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Poplars Popular for Paper Pulp

PULLMAN, Wash. – Family farmer Robert Perkes, Mesa, Wash., and Boise Cascade executives have at least one thing in common. They believe hybrid cottonwood trees have a great future in the Pacific Northwest.

Next fall or winter Boise Cascade will harvest, chip and make paper out of 140-acres of trees that Perkes planted in the spring of 1991. It’s been a long awaited harvest, but Perkes takes the same pride in growing this crop that he has taken in the past growing potatoes, sugar beets, wheat, corn, clover, alfalfa and other crops in the same fields.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” Perkes says. “We’ve got some real nice trees.” When his first crop is harvested, Perkes plans to plant another stand of a crop so unusual people drive up to his farm and ask what he’s growing.

“They’re just like any other crop,” Perkes says. It just takes six seasons to grow hybrid cottonwood, a type of poplar tree.

Perkes’ trees are contracted to Boise Cascade, which also has contracts with seven other Columbia Basin farmers, to grow fiber for the company’s paper mill at Wallula, Wash.

There is no more certain sign of Boise Cascade’s confidence in the new agricultural crop than the 13,000 acres of trees growing near the mill and the company’s announced intention of expanding the operation to 20,000 acres.

Boise Cascade is one of seven Pacific Northwest lumber and paper companies that are cultivating poplar plantations. They have a combined acreage estimated at 35,000 acres with short-term plans to double operations to 70,000 acres. In addition, farmers belonging to the Southwestern Washington Cooperative, Aberdeen, plan to grow 10,000 acres of poplars.

Ken Wearstler, Kennewick, owner of Poplar Intensive Culture Technologies Inc., estimates at least 35,000 acres of poplars are under cultivation in the Pacific Northwest. He expects an additional 15,000 acres to be planted this spring. The acreage is about evenly divided between Washington and Oregon.

“Within a very short period of time, 3-4 years, I’m sure we’ll be well over 100,000 acres,” Wearstler says. He also notes that farmers in Oregon’s Malheur County are investigating poplar plantations. Wearstler believes Washington, Oregon and Idaho eventually could have 1 million acres in poplar plantations.

These are heady figures for an industry still birthing. After all, the first plantation harvest — by James River Corp. — was only three years ago.

Washington State University forester Paul Heilman estimates the farm-gate value of 100,000 acres of chips for pulp at $66.5 million, based on December 1995 pulp prices. Harvested at nine years, poplars compete well for a variety of higher priced timber products such as veneer, plywood, oriented strand board and laminated veneer lumber.

“I see the Pacific Northwest becoming a major wood basket. It will be a complement to agriculture, and not a detriment,” Wearstler predicts.

The foundation for this new industry was laid by Washington State University forester Paul Heilman, who retires this month [[[Feb. 1996]]], and Reinhard Stettler, University of Washington forest geneticist who retired last August.

Heilman was on the WSU faculty at Mt. Vernon from 1961-1964 and returned to the faculty in 1967 after a hiatus on the University of Alaska faculty.

He got into cottonwood research when Dwight Peabody, a WSU weed scientist who retired in 1985, proposed growing cottonwoods for pulp.

“I was sort of an instigator,” Peabody remembers. “My bag was weeds. I wasn’t a forester. Heilman had the expertise and he had the contacts and so I sort of faded into the background over the years and he ran with the ball. I just got the ball rolling.”

Peabody’s weed science and Heilman’s silviculture expertise proved to be a serendipitous combination. In 1967 they teamed up on the first cottonwood trial. Peabody’s contribution was in finding herbicides to control weeds, especially during the first year of growth.

When Heilman transferred to WSU’s Western Washington Research and Extension Center at Puyallup, he brought a few poplars with him. The trees, and the project, took root. As he worked out a regime for growing the cottonwoods, Heilman was struck by the need for genetic improvement.

“In 1970 I went to see Reini (Reinhard), and he happened to have some hybrids that he had developed and he was looking for a home for them. They were in the UW Arboretum and they were outgrowing their space. So I brought them down here and we set up a little experiment with them, a little demonstration, and one of them grew 11 feet the first year from a stem cutting.

“This became something really exciting,” Heilman says.

Their research received a critical boost in 1978 when the U.S. Department of Energy, spurred by oil shortages, requested proposals for biomass research.

“Reini and I made a proposal featuring genetics and culture of cottonwood for short rotation biomass for energy,” Heilman says. Theirs was the only proposal that emphasized genetics. Funding has been renewed annually ever since. It currently is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy at about $220,000 a year, with about half of that coming to WSU.

