Principia’s first-ever commercial timber harvesting occurred recently on West Farm as part of a new sustainable forest management project.

Principia hired independent logging contractor Mike Egelhoff to carry out the work. Egelhoff worked with two others to fell and haul 140 trees in just 13 days. The logs will be sold to two local sawmills to be distributed locally and perhaps internationally.

The aim of the project, according to Biology and Natural Resources Department Chair Dr. Mike Rechlin, is to make the 750-acre West Farm area a demonstration of sustainable resource management at Principia. The area already includes land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program through the Great Rivers Land Trust, and is home to the Three Rivers Community Farm, a 14-acre organic farm.

“We want to model exemplary resource management for students and the community,” said Rechlin. “As well as the prairie and the farm, it would be great to have a model for the community in forestry.”

One of the ultimate goals of the project is to produce wood that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent, not-for-profit organization established to promote responsible forest management around the world. FSC certification signifies that timber has been produced and harvested sustainably and ethically. Rechlin is currently in contact with SmartWood, a Vermont-based organization that would supply Principia’s FSC certification. The certification process may take a year and a half and requires a fee. If successful, Principia’s FSC certification would be the first in Illinois.

Bruce Alioto, Principia’s Contracts Officer, has been supportive of the initiative, saying that FSC certification would be a “strong statement” of Principia’s commitment to sustainability. “To really take this forward, Prin must include FSC-certified lumber in its strategic plan,” he said. Including Principia lumber in new millwork, cabinets, doors, and dorm furniture would be ways of achieving this. “It would be wonderful to walk through our dorms and say, ‘This wood came from our campus,’” he said.

Local construction projects working towards Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification would also find a local source of FSC wood appealing, said Rechlin, because it would help to earn credit towards the certification.

Principia already uses its own wood in various projects on campus, notably in the recently constructed shed for the biology department’s ATVs and the renovation of the office of the Principia Center for Sustainability currently being undertaken by Rechlin’s Sustainable Development class. But FSC certification for the wood being used in such projects would show even more support for sustainability, Alioto said, adding that it would also be a way to act in accordance with Principia’s policy “that we should be open to new ways of doing things that make sense.”

The logging process used in FSC-certified operations is known as selective logging, which means that certain trees in an area are picked out for felling, leaving a suitable environment for new tree saplings to successfully replace the trees that were removed.  Selective logging allows for changes in species distribution in the forests, and Rechlin hopes that it will favor white oaks more than black oaks on West Farm. “In these woods there’s lots of black oak,” he said. “White oaks are more shade tolerant, respond well to thinning, and are more valuable.”

Student involvement has been and will continue to be integral to the operation. Recent Principia graduates researched the feasibility of logging on West Farm, as well as dividing West Farm into logging zones, as part of their coursework or capstones. Rechlin’s 2008 Forest Management class performed further analysis of these zones, enabling him to mark the trees to be harvested. He plans for the 2011 Forest Management class to be involved in assessing the cut area and preparing the next logging site.

Principia’s recently hired Land Stewardship/Operations Manager, John Lovseth, will be taking over the project in the fall. As a student, Lovseth completed his biology capstone on the topic of forest certification. Under the ongoing program, it will take a 20-year period for logging to rotate through the West Farm zones. The next round of felling will most likely occur in fall 2011.