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Article #109, July 2006
By Bill Cook

     Forest management practices vary considerably across forest types, site conditions, market availability, and many other factors. There simply is not any single way or best way to manage all forests, or even a particular kind of forest. While nature is a dynamic system that defies simple categorization, there remains a body of knowledge and experience that can be very effectively applied.

     For landowners, growing red pine can be quite rewarding. It's one of the fastest-growing species in the Lake States. Plantations are reasonably easy to establish, maintain, and thin. Old fields, abandoned farms, and low quality hardwood sites are good places to plant red pine, as long as the soil is well-drained.

     Plantation establishment, maintenance, and culture require some knowledge and planning. Working with a forester will certainly increase the odds of success. The early years are critical. Vegetation competition, drought, and deer browsing pose the greatest threats. Cost-share programs and federal tax incentives can help with expenses.

     Red pine are very sensitive to sunlight conditions. They do not tolerate shade. As stand canopies begin to close, growth slows dramatically and lower branches begin to die and self-prune. To a certain point, this self-pruning is a good thing. Nevertheless, to maximize growth and maintain stand health, thinning is required. Red pine respond well to well-maintained light conditions.

     Many older plantations have been neglected. Persistent over-crowding after stands reach about 60 feet will ruin a stand. The ratio of crown to total tree height becomes so low that recovery may be impossible. When only the top ten percent of the tree has needles, and the trees are not likely to grow much more in height, the stand needs to be clearcut and re-planted. It's too late for thinning.

     The crown is where photosynthesis takes place. When crowns become very small, the trees produce only minimal amounts of sugars. This stressful condition can attract bark beetles and invite other health problems. Once trees approach the genetic limit of height growth, those with small crowns cannot grow larger crowns. That's why thinning at this point would not be productive.

     Many of the plantations from the CCC days have reached sawtimber size. Many more plantations started since then are also coming on-line. Over the next decade or so, we can expect large volumes of red pine to move into the market. The most valuable products will be utility poles, followed by cabin logs, sawtimber, and pulpwood. Red pine is a versatile species with excellent products throughout its life.

     Red pine is one of the more maligned forest types in the region. Conversely, many people consider these stands visually attractive. Both perspectives are largely human constructs. While sometimes locally abundant, the red pine forest type occupies only about five percent of our forest cover in the Lake States.

     Red pine seems to have gotten a bad rap for a lack of biodiversity and the fact it often grows in rows.

     While biodiversity within a stand may be low, the diversity added to the greater landscape can be valuable. Red pine stands in a sea of hardwoods offers habitat for species not otherwise likely to occur. Early stages of red pine growth provide excellent shelter and escape cover for many wildlife species.

     As far as growing in rows, that's usually a temporary structure. Once thinning within rows begins to happen, the stand will often take on a visual character more like that of natural stands.
Plantations are an effective way to rapidly produce marketable fiber and invest for future income. While they may not have the greatest value to wildlife habitat, they do add to most landscapes. If we can accept open fields, urban splatter, and agriculture; then a plantation should certainly be preferable from environmental perspectives. Perhaps, red pine deserves a second look.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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