Breeding is done both at WSU and at the UW. All trees are then grown at Puyallup. After initial screening, they are distributed for establishment of selection trials.

Private cooperators from Vancouver Island to the Lower Willamette Valley and east to the Clearwater River in Idaho assist by growing clones on company land. Cooperators maintain plantings and collect data. Heilman and Reinhard analyze data and share results with the cooperators.

Current cooperators are MacMillan Bloedel Corp., Nanaimo, B.C.; Scott Paper Ltd., New Westminster, B.C.; Scott Paper, Everett; James River, Camas; Georgia Pacific, Eugene, Ore.; Boise Cascade, Wallula; and Potlatch, Lewiston, Idaho.

Heilman believes hybrid cottonwood has the potential for solving, or at least ameliorating, a variety of problems. Besides providing an abundant, renewable source of fiber for high- quality paper products and an alternate source of energy, Heilman says the trees also can be economically grown for wood products, and even to help clean up toxic waste and to help reduce nitrate infiltration into streams and aquifers.

Cottonwoods already are being credited with saving one Washington mill, operated by K Ply at Port Angeles. The mill is making plywood out of native black cottonwood, but is counting on plantations to supply future softwood needs.

Heilman sees a bright future for cottonwood culture. “The world picture for wood is real grim,” the scientist says. “We’re running out of wood. The demand is increasing and the supply is diminishing. The so-called paperless office never happened. Computers have increased the use of paper. We’re recycling as much paper as we can. You can only recycle paper so long before you’ve degraded the fiber, so you have to have a fresh input of fiber.

“All over the world there are efforts to preserve native forests. The need to grow wood domestically as a crop instead of in our forested settings will increase,” Heilman says.

As a hardwood, cottonwood fills an important niche in the paper business. Fiber from conifer trees is thick-walled and doesn’t compress well. It is strong, but paper made from conifer fiber has voids in its surface, which lets ink bleed. Hardwood fiber, such as cottonwoods, produces paper with a hard, smooth, opaque surface. It also produces a brilliant white for high-quality printing. And–a seeming paradox–hardwood fiber also produces the softest tissue paper.

Early in their investigations, Peabody and Heilman sat down one day in Mt. Vernon and compared the economics of growing cottonwoods vs. peas on Skagit Valley farms.

Peabody laughs when he recalls their reaction when their calculations showed that farmers could make more money growing cottonwood than peas.

“We quickly folded up our papers and put them in the file and went to lunch. We couldn’t believe it.”

Apparently paper mill executives didn’t believe either. “We kept telling Crown Zellerbach, ‘Forget the damned Douglas fir up on the hills, we can get you more pulp growing cottonwood trees down here on the flat.’

“I guess somebody finally listened to us, but it took a long time,” Peabody muses.

It was Crown-Zellerbach that finally listened. It planted 40 acres of Heilman’s and Stettler’s hybrid cottonwood clones in 1983. (James River subsequently acquired Crown- Zellerbach’s mills and cottonwood operations.)

This year Heilman’s eight-year-old cottonwood logs were processed into plywood for Georgia Pacific Crop. at a Roseburg, Ore., mill. “They were ecstatic with the results,” Heilman says.

James River has been harvesting its own cottonwood plantations since 1992. The company cultivates about 11,000 acres of the trees in sites along both sides of the Columbia River from Longview to Astoria.

Boise Cascade is growing 13,000 acres of cottonwoods at Wallula, Wash., and has plans to increase the acreage to at least 20,000. Potlatch Corp., plans to cultivate 22,000 acres of the trees.

What is the potential future of the cottonwood industry?

Heilman says, “I think we’re going to see a couple hundred thousand acres. Our Columbia Basin would be the heart of it.” But Heilman says Western Washington will have its share of the pie, as will other areas.

Wearstler agrees. He believes the Tri-Cities will be the hub of this new industry, which will extend from southern Idaho into Canada. Plantations will be irrigated in the interior, and grown without irrigation West of the Cascades.

Wearstler lavishes praise on Heilman and Stettler. “It (the new industry) wouldn’t be here without them,” Wearstler says. “Paul’s and Reini’s work is very important. They were in the right place at the right time. They were dedicated to the concept of this fast-growing tree in the face of just unbelievable ridicule in the timber industry.

“Paul and Reini have fought this unbelievably negative environment and in the mean time have built one of the finest research programs in the world.”

Not many scientists have the opportunity to play such a pivotal role in launching a new industry. Paul and his UW friend, Reini, leave a large legacy as they slip into retirement.

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