Learning about the timber industry


The market for trees comes and goes,

A boom and a bust, I suppose

At the end of the caper

Logs get turned into paper

And you can watch as the baby tree grows.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, traveled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I went back to traveling and adventures in temporary positions. Assignments in Alaska, rural Iowa, suburban Pennsylvania and western Nebraska have followed.  I finished my most recent assignment in Clarinda on May 18.  Right now I’m in northern British Columbia, getting a first-hand look at the Canadian system. Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission.

My education in the tree industry proceeds.

When the US economy tanked in 2008, this town felt the impact. The housing bubble burst, the demand for new houses dropped and with it the demand for lumber.  At the same time, electronic publishing cut into newspapers and other print media, so that the demand for wood pulp went down, and the local jobs evaporated.  Some people stayed, but more than half left.

The market for tree products has gradually improved since. Logs get chipped, the chips get bleached and cleaned and cooked to make pulp, which gets spread into sheets, dried, and sent to China.  Rumor has it that China turns it into toilet paper and sends it back, but undoubtedly it has more uses.

The trees around here suffered from the mountain pine beetle a few years ago. Normally that insect just takes out trees about 80 years old, but fire suppression and lack of logging shifted the ratio of old trees to total trees.  Then the area had a succession of warm winters with a resultant improvement in larva survival.  The warm winters went with dry summers which weakened all the trees, which then succumbed to the beetles.

Some trees stay green for a few years after they’ve effectively died, and get used for lumber. Dead trees retain lumber value for several years, and after that they become fodder for the pulp mills.  But those who log must, by law, replant.

The only tree planter I’ve met so far has been doing other work this century, but replanting involves a shovel and remains unmechanized.

Once cut and trimmed, logs may be trucked directly to the mill, or otherwise moved to a body of water. Secured with cables into rafts or contained with booms, they might move more than 200 miles before meeting the saw or the chipper.

Lake Williston, the largest reservoir in British Columbia and the 7th largest in the world, transports a lot of floating timber, even in the winter, when an icebreaker moves the logs.

And everywhere that logs move, people move with them. I see the consequences when humans face the tyranny of Newtonian physics:  a body in motion tends to remain in motion, a body at rest tends to remain at rest, and two bodies cannot occupy the same place at the same time.

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