Illinois' spreading forests build state's economy

By Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 20--CORNELL, Ill. -- On a remote patch of Livingston County, Jim and Dixie Vogel's 266-acre Hidden Ranch offers a glimpse of a sleeping giant in Illinois' economy.

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 Arbor Day.

Dixie Vogel said part of the appeal of tree farming in a state where the landscape soon will change to sweeping green panoramas of corn and soybeans is longevity. Trees can live for 300 years, she noted.

"That's pretty amazing to think about," Dixie Vogel said, standing in her kitchen one recent morning. "It's a beautiful world, and we need to take care of it."

The Vogels' holistic view also might be riding a wave of economic opportunity. Forestland in Illinois is expanding at a brisk pace -- about 60 percent more acres of timber exist today than in the 1920s -- and experts say state forestry products are a $23 billion industry that accounts for more than 131,000 jobs.

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. Jay Hayek is the lone forestry specialist for the University of Illinois Extension, the educational outreach arm of the school. He works from a fifth floor, pale green, cinder block office on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

"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 Illinois, had a six-day growth of beard and wore a frayed ball cap. "It's just not going to happen."

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."

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Recent history offers reason for optimism. About the time Illinois became the 21st state in 1818, almost 40 percent (slightly more than 14 million acres) of its 35.5 million acres were considered forests. Intense settlement -- "the U.S. was built on wood," Hayek said -- and efforts to farm the rich soil scoured woodlands over the next century.

By 1926, only 3 million acres of forests existed in Illinois. At that point, leaders realized that timberlands had reached severely low acreage and began tree-planting programs. One of the more ambitious efforts occurred in deep southern Illinois, where upward of 90 percent of the land had been farmed and soil erosion from agriculture was acute.

The Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps planted thousands of trees in the region, leading to the creation of the 280,000-acre Shawnee National Forest. Five decades later, in the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, which provides yearly rental payments for landowners to convert farmland to acres of perennial plants, including trees and grasses.

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 Illinois Department of Natural Resources reports.

Cool trees

On their farm about 85 miles southwest of Chicago, the Vogels participate in the Conservation Reserve Program but have yet to harvest the trees they began planting in 1999. They said CRP payments and income from about 40 acres of soybeans and corn, pasture land and rental property allow their farm to stay in the black.

While they initially looked into tree farming as a financial strategy, a deeper motive was "that trees are so cool," said Greg Vogel, 51, the couple's oldest son. He and his brothers, Mark, 48, and Aaron, 42, work long hours on their parents' land, in addition to their full-time jobs in contracting and information technology.

"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 Aaron Vogel. An ideal scenario would be a per-acre harvest of 20 to 30 large hardwoods, each valued at $5,000.

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That ideal differs slightly from tree farmer Dawn Peterson's but she relates to the appeal of trees. Since 1984, her family has run Oney's Tree Farm in Woodstock. The enterprise sells shade trees, evergreens, perennials, shrubs and other plants.

"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 Hardwood Council shows that a tree uses 1.47 pounds of carbon dioxide to grow a pound of wood, and gives off 1.07 pounds of oxygen in the process, all while cooling the environment.

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."

Selling wildlife

Hayek said he believes that forestry "absolutely" is a sleeping economic giant for Illinois. For starters, only about 25,000 of those 206,000 forestland owners have forest management plans, Hayek said.

And, a 2012 report done by Mississippi State University, commissioned by the Illinois Forestry Development Council, stated that "total industry output" of forest products was more than $23 billion. Its "related employment" was 131,549 jobs, and the industry generated nearly $2.5 billion in tax revenue, the report stated.

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 Forestry Development Council includes furniture making, tree removal, forestry consultants and tree nurseries.

Cropland still dominates in Illinois. Farmers planted about 12 million acres of corn and 9.5 million acres of soybeans this year, the USDA'sNational Agricultural Statistics Service reports. Sales of those crops, excluding products derived from them, total about $16 billion, according to the service.

And, Illinois ranks 35th among all states in total forestland acreage, according to the USDA. Indiana has about the same amount, but landowners there receive about $140 million a year in timber sales compared with $28 million in Illinois, a figure Hayek called "grotesquely low."

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Those are among the frustrating figures he has to deal with after years of lax interest in forestry in Illinois. In 1986, the extension had the full-time equivalent of 3.4 forestry specialists. The Forestry Development Council recommended that the legislature add six more.

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 "Illinois is still a hook and bullet state. When people think about natural resources, they think about fish and wildlife. I think they fail to connect the forest cover -- that landscape, that habitat."

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 Illinois probably comes down to one component, Hayek said.

"We need someone to champion our cause," especially someone who can exert influence in the state legislature and U.S. Congress, he said. "Whether it be an individual, a group, a not-for-profit or an institution. We need that champion. We don't have it."

Even if that champion steps forward, tree farming at Hidden Ranch is likely to take at least a decade to reap the benefits of a harvest.

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," Dixie Vogel said.

"You're kind of in awe of the trees," Aaron Vogel said. "You kind of feel freedom in them."

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Twitter @tgregoryreports


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