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  • Writer's pictureAllan Thompson

The red pine plantation

Serenity through uniformity or a wind thrashed mess. That is how we generally think of red pine and if you aren't familiar with both, your pine hasn't fallen apart yet.

In the Vermont woods red pine comes in two generalized categories: a natural ecological community found in rocky, warm sites usually on slopes facing south atop ridges or rocky cliffs or, in a plantation. The latter is the red pine we're all most familiar with. Red pine was a favorite for planting beginning in the 1930's by the Civilian Conservation Corp and Vermont's Soil Bank program and State nursery. Both had a primary objective to protect soil loss and provide future economic opportunity. The result was that millions of red pine were planted each year, primarily during the 50's and 60's.

Red pine grow really fast. Each year growing straight up and putting out a whirl of branches. While an individual red pine, in the most productive conditions can live as long as 500 years, a plantation of red pine is not going to get nearly that age. First, red pine were often planted in sites that weren't ideal. Second, as in any plantation ethos, they are planted close together to promote vertical growth and designed to be a managed entity, thin, maybe a few times, then remove, and regenerate. The first thinning would typically occur 20-30 years of age where trees are generally <6" diameter. Then, thinning would occur on a 10-15 year cycle to maintain adequate spacing and growing conditions allowing canopies, roots and boles, to expand. Thinned red pine stands have fewer trees, but tress are larger in diameter and longer lived because structurally, they can withstand most wind events. These red pine, might collectively get to 100 years and appear as cathedral like examples of uniformity and long sight lines. Certainly not a complicated forest ecosystem but that wasn't the point. Through their simplicity and uniformity they are enthralling and rare examples of order in the chaos of nature.

An unthinned red pine stand will, without a doubt, welcome nature's chaos. They add very little growth each year and the many tall straight trees that are essentially leaning against each other for support, having put their energy toward reaching the very little amount of available sun in the crowded condition. They've traded height for diameter and root development, ignoring the important structural considerations needed to withstand wind. Structurally and biologically, these red pine are deficient both individually and as a group, which makes these stands a bit more challenging.

The classic trajectory of unthinned red pine stands is that mortality occurs in the smaller red pine first. They die, fall and create canopy gaps where wind can now penetrate. Without neighboring pine to dampen the force of wind, other pine at the edges of these groups will snap and this cascading affect can happen slowly overtime, or more dramatically, in one sweeping event.

A red pine stand that has not been thinned early in its life, is generally a lost cause and the all-to familiar trajectory is eventually realized.

So, if you have a red pine stand you might be wondering, what should I do? If it is under 6", thin it. Consult a forester and plan on cutting trees. Expect this to cost you or do it yourself. If it is over 6" and thinning has occurred early in its life, consult a forester and schedule a thinning. You should expect some revenue from this but likely not much. But, if no thinning has occurred like most red pine stands, you'll eventually have to clear cut. You'll want to cut before a wind event topples the trees. How long you have to wait could be many years away but depending on size, density and wind exposure, it could be right around the corner. Its a gamble for sure, to know when and how long you can wait. Or, for those willing to embrace the full chaos of nature. Let the pine live and die.

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