Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Forest Products Lab

Monday, January 06, 2020

 

Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Forest Products Lab

 

Who doesn’t like to break things? The engineers at the USDA Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in Madison certainly do. The Forest Products Lab is a federal institution that does all kinds of research on wood products: building materials, nanotechnology, advanced identification methods, and innovative structures. In the lab, building materials are put under extreme stress-- and not the kind that makes our director Kate Raisz’s hair go gray!

 

Chuck and the crew met Dwight McDonald, who is an engineering technician at the lab. Chuck helped Dwight set up two different stress tests: a bending test and tension test. We waited with baited breath and cameras on slow-mo, as the massive hydraulic machine pulled harder and harder on the two ends of the wood. Finally, with a loud bang, the wood ripped apart!

 

Photo Credit: James Edward Mills

 

Engineers at the Forest Products Lab need to know how much physical stress their materials can take, so they can make recommendations to the public about what kinds of wood products to use. Mass timber products, like CLT (cross-laminated timber) and glulam (glued-laminated timber) is becoming more and more mainstream in commercial and residential construction efforts, and contractors and consumers need to know that these new materials can withstand hurricanes, earthquakes, and even fire.

 

 

 

We couldn’t get enough of this cool wood tech. The crew went back to the Forest Products Lab to explore other departments. First up, the Center for Wood Anatomy Research (CWAR). We walked into a literal library of wood-- over 103,000 samples! Curious artifacts were sitting on every surface, carefully labeled and categorized. Aisles of small drawers full of more wood samples made us feel like we were in a sacred archive.

 

 

Alex Weidenhoeft of the CWAR has dedicated his career (since being an intern at age 18!) to the study and identification of different tree species. He and his associates have developed a portable microscopic camera and accompanying software to identify wood. The “Xylotron” is a hand-held device that takes a super close-up photo of the wood grain. Based on certain patterns of fibers and air pockets, the software can identify over 150 types of neotropical wood more accurately than a trained professional. Eventually, Alex hopes that border agents will use this technology to identify wood that has been illegally logged.

 

From the small, cozy wood anatomy lab, we went to the massive, industrial Nanotechnology Pilot Plant, where scientists explore wood properties at an anatomic level. Nanotechnology is the study of materials at the “nanoscale”-- 80,000 times thinner than a human hair! Researcher Rick Reiner showed us the process for making nanocellulose: using acid to break down paper into a solution of nanocellulose particles.

 

When you break wood down to the molecular level, it can be used as a sustainable alternative to a lot of plastics and metals. Rick told us that the FPL is experimenting with creating packaging out of nanocellulose, to combat our plastic use. Nanocellulose can even be mixed with concrete to make more sustainable and stronger building materials.

 

The Forest Products Lab is a like a playground for wood experts, and we were excited to hear about all their innovative research-- right in the heart of Madison, Wisconsin!

 

Sources/further reading:

https://www.fs.fed.us/inside-fs/delivering-mission/apply/stopping-illegal-wood-imports-us-ports

https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/research/highlights/highlight.php?high_id=585

https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/pdf2011/fpl_2011_hermanson001.pdf

https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/research/research_emphasis_areas/introduction.php?rea_id=4

 

Special thanks to Rebecca Wallace and Brian Brashaw for coordinating our days at the FPL!

 

 


​ Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Ruffed Grouse and Lumberjill

Monday, December 23, 2019

 

Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Ruffed Grouse and Lumberjill

 

“The autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed Grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” -- Aldo Leopold

 

Thump, thump, thump… that’s the territorial sound of the male ruffed grouse beating his wings on his “drumming log” in northern Wisconsin.

 

The male birds make this sound by beating their wings quickly and forcefully to create a small vacuum. The bird beats his wings faster and faster - and end up sounding something like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

 

EMBED: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVfiIp3QGs4

 

Ruffed Grouse are widely distributed across the country, and have been observed in 38 states and all Canadian Provinces. They are a popular game bird for hunting enthusiasts, and primarily live in wooded habitats.

