Researchers use local species to expand market for cross-laminated timber


Wood is the sustainable solution

We need to construct billions of new houses, offices and other structures in the next decades. We can to this at high environmental cost with plastics, concrete & steel. Or we can build sustainably with wood, using exciting new wood technologies.


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Places I would like to go

Sky Islands – In southeastern Arizona, a unique geology has created a ‘sky island’ ecosystem – meaning you’ll find deer, bears and mountain lions in the arid, dry desert.



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Forests Forever

I was talking to a couple people about building with wood. They acknowledged wood’s advantages, but asked if we would run out of wood. I told the unequivocally that we will NOT run out of timber in America. The United States is the world’s biggest wood producer, yet we have more wood growing today than in any other time in more than a century.  I am not sure they believed me. I can mention statistics, but my certainty comes from my own observations. And I thought that I might be more persuasive if I shared that experience.  Fortunately, I have photos. All the pictures are those I took of my own land, so I am confident in their veracity.

Above is a clearcut a few months after the loggers are gone. It looks very desolate, doesn’t it? Below is a few months later. Nature is reslient.

Let’s start with cutover land, i.e. land right after a clear cut. A clear cut must be done if you want to grow sun-loving trees, like pines. Since we grow pines, we do clear cut. If we were growing maples, we would cut selectively. If we were growing oaks, we would clear in patches.  It all depends on the type of ecology you are working with. When I learned ecology in the 1970s, clear cuts were considered terrible things. They talked about climax forests that were supposed to be normal working toward this one goal. We have since learned that there is no one goal and we understand that MOST forest types are disturbance dependent.  We need new forests, middle aged ones and old growth forests.  That implies disturbance. The top photo I took on my land exactly one year after it was clear cut. You cannot see them, but there are 21,000 little trees planted there. There will be a young forest in a few years. In the meantime, this acreage provides wonderful habitat for bobwhite quail & deer. And I think it is beautiful.

Within a few years, you can see the little trees popping up through the brush. The picture above shows one of my plantations of longleaf pine. They are four-years old, which means that this is a clear cut after five years. They soon will be be entering a stage of very rapid growth. On a side note, longleaf pine requires – REQUIRES – fire. Fire can be very destructive, but it is also part of the ecology in many systems. It is a mistake to exclude fire in many places. You can see a photo below of our burning. Don’t worry. It’s all good. I started the fire and I would not do it if I though it would destroy those trees I love. The longleaf ecology is the most diverse in North America because of the under story and the variety of plants on the ground, all of it enabled by regular fire.

In about fifteen years, loblolly pine in southern Virginia will be ready to thin.  We MUST thin the trees to allow proper growth and avoid pests. It is like thinning flowers in a garden. If they are too close together, none of them grow right.  The photo above shows fifteen-year-old pines thinned a couple weeks before. We removed 2/3 of the of the trees, which became pulp to make cardboard. Follow this link to see where they went. Below is what they look liked like five years later. There are fewer much healthier trees and more total growing wood than there would have been had we not thinned. These trees are twenty-years-old. We will soon thin them a second time, removing about half the total number of trees. Five years after that, there will be as much total standing timber, maybe a little more, since the thinning will allow the trees to grow that much faster and stronger. Healthy forest require thinning.

Below here are loblolly pines thirty-years-old. You notice that they are bigger than the twenty-year-old trees, but not that much.  Trees continue to grow their entire lives, but they start to grow a lot more slowly after they are mature.  In the case of loblolly pine, the slow a lot after they are thirty and it is almost time to harvest and start over.

One bonus section.  One of the criticism of forestry is that we plant mono-culture, i.e. only one sort of tree. This is potentially a problem. We plant a lot of loblolly pine in the South, but we also are planting other sorts of trees.  I am restoring longleaf pine on my farms, for example. We also have significant diversity in areas around the streams and wetlands. We protect water by not cutting near streams and lakes. This means that there are a lot of old, mixed forests.  Besides protecting water, these zones provide corridors and shelter for wildlife. And they are just beautiful and peaceful places. Below are pictures of our stream management zones. You can see that these are open, mature forests.

