The Society For the Protection of New Hampshire Forests unveiled a new development today that may revolutionize the timber industry.
Forest research scientists say they’ve created a new type of tree that is ideal for harvesting and beneficial for the environment.
But as NHPR’s Amy Quinton reports, the new tree has already sparked a huge outcry from some businesses and environmental groups.
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Jack Savage with the Forest Society is walking through light snow toward a remote forest.
The organization has more than 150 permanently conserved forests in New Hampshire – but this one, in a location we can’t disclose, has been kept a secret for decades.
Towering in front of us are several hundred spruce and white pine trees.
They’re planted next to each other in a geometric pattern -- but that’s not the first thing you notice.
1093 :50 they’re a lot like a regular tree except from the ground up they’re a square tree, one of the interesting things and we’re not quite sure why this is, but the roots and the branches are still round but the entire trunk is square.
Research scientists planned and developed this forest of square trees in a process that sounds strikingly similar to genetic engineering.
But Savage says it’s a bit different.
1093 It’s not genetic engineering per say rather its MAS, which is Market Assisted Selection and it involves identifying plants with desirable traits, and then using conventional breeding techniques to introduce the desirable genes into the host tree
Back in the 1980’s, scientists tried a similar process to develop a new type of tomato, but the experiment had mixed results and was eventually abandoned.
This experiment is moving forward and Savage says the square trees will be a boon for the timber industry.
1093 1:12 Once the tree is harvested it takes a lot less space to put a square tree in a logging truck than it does a round tree, so you can get up to 25-percent more logs on the trip from the wood lot to the mill.
And at a time of rising fuel prices, that’s going to be a money-saver.
It’s also more efficient to cut a square tree, there’s a lot less wood waste, and about 18-percent more square trees can be grown on a given acre of land.
Savage can see a time when forest managers will be able to grow two by fours, or six by six’s.
:29 (We think it’s fabulous)
That’s Jasen Stock, Executive Director of New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.
2:55 It’s a boon to our industry here, having square logs.. what we expect to see is demand for our logs from all over the Northeast and Eastern United States, we’ll see that demand grow, having a square log much better than having a round one.
Stock adds that some adjustments will be needed on equipment that’s always been used to haul round logs, but says it won’t be a huge impediment to the industry.
But Charlie Niebling, General Manager for New England Wood Pellets in Jaffrey says the square tree could put him out of business.
His company depends on wood waste to make pellets for stoves.
Since a square tree reduces wood waste, higher demand will drive up his costs.
1:28 we’re very concerned about it, we’re probably going to have to go much further out to find sufficient wood resources to manufacturer our pellets and with the price of diesel fuel going through the roof that means our costs are going to increase significantly.
He plans on fighting the square tree’s development and says he’s upset with the Forest Society.
3:40 we thought we had good relationships with folks with the forest society, but clearly we don’t, if I’m finding out from a public radio reporter about this for the first time, clearly we’ve got some talking to do with the people that run the organization.
Another major concern about the square tree is the effect it might have on the environment.
The Forest Society insists that their square trees are more environmentally friendly -- taking up more carbon, which helps mitigate climate change.
But New Hampshire Sierra Club Chapter Director Catherine Corkery isn’t buying it.
She’s upset not only with genetically engineering a square tree, but is concerned about its affect on wildlife.
5:00 the interaction between square trees and wildlife could be really dangerous, I see it could be difficult for bears to climb trees because it’s not as easy they’re square
But the Forest Society's Jack Savage insists they’re not blind to the impact on what he calls highly arboreal species.
1094 2:54 squirrels in particular spiral up a tree, and we’re not sure that they’ll be able to go around the tree with the same speed on a square tree, which means they may be more susceptible to predators.
Savage says they have noticed some erratic behavior in squirrels living in the forest.
As for the Sierra Club’s concerns about genetic engineering – Savage dismisses it.
1093 1:11 I’m not sure they’ve had the chance to really understand what we’ve been doing –we’re keeping this pretty close to the vest. So before we pass judgment on the Sierra Club we want to make sure they’re fully informed, on the other hand, it’s sometimes true that the Sierra Club doesn’t like anything.
The Sierra Club’s Corkery says she’s going to meet with the national organization in San Francisco about the issue.
She expects activists will begin tree sit-ins.
And Jack Savage at the Forest Society understands people’s fears.
He says while the square trees will help the timber industry and to some extent the environment, something intangible will be lost.
“I think a lot of people will be fearful that our forests are changing and that when they look out the sort if higgildy-piggildy chaos of a natural forest in NH won’t be the same, and I have to admit there’s something to that, afterall we’re all tree huggers at heart, and it just won’t be the same hugging a square tree.
The square trees will be ready to harvest on April first of next year.
For NHPR News, I’m Amy Quinton.
Editor's note: if you hadn't figured it out by now... April fools!