 

Chuck and the crew met up with Jon Steigerwaldt, 3rd generation tree farmer/forester and Regional Biologist of the Ruffed Grouse Society, a nation-wide non-profit organization that promotes education and conservation of this curious bird. Jon knows that ruffed grouse actually prefer a forest that is diverse, young and frequently harvested. As a private landowner, he and his family have made a priority of managing their land to create habitats for the ruffed grouse and a wide range of other forest wildlife species.

 

Photo Credit: James Edward Mills

 

Jon’s property, thick with aspens, is home to a host of ruffed grouse, who will do most of their noisy drumming this spring. We filmed Chuck and Jon in his truck, chatting about Jon’s family history of tree farming, as the truck trundled through narrow paths deep in the Steigerwaldt property. Walking deeper into the woods, Chuck and Jon talked about aspens...We heard the rustle of the quaking and big-toothed aspens, which Chuck (and our sound recordist) loved.

 

We also met Kate Witkowsi, an actual “lumberjill” and Stihl Timbersports Champion! Kate taught Chuck how to axe-throw, a competition where the lumberjack or jill throws a double-bitted axe at a target from about 20 feet away. The trick is to use the right amount of force to line up the rotations of the axe just right, to hit the target dead-on. After missing the target once, and severing a ratchet strap, Chuck nailed it on his 3rd try! No cameras were hurt in the making of this scene.

 

Photo Credit: James Edward Mills

 

Then Chuck, Jon, Kate, and our crew ventured off the path to fell a spruce tree that Jon has decided will make a great “drumming log” for the ruffed grouse on his land and further enhance the quality of wildlife habitat.

Photo Credit: James Edward Mills

Sources and further reading:

https://ruffedgrousesociety.org/grouse-facts/

https://www.audubon.org/news/see-and-hear-ruffed-grouses-haunting-air-drumming

 

 


Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Menominee Tribal Enterprises

Monday, December 16, 2019

Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Menominee Tribal Enterprises

 

“...a forest is much more than cords and boards. It's a whole ecological process. Clean air, clean water, good soils, a place to gather.” -- Marshall Pecore

 

Photo Credit: James Edward Mills

 

The Menominee Tribe in Wisconsin has an incredible history of forest stewardship, and Chuck and the crew traveled to the Menominee Tribal Enterprises to see this decades-old business in action. Marshall Pecore, a descendant of the Menominee Tribe, is the forest manager of the operation in Neopit, Wisconsin. Our crew interviewed him about the rich history of their long-term, sustainable approach to timber, and how they harvest trees on their own tribal reservation.

 

Photo Credit: James Edward Mills

 

Although the Menominee tribe has lived in northern Wisconsin for thousands of years, as a result of a wave of restrictive treaties with U.S. government, their land was reduced from more than 10 million acres to 235,523 acres.

 

The sawmill, constructed in 1908, is a primary source of jobs for tribal members. With generations of experience, the tribe knows that their profit depends on a sustainable forest. Unlike other mill owners, they cut the diseased trees first, as well as any tree that won’t grow to be a thick, straight trunk suitable for milling boards.

 

The Menominee method takes into account not only the health of the tree, but the health of the surrounding organisms. Marshall explained how they survey the “assemblages”-- the plants on the forest floor-- to determine what species of tree would best thrive there. They also avoid felling “wildlife trees:” trees where animals like birds, snakes, porcupines, or raccoons have made their homes.

 

Photo Credit: James Edward Mills

Later in our trip, we met Wade Fernandez, or Wiciwen Apis-Mahwaew (his Menominee name), at Audio for the Arts, a recording studio in Madison. Wade plays traditional Menominee music on flute and guitar. He and Chuck played “Wild Horses” (written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones), Chuck was on piano (of course), and Wade accompanied him on native flute. Wade then treated us to our own private concert and played some of his original music solo. He regularly travels around the country and around Europe to tour his music. Take a listen: (link to music videos)

 

Photo Credit: James Edward Mills

Sources and additional information:

https://www.mtewood.com/Sawmill/History

https://www.mpm.edu/content/wirp/ICW-153

https://wadefernandezmusic.com/