And finally, forest owners are usually forest lovers.  This is a picture of what I call “Old Virginia” since it features the mix of oak, shortleaf pine and others that made up a typical mixed forest of the past.  This will not be harvested. We just enjoy them.

Anyway, will we have enough timber in the future? Yes we will.

Wood is 100% renewable resource. We know how to grow timber sustainably in the U.S. and we are doing it. Wood is the most environmentally benign building material throughout its full life cycle. We should build more with wood.

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Clean water is a forest product

Clean water is a forest product. A forest slows runoff and filters the water.  I was reminded of that looking at our stream management zones. These are areas near streams that we mostly leave in natural forest to protect water quality.

Went down to the farms today, along with Alex & his friend Colin. We walked around on the Brodnax farm.  I rarely do the full circuit. Showing them the farms gave me a chance to get in touch a little more myself.  You can in the photos that the SMZsare doing okay.

The first picture is a big shortleaf pine with me to show scale. Shortleaf pine grow slowly. I do not know the precise age of the trees in the big shortleaf in the grove, but I am guessing that they are at least 70 years old, which indicates that this land has not been cleared at least since the 1940s, before I was born anyway.  Shortleaf pine can live more than 300 years. Unlike most pines, they tend to persist in mixed hardwood forests, often in association with oaks as you see here. Notice the unique bark on the shortleaf. It is one of the easiest ways to identify them. It is kind of like alligator skin, as you see in picture #2.

Next shows toad eggs in an ephemeral pond. Colin told me that they were toad, not frog eggs because they are in that kind of chain. I don’t know about that. I do know that amphibians need these sorts of temporary ponds to reproduce and that such ponds are getting harder for them to find, as people make sure their yards are neat, without mud puddles. The pond must be permanent enough (at least a couple months) to let the amphibians develop and move out, but not so permanent for a resident fish population that eats the eggs or tadpoles. This pond is fed by a seepage from the woods above. Below it runs into the creek, so I think this will fit the bill.

The other two photos show water in the creeks. It looks clean to me, so our woods are doing their job to protect water quality. We are part of the Chowan watershed via the Meherrin River in Brunswick County. The water eventually ends up in Albemarle Sound in North Carolina.

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Pine burning plus one month

More pictures at the end.

Went to visit the burn plus one month. It is looking desolate still, but a few green shoots are coming up. By next month, we will see growth bursting out all over. I checked for the terminal buds on the longleaf and they were intact on those I checked. I am not 100% confident in the loblolly, but I think they will be okay too.

If the loblolly are okay, I am going to use fire more in the new stands. I spent most of the rest of the day hacking away at vines in the 2003 loblolly. Running fire through them every couple years would control these things. I cannot use fire in the 2003 loblolly yet, since the vines and trapped branches currently caught up in them would likely carry the fire into the canopy, but if I do it with the 2015 loblolly starting in 2020 I can prevent that situation in the first place.

All that said, I do enjoy cutting vines because it gets me into the woods with something to do, but I recognize that my efforts are not very effective and the vines are hurting my trees. Better to control them with better means. Beyond all that, I am getting a little old for this work and it is unlikely to get any easier. I am always stiff after a day of vine fighting. This time I even managed to hurt myself with my saw. I hit my knee and made five evenly spaced holes. Lucky it was just a hand saw. There was a lot of blood, although not much pain. This morning, however, it is stiffer than usual.

One more thing, a good one – look at the longleaf plantation. Since we did a good job of site prep, there was not much brush. I spent many hours knocking down volunteer loblolly and hardwood. The fire get more of that job done and it looks like we will have a superb stand of longleaf.


