Value-Added Forestry: Unleashing the Entrepreneurial Forester

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:12/16/2010

Talking to Greg Nolan is a bit like entering the eye of a tornado--there’s a whole lot of turbulence and confusion until you get to the calm center where you begin to see the world from his perspective.  Greg is a dynamo of energy and initiative with 80 acres and the Snowy Pines Reforestation business in Minnesota, which he manages with his wife, Marcia Rapatz.  He’s the type of guy who always has five irons in the fire. 

I was referred to Greg by Lindberg Ekola, Landscape Program Manager at the Minnesota Forest Resources Council.   Theirs is a mutual admiration society.  Greg has been a member of the West Central Regional Landscape Committee since its creation in the year 2000.  

Greg believes in creating opportunities and his attitude is “why have government do something when your neighbors could run a business to accomplish the same thing?” 

forestry with a little f

Greg values the stewardship ethos above all things, so he supports Forest Stewardship Planning and works with the Minnesota Forest Resources Council’s landscape committee.  “We can get ahead by educating landowners  - the small f foresters - but we need to foster looking at the bigger picture rather than just the backyard.”

“If we empower ‘forestry with a small f,’” Greg says, “we will get way more jobs, more innovation, more independent critical thinking, more freedom, more inspiration, more democracy, more resilience, more passion and more of all the things we need to accomplish.  We as a society are too good at planning and not good enough at implementation. We plan to plan. I want to implement!

“Cutting timber and planting trees is how we currently are managing our forests in Minnesota. Not much is happening with pre-commercial thinning, release of native seedlings that are already established, and commercial improvement cuts. These activities provide a lot better return on our investments over the long term, plus they keep landowners connected to their land between harvests.”

Spreading Forest Wealth through the Community

Greg is in the business of processing blowdown and salvage to make wood flooring, furniture, or wood trim.  He has a solar powered warm-room kiln for drying the timber, and he knows very well how to estimate the return on a tree. Greg has even written an article in the April 2010 edition of Sawmill and Woodlot magazine entitled “The $4750 Tree.”  He describes a single ancient but unsafe white pine that he processed into 1500 square feet of beautiful siding.

“When I cut a dead oak, I’ve had the experience over and over again that when I’m done, it’s worth a couple thousand bucks, at least," he points out.  Greg maintains that many more local jobs could be created if "small f" wood is processed locally and sold in the retail markets.

Forest Stand Improvement through 40 Points of Light

Greg believes that “we have tremendous potential to do good on the landscape and make forestry in our community a paying proposition.” 

“I started doing ‘40 Points of Light’ on my land by taking a chainsaw full of gas and heading off in a chosen direction to work.  What I did was skip the intensity of traditional timber stand improvement in favor of saving the trees, every 30 to 40 feet, that had the best potential. What I have today is a wonderful crop of well-spaced, high value trees, with pulp and junk trees filling the voids. The junk trees turn into wildlife trees and firewood, but in the mean time my quick work with a chainsaw has given the crop trees enough light to develop. 

“It’s a way to solve a problem by injecting time when you are low on resources.  I like to use time as a tool. Too many of us see it as an obstacle.

“Some folks think that stewardship plans simply inventory private timber for ‘Forestry with a capital F.’  Eighty to 90 percent of the land in our area is managed by the "hand of God" (Mother Nature), and this includes people who have current stewardship plans.  You see, landowners do not like clear cuts or sloppy loggers.  

“Many people are interested in caring for their forests with a light hand on the land and are put off by the tools the forestry community has offered them over the last 40 to 50 years. Those tools include pulp woodcuts and even-age managed forests whose management cycles always seem to end in a clear-cut.

“This is a new idea, and the best people to sell this idea are most likely trusted community members and small local businesses, rather than agency personnel.  If we want to get large land areas covered by this practice, I think we may need to cost share the training of the vendors, then encourage them to find the work and prioritize the practices that get us the most bang for our buck as a society (such as improving wildlife habitat, reducing wildfire hazards, or supporting local economies). We should use private commerce as a driver on this project, especially given the rollbacks in government staffing.”

The Long Prairie River Stewardship Project

Another example of Greg’s initiative is a tree-planting program he helped establish.  Over the course of a five-year time frame, Greg worked with 40 private landowners to restore riparian habitat along the Long Prairie River.  They planted 60,000 trees.  

Greg says, “I was experimenting with the concept of an NGO to build trust in the community and empower people to actually pick and choose where the conservation work is done.  We got cost share money from the state in the form of a credit at the nursery.  We also raised the money it took to plant the trees by talking with landowners and businesses that operate on the river. (Center pivot irrigators, packing plants and meat processors gave money and planted trees.)

“It worked for a while, and I have recently been encouraged to start the riparian planting project up again.  I think it would be fun, and I know just how I would do it.”

Go get ‘em, Greg!