was once known as the toughest town in Minnesota."

Rajala's father and uncles went into business for themselves, buying the sawmill in Bigfork and setting up their own logging camps. "Until
I was five or six years old, I just lived in the
wintertime in the logging camps, and in summer I'd live on the farm," recalls Rajala. "And then my mother got tough with my dad and said, 'Art, these kids have got to go to school.'
So then we moved into Bigfork." 

By then, the biggest timber stands were already gone and the largest timber companies had moved west to find new timber. Bigfork's remaining mills adjusted to cutting smaller logs. "Those mills were cutting the remnants of the old forest and pretty well cleaned up by the '50s and the '60s," says Rajala.

Meanwhile, Rajala went off to St. Olaf, following in the footsteps of his brother, Dean '59, and sister, Delores '60. The college was a comfortable fit. "St. Olaf was a good place to experience really good English classes, economics, and history," he says. Starting out as a chemistry major, Rajala eventually got his degree in economics. He also got involved in campus life, playing football with the varsity team that won the 1960 Midwest Conference Championships. When he graduated, Rajala moved to California, worked for a CPA firm, and reconnected with his college girlfriend, Carole Grimsrud '60. Before long, they married, settled into warm and sunny California life, and began a family of their own -- John, Allison '85, Katherine, and twins Nathan and Nikolas.

And then, "My dad got sick, and I said, 'I think we have to go home for a while, but we'll come back to California.' But we never did." His family said they needed his economic smarts to help run the company. "I went right back into the family business, and I've been here ever since." Jack Rajala eventually became CEO of Rajala Companies. 

 

Agnes larson once wrote, "One cannot with impunity rob Mother Nature of her treasures, for truly the sins of the fathers are avenged unto the third or fourth generation." Rajala and his brothers represent that third generation. By the time they had taken charge of the family business, all the easily accessible pine stands were gone. The remainder were scattered on lake shores or tied up in protected parks or on Indian lands. Meanwhile, the government was making logging tougher. Rajala's father saw the writing on the wall, telling his sons, "We're going to run out of timber one of these days. This is not going to go on forever, guys."

In the wake of logging, the white pine forest didn't renew itself. Public foresters, hoping to replace the logged white pine forests, were slow to the task of replanting and found the tree difficult to cultivate. "It was a struggle fighting through the blister rust and the tip weevil and deer predation," says Rajala. He recalls a conversation with a state forester who announced that the state was giving up on white pine management. Rajala was incredulous. "Basically the public agencies said, 'We're not going to try to maintain or bring back a white pine forest.'" 

Yet Rajala realized his family played a big part in this tragedy. "Our business was built on white pine," he says. "We took it for granted that white pine would be there, and it was ours to take. In other words, my family built a fortune on white pine." 

Rajala refused to let his family's story end there. He resolved that, just as they had helped to destroy the white pine forest, they would help to restore it. "I knew that we had to do it on private lands first," he says. "We had to be the example." 

Rajala's father hadn't been interested in buying land, preferring to cut timber from the family's homesteads and bidding for timber off public land. But Rajala had an undeniable vision, and at his insistence, the family began to buy land. In 1969, Rajala Companies bought 6,000 acres north of Deer River, where they were building a big sawmill. In 1977, the Rajala family bought the 5,600-acre Hartley Estate. Bit by bit, Rajala added land to fulfill his burgeoning aspirations. "I was on a rampage to buy land," he says. Today, the family owns some 30,000 acres of timberland.

Amassing land was one challenge. Getting trees to grow was another, particularly white pines. "We started planting white pine," says Rajala. "I was compulsive about it, and before long, we had a million trees planted -- and guess what? The deer got 99 percent of them. Oh, it was so discouraging."

Rajala tried spraying seedlings with repellants, foul chemicals, and even pig's blood, but to no avail. Finally, taking a tip from western foresters who protected young treetops with mesh onion bags, Rajala and his crew hit on the idea of folding a sheet of paper the size of a playing card over each tree's bud cap and stapling it in place like a Christmas star. "And lo and behold, it worked," he says. "Little by little, we got good at it." In a single year, they stapled one million bud caps on trees between six inches and six feet tall. The paper caps proved to be about 95 percent effective. 

Rajala and the foresters also discovered they could avoid most problems with blister rust and tip weevil, both common to white pines, by planting seedlings beneath a partial canopy of mature trees. The older trees capture the summer dew and create a drier, healthier microclimate for the young pine. He calls the technique the "Rajala shelterwood system."