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Pine burning plus two weeks

I have confidence in the science of pine management and my logical mind tells me that there is nothing to worry about, that in a couple of months everything will be better than ever, with my pines growing robustly, better than ever. But the place looks pretty desolate. My crazier side fears that I am wrong. What did I do? I can hardly wait. In the meantime, I am documenting developments. This is burning plus two weeks. I will go to monthly studies next time.

The trees were planted in 2012. The longleaf shown are northern stock from North Carolina. I am not particularly concerned with “native.” My trees are northern variety, but not Virginia native longleaf. It would be nice to have “real” Virginia trees, but being “native” is overrated. The environment is similar on both sides of the border. USDA hardiness zone 7b encompasses Southside Virginia and North Carolina more or less to the Neuse River. Trees grown from seed sourced from that part of NC are indistinguishable from Virginia natives. Anyway, if they grow well the next generation will be Virginia native.

My photos are the latest scenes. The first one show me with pine I stood next to a few months ago when it was green. The next two are taken from some rocks I piled a marker so that I could take photos from the same spot. The second last photo shows me next to one of the burned longleaf that you see in the pre-burned photo from September last year. Last is the panorama that shows longleaf and the loblolly planted (and burned) at the same time.


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Burning in Virginia pines – plus one week

I wrote last week about our burning of our longleaf and loblolly grove planted in 2012. I plan monthly updates, but I thought it useful to do one after the first week.

The burned longleaf have turned yellow, but the buds are still intact. I expect that they will start growing soon I am interested to see how it works and to compare the longleaf to the loblolly, burned at the same time.

The first photo shows one of the green buds. Next are the longleaf, loblolly and then both. I plan to take photos from the same places each month.


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Burning longleaf – February 6, 2017

We did the prescribed burn under our 2012 planted longleaf. Longleaf and loblolly were planted at the same time. Loblolly are fire adapted but longleaf are fire dependent. I am reasonably confident that almost all the longleaf will survive the fire ant thrive. I will see about the loblolly. My guess is that most will be okay, but some will be thinned out.  I am going to update every month with pictures and texts. My longleaf sit on the north and western edge of the natural loblolly range. I am interested not only in the tree themselves but also in what grows on the ground underneath.

The longleaf ecosystem is the most diverse in North America because it combines a prairie ecosystem with a forest.

I got to be there and I could “help,” but Virginia Department of Forestry did the real work, and they laid fire lines, which are the real determiners of success in fire. And they brought their bulldozer to stand-by just in case.

We started the fire at the fire line going against the wind – a backfire. The backfire burns slower but more intensely, since the wind is pushing it back. After there was enough black space, we started doing strips with head fires. Head fire go with the wind. They burn faster but not as completely. The head fire is what we want for longleaf. We don’t want it burning too hot. There was not too much wind and it change direction a few times, so whether we call them head fires or back fires was a little unclear.

The fire creates its own wind to some extent, since it sucks in air. Our fires were not very big, but they still had some of that. Fires also burn faster going uphill than downhill. This is because heat and fire, rise. Additionally, fire coming up hill pre-heats and pre-dries the fuel above. We do not have very steep hills on this unit, but the topography still made a difference.

Only one time did we get a kind of flare up. The fire was coming up a gentle rise and the wind picked up and shifted a bit at about the same time the fire hit a thick patch of broom sage. The flames were suddenly 8-10 feet high and coming in our direction. We had to retreat beyond the safe line, but it passed quickly.

Broom sage is a sign of soil infertility. This is okay on a longleaf site and my pines seem to be growing well. On the plus side, broom sage burns quickly and carries the fire w/o it making the fire hot enough to harm the trees.

Smoke was not much of a problem today, because we had the right kind of weather and a generally fast moving fire, but smoke is probably the biggest challenge to prescribed burns. People don’t like it and it can be dangerous and damaging. What you want is for the smoke to rise and then blow away, but this does not always happen. Some weather conditions can cause it to flatten out a few yards into the air and some even make it hug the ground. This seems counter-intuitive, but smoke can sometime flow, like fog down a gully and sometimes it can linger a long time, a real problem if there are nearby roads or houses.

