It’s all local; that’s guaranteed with an electric cooperative. From the employees who operate it to the directors who govern it, an electric co-op provides service that’s close to home.
But it’s not just the people who are local. The towering poles that carry lines out to the countryside, powering rural homes and businesses and empowering lives, come from close by as well, in some cases practically from a co-op’s own backyard.
Jackson County, home to Jackson Electric Cooperative, recently played host to a large timber sale conducted by Bell Timber Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Bell Lumber and Pole, a producer of high-quality wooden utility poles and an associate member of the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association. This particular sale included 2,400 red pine trees purchased by Bell Timber on a 34-acre site within the 68,000-acre Black River State Forest. This harvest would yield about 75 truckloads of red pine poles destined to become power poles.
“This sale is unique in that it’s so big,” Bell Timber forester Sam Williams told a gathering of utility representatives, including personnel from Jackson and Adams–Columbia Electric Cooperatives, who were invited to witness a morning of the harvest. Williams is Bell Timber’s procurement forester for southern Wisconsin. He was among three Bell Timber employees, as well as several foresters with the Black River State Forest, who were on hand to help explain how the trees are sustainably grown, selected, and harvested for use as power poles.
The Power of Red Pine
Many of the state’s power poles originated in the forests of the central part of the Wisconsin, where the sandy soil is particularly suitable for red pine. That’s the wood of choice for power poles because the trees grow tall and straight and the wood is “climbable” and durable, with some poles lasting 50 years or even more. These trees are plentiful in the Jackson and Adams–Columbia Electric’s service territory, as well as areas up north, such as Douglas County.
The red pines that were part of this most recent tree sale were planted in 1940. This tree stand was beginning to show signs of pocket decline, in which the tree growth is impacted from factors such as disease and climate issues, explained Jennifer Boice, forester with the Black River State Forest. Because of that and the age of the trees, she said the stand was determined to be ready for a final harvest.
Trees that are ready for harvest are bid out to buyers such as Bell Timber, which then examines each individual tree in the specified area to determine which trees are utility pole candidates. Bell Timber buys trees from private landowners as well as state and county forests: “Wherever there’s red pine, you’ll find a Bell Timber forester,” Williams said.
In the Black River forest sale, Williams examined each tree in the 34-acre area, looking at the base of each tree first to determine how big of a pole it could produce and then marking all suitable trees according to final product length, ranging from 35 to 60 feet. Other qualities that make a tree fit for poles, he said, are minimal tapering from bottom to top; straight trunks with little sweep, which refers to the curve of a log from its base to its top; and small knots.
After the trees are marked, they are harvested and delimbed with a machine operated from a skidder that pulls a tree through an opening, strips the log of its limbs, and cuts it to size. The cut pieces are stacked accordingly, with poles separated from smaller bolts, which will most often be turned into pieces of lumber destined for home-improvement stores like Menard’s. Wood waste is sold to paper mills for pulp or to biomass power generation facilities.
Bell Timber then trucks the cut poles to its peeling and drying facilities in Barron. Once fully dried, the trees become whitewood; they’re sized for length, classed for circumference, and chosen for customer orders. Those customers include electric cooperatives all over the state. In some cases, the trees return to the very areas they came from, taking their new places as power poles.
The high quality of Bell Lumber & Pole’s products is ensured not just by careful selection of timber, but from management of the trees long before they reach final harvest. A key component of Bell Timber’s services is its Management Assistance Program (MAP), which it has offered to private woodland owners since 1966. Through this program, Bell Timber’s professional foresters provide assistance with forestry management starting from the time of planting. This program brings benefits to all parties; sound management practices maximize tree growth, ensuring a superior product for end users, a strong financial return for landowners, and a continuous, sustainable supply of healthy trees.
Under MAP practices, red pines planted for utility poles are spaced far enough apart to allow for self-pruning and help prevent excessive knots caused when limbs stop growing and break off, usually because sunlight has been blocked by a too-thick canopy. Tree stands are generally thinned four times, first to remove poor quality trees, including suppressed trees, forked trees, and trees with excessive sweep and knot defects; and later to remove larger trees that are harvest ready, making way for smaller-diameter trees to grow into potential poles.
The MAP program is for private owners of forest land, but county and state forests are managed with similar practices. Boice said forests are typically thinned every 10 years to allow for better growth of the remaining trees; a final harvest, such as what occurred with the recent tree sale to Bell Timber, allows for healthy regrowth. Unless more red pines are planted, the tree stand that was just cleared will likely regenerate with the more shade-tolerant white pines. Red pines, Boice explained, generally need the heat from fire in order for their pinecones to open up, release their seeds, and plant new trees on their own.
In the absence of fire, red pines flourish under the sustainable planting and growing methods encouraged by Bell Timber and other foresters. Thanks to sustainable forestry management, there’s a steady supply of red pines growing throughout the state. These trees stand ready to take their place in electric cooperative systems, bringing power to rural communities, sometimes right next door.—Mary Erickson