Having planted so many seedlings over the years, Rajala now relies on nearby mature pine to seed new areas for him. Still, he, his family, and volunteers bud-cap up to 400,000 trees a year. Meanwhile, Rajala Companies is logging mature hardwoods and some of the original pines from the family's property to supply up to half the wood consumed in company sawmills in Bigfork and Deer River.

Planning and planting a forest isn't like growing a garden or crop. The harvest may not come in the planter's lifetime. In those intervening decades, fortunes rise and fall, technologies change, demand for various products ebbs and flows. Competition and outside forces affect the viability of the entire enterprise. 

And yet somehow the person who would plant his own forest must anticipate what can grow and what might have value -- a century from now. That is Jack Rajala's gamble, and he is betting on the white pine.

David Zumeta, executive director of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, has worked with Rajala for 30 years. "Jack is one of the most visionary, thoughtful, and knowledgeable forest industry practitioners in the state," says Zumeta. "His experience is rooted in decades spent observing and learning from the northern forest as well as managing the northern forest. He has strong opinions, but he is also open-minded and willing to adapt to new scientific and management information."

Adapting is just what Rajala is doing as he waits patiently for his white pines to grow. In recent years, his industry has been racked by tremendous changes. The demand for construction lumber has shifted from local species, such as white and red pine, to western Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. Demand for pulpwood for paper has plummeted. A decision by the forest products and real estate giant Potlatch Corporation to begin specializing in red pine two-by-four lumber drove Rajala's sawmills out of
the dimension lumber trade. A promising business in expensive solid-wood doors
disappeared as cheaper labor costs took the manufacturing offshore. 

That's only the half of it. Northern Minnesota is warming -- two degrees warmer in the last 30 years compared to the average temperatures before 1980, according to the State Climatology Office. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts temperatures in central North America could rise 4 to 11 degrees by the end of the century. Less certain is how precipitation will change: Will Minnesota become Nebraska or Ohio?

As growing zones shift northward, foresters such as Rajala wonder if trees will spread rapidly enough to keep up. Another concern is whether warmer weather will favor the pests that can devastate fragile young forests. Some foresters are experimenting with seed sources from farther south in anticipation of a warmer climate. Others are even planting more southerly species, such as red maple, near the Canadian border. University of Minnesota forest ecologists Peter Reich and Lee Frelich have predicted that classic Northwoods "softwoods" such as balsam fir, black and white spruce, and red and jack pine will nearly disappear from northern Minnesota.

None of this is news to Rajala. "For at least the last 15 years, and maybe longer than that, I've been convinced that our climate is changing," he says. "In addition to following that conversation, I've purposefully tried to think of what's going to work best on this site, considering that we're probably going to have a warmer climate."

On this day, Rajala takes me on a drive along a trail that winds through glacial hills topped by hardwoods and pine. He stops
his Jeep, which long ago surpassed 300,000 miles, and gestures toward the thriving forest. 

"Here we put in white pine under red oak very intentionally," he says. "We're going to grow these another 90 years at least. We're doing some guesswork here. We're postulating that white pine will be more resilient to the change in climate than some of these other species." 

Looking across the snowy hills, Rajala portrays a warmer future. "You're going to see less birch and balsam fir. You're probably going to even see less maple. If we stay the course, we can have more oak. And
I think we'll definitely have more white pine."

He imagines that when the seedlings he planted are ready for harvest in a century, the logger who cuts them will be walking through a forest very similar to the very best of Minnesota 100 years ago. "I'm thinking [of] that massive white pine forest in the golden triangle -- between the Snake [River] to the north, the Mississippi to the west, and the St. Croix to the east. That was the best of the best of the white pine. That climate right now is five degrees warmer than here. I think that is what we're looking at."

It's not lost on Rajala that he's planning and planting for a future he will never see. "I'm cutting the trees that God provided many, many years ago," he says. "We don't have to harvest the same crop we plant. Somebody else will harvest the crop I planted."

In his old age, the oldest of the white pines he has planted will be no more than gangly adolescents, at best 75 feet tall. They will be far stouter and more valuable in another century. Still, he says, "I think I'm going to cut one just to have the satisfaction of it.

"But only one." 


Greg Breining is a Minnesota author and journalist whose articles and essays have appeared
in the New York Times, Audubon,  National Geographic Traveler, and many other publications.