The secret life of trees: How pens are preserving old-growth forests

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

When Dave Wager fells a tree, he gets a glimpse into the past. As we trudge through a forest in the mountains of western Montana, the extent of this history becomes apparent. Surrounding us is a tall stand of ponderosa pines, their thick, red bark attesting to their age, which Wager estimates to be 300 years old. Their size and color are the defining features of the forest, but it is the younger, more abundant Douglas-fir trees that now dominate the understory. Stopping beneath an old ponderosa, we examine the debris left from Wager’s latest harvest: a young Douglas-fir that had taken up residence a few yards from the giant pine.

By the time Lewis and Clark passed through the area in 1805, this ponderosa pine was already well established. But the forest that surrounded the tree back then was quite different. Frequent low intensity fires, both naturally occurring and manmade by Native Americans, maintained a sparse, open understory suitable for hunting and resulted in a forest dominated by large, fire-adapted species such as ponderosa pines and western larch. With fires occurring on average every five to 30 years, the pine-larch forests relied on fire for regeneration.

Over the next century, logging removed most of the pine’s brethren, and by the early 20th century a policy of fire suppression came to dominate forest management. What remained of the historic pine-larch forests existed either as an act of preservation or due to a forester’s oversight—or because the terrain was simply too steep for logging. Around this time, Douglas-firs, like the one Wager felled, began to engulf the forest.

Wager is working to protect what remains of this old-growth pine forest, and he is doing so in an unusual way—by selling pens. His company, Tree Ring Pens, restores small forest stands such as this one by removing dense understory trees and crafting them into high-end pens. Each pen displays the tree’s annual growth rings, which reveal the events that shaped the tree, the surrounding forest, and the American West.

STORIES OF THE FOREST

You can tell a lot about the past from tree rings. Dendrochronology, or tree ring dating, has been used by scientists for decades to analyze the historical records kept by tree rings. Past forest and climate conditions, including the incidence of fire, drought, and disease, all reveal themselves in the patterns of annual growth rings.

Standing over a log from his most recent thinning project, Wager points out events that occurred during the life of the hundred-year-old Douglas-fir. There was the drought of 1918–1922, indicated by a narrow set of rings, which brought the Homestead boom to an end in Montana. There was another drought in the 1930s, associated with the Dust Bowl. Then, in 1998, marked by a wide ring near the log’s outer layer, was La Nina, which brought the region one of its wettest years on record.

Notably lacking from the rings is any indication of fire, but this doesn’t come as a surprise to Wager. Since the Great Fire of 1910 roared through these mountains a century ago, fire has been a missing element in the forest. The fire, which burned three million acres and killed 85 people, was the largest in recorded U.S. history. In part because of the fire, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy of widespread fire suppression that lasted throughout the century.

A RACE TO THE TOP

Today, scars from the “Big Burn” are visible in the rings of fallen old-growth trees, but few of them remain. The absence of fire fuels the proliferation of small diameter Douglas-firs, which are encroaching upon the older pines and larches. In the open-access race for resources that is forest ecology, this competition does not bode well for the giants.

“We’re trying to perpetuate this 300-year-old stand so that it will hopefully live another couple hundred years,” says Wager as we examine an old-growth stand of ponderosa pines in Pattee Canyon outside of Missoula. Here, on a section of state trust land, he has permits to remove Douglas-firs that are choking out the old growth. “It’s hard to put numbers on it, but when we thin out the understory, there’s less competition for resources and the trees are able to devote more energy to fighting off insects and disease.”

Without the restoration thinning, the fire that enabled the trees to flourish in the past could eventually be their undoing. “If there was a fire in here now, with all this understory fuel, fire is much more likely to get into the crown,” says Wager, peering up at a pine crowded in by Douglas-firs. “These trees can’t survive a crown fire.”

Wager sources the wood for his pens from hard-to- reach spots that have been neglected by larger forest restoration projects. “Remnant old-growth stands exist today, in part, because they were too inaccessible or too steep to be logged economically,” explains Wager. “Ironically, the same cost challenges that explain their existence also serve as an impediment to their conservation today.” By crafting a luxury product from the low-valued timber that surrounds these stands, Wager is providing the necessary economic incentives to accomplish their restoration.

A BUDDING IDEA

Trained as a forest ecologist, Dave Wager came up with the idea for tree ring pens back in graduate school at Utah State University. While spending hours in the dendrochronology research lab counting and measuring tree rings, he discovered that a tree’s rings could be displayed beautifully on a wooden pen. By removing a cross-section of wood from a log, Wager could form a pen blank that included each of the tree’s growth rings, from the center pith to the outer layer of bark.

The pen-making remained a hobby while Wager pursued a career conducting audits for the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent organization that promotes responsible forestry practices through certification assessments. Over the next few years, FSC audits took him to more than 100 forestry operations across 16 different countries. But when the opportunity to combine pen-making with forest restoration presented itself, Wager decided to give it a shot. In 2008, he received a patent for the pens, and by 2010, he cut back his certification work to pursue the business full time. Today, his pens sell in a small but growing retail market across many western states and on his website, TreeRingPens.com.

FINISHING TOUCHES

After felling the tree, Wager hauls the logs back to his workshop in Missoula where the pens are crafted and assembled by hand. In the shop, Wager cuts the blanks to reveal the entirety of the tree’s rings. After the blanks have dried, he sands them smooth on a lathe and applies a protective coating. The pens are then assembled with high-quality components to create a variety of pen types ranging from click ballpoints to fountain pens. A one-foot section of log will typically create ten pens.

Each pen comes with a wooden box and a display card describing the tree’s history and its role in old-growth forest restoration. In addition, Wager inscribes the first and last growth ring on each pen, a timeline that often spans more than a century. One recently completed pen dates back to 1864, the year Montana became a U.S. territory. Another goes back to 1861, the start of the Civil War. Wager is also able to mark years of personal significance on the rings. Customers often request to have birthdays, anniversaries, and other important dates inscribed on the pen to connect the tree’s natural history to a family history.

Word of Wager’s pens is spreading quickly. Pen World, a premier luxury pen magazine, highlighted Tree Ring Pens in 2010. The pens have also been popular at pen trade shows. But the connection of the pens to old-growth forest restoration remains the focus of Wager’s project. Five percent of the sale prices are donated to organizations working on forest conservation and restoration.

“Part of the allure of the pen is holding 100 years of history in your hand and feeling a connection to a tree that lived through the last century,” says Wager. The other is something less tangible: “The user of the pen is also connected to the preservation of the old-growth forest, whose centuries of stories are preserved in the rings of these ancient trees.” They are stories that, for now, will remain untold.

For more information: www.treeringpens.com

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Shawn Regan is the Director of Publications and a Research Fellow at PERC. He holds a M.S. in Applied Economics from Montana State University and degrees in economics and environmental science from Berry College. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Quartz, High Country News, Reason, Regulation, Grist, and Distinctly Montana. Shawn...
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