Like a happy little bird perched in his harvester, the forest is at Viljo Seppälä’s wingtips. Unfortunately for me his 35 years of forestry experience did not include English but I was able learn a few things about this smiley man via translation. Viljo began as a logger and then taught himself how to operate this very difficult machine. When he heard that my father was a logger, he sent his Finnish greetings from one logger to another.
The day the Finnish Silviculture class, led by Juha Tiainen, Viljo was cutting the first commercial thinning in this 50-year old Scots pine stand near Kauhajoki, Finland. Cozy enough in the cab of the forest harvester this job is the most demanding of all Finnish forestry operations. He must carefully maneuver this machine and it’s the cutting head through the forest without damaging the trees left for a future harvest, or the soils with efficiency. A plethora of tools occupy the dash and floorboard of his cab, the cutting head alone has 4 sensors he must manage. Two sensors detect the diameter of the trees, the third sensor detects the length of the logs, and the fourth is for the chainsaw blade.
The majority of the wood Viljo is harvesting during this first commercial thinning, will be used for bio-energy. These Scots pine grow slowly on this dry boreal forest making them ideal for high quality pine wood and a special case for multiple thinning operations. Not all forest types are harvested in this way. Thinning operations remove the less desirable trees in the forest. If left, the over-crowding would weaken and stress the stand, making the trees less resistant to disease and damage. Removing the extra trees creates more space and nutrients for the remaining trees to grow.
In 25 years the forest will be thinned and the wood, called pulp wood, will be used for making paper. 20 years after that the final cut will produce high quality building material. The forest was naturally regenerated by trees left to produce seed called the “seed tree” method. It is law in Finland to replant trees after harvest, it will be interesting if in 45 years the seed tree method will still be the best option for the tree and soil type.
The forest is harvested with great care for the soils since the overall goal is to grow trees. The chains and road system of these forests help prevent compaction on the soils, keeping the tree roots safe. Unlike most of California forestry Finland’s main forest harvest time happens in the winter for two reasons. First cold weather freezes the soils protecting them from damage. The majority of Finland’s forests are too wet in the summer, spring and fall to drive equipment on. This is the opposite of our weather in California. Second many forests are owned by farmers who, unless they hire a contractor like Viljo, are busy harvesting their other crops in the summer and fall.
Viljo is a contractor working about 6 days a week with the loader-trailer driver who takes the logs to the landing, “varastopaikka” in Finnish. From there a log truck will take the logs to the bio-energy plant. At the landing, Jussi-Matti Kallio, a recent graduate of SeAMK, our school, forestry program explained how he decides how to best harvest the forest by identifying, among other things, the tree type, size, quality and soil conditions shown on the plan below. Viljo uses this plan to harvest and Jussi communicates between the landowner and the bio-energy company Biowatti to negotiate a price and to handle the best management for the forest. Thinning is a tool for better forest health.
I asked Viljo through my teacher Juha why he liked working in the forest and he responded “atopkoska se on kiva” which means “because it is nice” in Finnish. And it was nice, fresh snow started to fall as we walked out of the trees to drive home. It was nice to see such a collection of people passionate about this forest, examining the small details and determining the best tools for management. The best thing was how much Viljo enjoyed his work tending to the forest. Like a proud parent his smile did not leave his face all day.