Illinois’ spreading forests build state’s economy
|By Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
The Vogels are farmers in the Prairie State, where 75 percent of the land is devoted to agricultural production. But what the Vogels farm predominantly are hardwood trees, including walnut, oak, cherry and hickory -- species the family will plant Friday to mark
"That's pretty amazing to think about,"
The Vogels' holistic view also might be riding a wave of economic opportunity.
But it's also an often overlooked commodity. Even as forested acres expand, the state's official responsibility for spreading the word has shrunk to one man.
"I'd have to live 50 lifetimes to be able to reach 206,000 forestland owners," said Hayek, whose name in Czech roughly translates to "small forest." He'd recently returned to the office from teaching a chain saw safety course in southern
A self-described "modest introvert," Hayek has a deep voice, deliberate demeanor, expressive blue eyes and a quick smile. As extension forestry specialist, he conducts webinars, and hosts workshops in the field on topics such as agro-forestry, agronomy and prescribed burning. He attends timber sales and organizes conferences.
And, Hayek said, he is overwhelmed by the demand for his services. "Ultimately it comes down to 'do what you can,'" he said. "It's very difficult to say that, but it's reality. So, you have to find the positives."
Recent history offers reason for optimism. About the time
By 1926, only 3 million acres of forests existed in
Hayek called it "one of the greatest federal programs. It's been great for wildlife. It's been great for water quality," he said. "It's been great for getting native habitat back on the ground. It's just been a phenomenal program."
The state also began offering deep property tax cuts for cropland converted to timberland. Those federal and state programs along with improved forest management and a broader environmental ethic led to steadily expanding forests. Today, about 4.8 million acres of the state are considered forestland. And, the annual growth of trees here is twice as high as their mortality and removal, the
On their farm about 85 miles southwest of
While they initially looked into tree farming as a financial strategy, a deeper motive was "that trees are so cool," said
"I think we started looking at it more holistically then," Greg said, and the family planted additional acres of forest every year. About 115 of their 266 acres are timber.
They began working with Hayek on a forest management plan in 2005. The goal is to create "a continuous flow" that balances tree harvests every 10-15 years with plantings, said
That ideal differs slightly from tree farmer
"I love walking through the fields and the trees and being a nurturer of the earth," she said. "I think that's a very special role."
Peterson also is quick to note the environmental benefits of trees. Research from the
But, making a tree farm work as a business has been tough, Peterson said. The recession and fuel costs have hit hard.
"I think the pendulum has been slowly creeping out of the toilet," Peterson said, "but we really do need to have a more stable (economic) environment."
Hayek said he believes that forestry "absolutely" is a sleeping economic giant for
And, a 2012 report done by
Those figures surprised Hayek and many in agriculture, but forestry advocates take a broad view of the industry. In addition to logging, sawmills, plywood mills and pulp and paper, the
Cropland still dominates in
Those are among the frustrating figures he has to deal with after years of lax interest in forestry in
Instead, the numbers dropped and Hayek became the lone specialist, while the amount of forestland increased 12 percent over that time, the council said.
Asked why the de-emphasis occurred, Hayek said that "
In addition, sawmill operators tell him the state's business climate, corporate tax structure and insurance costs are "a huge turnoff," Hayek said.
His approach throughout his travels is to try to "sell forestry through wildlife," a message that seems to resonate with the state's very diverse forestland owners, Hayek said. He also works at getting those landowners to think of their trees as part of a long-term financial portfolio, similar to a 401(k).
But the development of forestry's promise as an economic and environmentally sustainable endeavor in
"We need someone to champion our cause," especially someone who can exert influence in the state legislature and
Even if that champion steps forward, tree farming at
It is a venture that requires patience and arduous, never-ending work to expedite the growth of straight, thick, flawless hardwoods that, in early stages, are susceptible to deer, squirrels and unpredictable growth patterns.
Jim, 74, and Dixie, 69, might not live to see the day of tree harvests -- even their sons joke they themselves might never see it. But the Vogels contend that their entire family, including parents, sons and grandchildren, enjoy the ambience they've created on this spot in the middle of farm fields.
"If more kids had a place like this to walk around and play in, they'd be a lot better off,"
"You're kind of in awe of the trees,"
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