Watching the fire hit the trees was interesting.  They kind of burst into flames, but the fire passes quickly. The longleaf have an adaptation that lets them singe the needles while leaving the terminal bud interact. I walked around after the fire and observed that the buds were intact and ready to grow. I look forward to watching

I talked to a guy down at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens.  They have developed a recommended list of longleaf ground plants. These seeds are expensive but I might want to plant a half acre and let them spread. The NC guy told me that lots of the native species are probably already present in the area, especially because the area under the wires has been mowed regularly but otherwise left alone. The plants will soon colonize the longleaf patch if we just burn it regularly. Nature is resilient.

The whole burn took only about forty-five minutes. Of course, I am not counting all the preparation time. It is surprising (to me at least) how a conflagration, so quickly rise and how quickly it dies out. The key is to use up the fuel. You don’t have to put it out if it has nothing left to burn.

While the burning was going on, I was reminded of the story of Wag Dodge, made famous (at least in fire circles) by his fast thinking during a fire in Mann Gulch in Montana and by Norman Mclean’s best selling book about the incident “Young Men and Fire.” (Read my note about the book.)This fire killed thirteen firefighters. They were caught by a quick change in conditions as the fire chased them uphill pushed by a steep wind. Wag Dodge realized that he would be unable to outrun the fire, so he set his own fire in advance, and then hunkered down in the burned over black. He survived.

A fire burning mostly fine fuel, like grass, burning quickly and quickly passing. There is a wall of flame with a blackened place behind the flames and black is safe, since there is nothing more to burn.

I know that fire is necessary to the health of longleaf pine and I have all sorts of scientific reasons to want to burn the land. But I must admit that it is just fun to do. Fire is primal. I can almost feel the pulse of my distant ancestors using fire to hunt and create more hospital ecosystems. Our fire was not very dangerous, but it is still a little scary, watching that elemental force in action. It is always at least a little unpredictable. Interesting.  I plan to do it every 2-3 years from now on.


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February in the forest, burning time

February is the least attractive month down on the farms. The grass is brown, no leaves on the deciduous trees, pine trees are looking a little anemic just before spring & there is usually a lot of mud. But there is some attraction in the bleakness, kind of like in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

I am down here in hopes of seeing the burning of my longleaf acreage. The Virginia DoF will do it, I hope on Monday, but it is weather dependent. They made fire lines already and I walked the perimeter today. I know that burning is the right thing, the needed thing, for longleaf, but I am still nervous that too many will die. I will document the fire and what I expect to be the rapid recovery and renewed and more rapid growth.

My first photo shows some of the attraction that February still holds. Next is the longleaf on the eve of the fire. We will also burn the grass in front to make the grassland ecosystem. You can see the track/fire line in the last photo.

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I learned a new word from my cousin Dorothy Bozich. The word was polydactyl. It means that the animal has too many toes. It was good to know because we went to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West. Hemingway thought that cats were lucky and that those with six toes were even better. He had as many as 70 cats. Today there are only 53. All have the pterodactyl gene, although not all have six toes.

The cats have names from the Hemingway’s life and times. For example, there is a Greta Garbo, a Humphrey Bogart and we actually saw a Patsy Cline. My photos show the various cats w/o names I know. Actually, I Chrissy says that the cat on the fountain is called Elizabeth Taylor. The last photo is just Hemingway’s house.

The cats are free to go, but none do. It is a kind of cat heaven. Why would they leave? The only lost cat was called F. Scott Fitzgerald. Evidently a visitor loved that cat and wanted to buy him. He was told that F Scott was a free agent and not for sale. A few days later that cat mysteriously disappeared. Got a better offer?


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