Restoring Minnesota's white pine

Minnesota man on a mission to restore white pines.
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ITASCA COUNTY, Minn. -- On a bright, blustery midsummer afternoon in a remote corner of Minnesota's woods north of Grand Rapids, a solitary figure with a precious bag of white pine seeds plants the future, hoping to restore the past.

"They're little gems," says Jack Rajala, who loves the white pine tree – the forest's tallest tree with its distinctive, uneven branches.

With his white beard and well-worn hands, Rajala looks the part of a lumberjack; but this day, he's more like a gardener.

"It is a garden, you know that," says Rajala.

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It's not your garden-variety garden. He spreads 500 white pine seeds this day in an area prepared for planting.

Rajala's walk through the woods is not a one-time effort; it is part of his three-decade quest to restore the broom-topped giant, which at one time was a major north woods species.

Rajala recalls what his brother once told him in this very section of the forest: "Jack, these lands just don't grow white pine; they demand white pine."

White pine lumber

Another kind of demand for white pine nearly erased the giant from the forest.

From 1850 to 1925, Rajala says the lumberjacks harvested white pine in a big way, leaving just a fraction behind.

Standing next to a giant white pine, Rajala says, "Fortunately, when the harvesting was done here 125 years ago or so, they were going so fast that they left a remnant, like this dandy," which he pats with appreciation.

In fact, less than a one-hour drive to the northwest of where Rajala planted seeds sits the Lost Forty – an 1880s surveying error, which preserved a small patch of 300 and 400-year-old white and red pines.

They're not only old; they're big – as two recent visitors found out, who tried but failed to join both hands around one white pine's trunk.

"It's the king of the woods, especially here in the Lost Forty – the whites are huge," says Jerry Smith of Bemidji.

"We want to keep the Lost Forty around as long as we can, but it's not going to be there forever. What we just planted here today is gonna be here for a long time," Rajala says.

White pine in his blood

This passion for white pine restoration is truly personal for Rajala.

"I grew up in the shadow of the smokestack and the sawmill and the white pine tree," Rajala says.

In fact, you'll find his name on Rajala Companies, which has mills in Deer River and Big Fork.

At the Big Fork mill alone, which opened in 1902 and has been in the family since the 1940s, a half-billion board feet has rolled through, principally white pine, according to Rajala. However, these days the wood species vary, including hardwoods, aspen and pines. Any white pines that wind up here are storm damaged or over-mature.

But Rajala considers himself far more than a lumberman. Standing next to a large log pile in the mill's yard, he says, "I claim to be a pretty avid conservationist."

White pine maintenance

The seeds that Rajala spread in the woods that July day and for decades require more than sunshine and hope.

The first million white pines that Rajala planted didn't survive. Deer ate the top bud, which is crucial to tree growth. Others had also tried and failed, according to Rajala.

However, Rajala persisted, developing a so-called bud capping method, which involves more walks in the woods. Moving from one tiny white pine to another, he staples little scraps of paper around the top bud.

"It's so simple, and it's so effective; it works," Rajala says.

To say it works is an understatement. Rajala has successfully planted 3.5 million white pines in three decades.

Beyond planting and bud capping, Rajala also walks the woods with some shears to prune branches that carry the deadly fungus blister rust, which is easy to spot with its telltale red needles.

The pruning amounts to Rajala's fingerprint in the forest.

"People say, 'Jack Rajala was here.' And I ask, 'How do you know?' And he said, 'Cause I can see the trees have been pruned.'"

Rajala's notion that he is tending to a garden – a very big garden – begins to make more sense when you consider his efforts continue seven days a week.

Even he gets overwhelmed, but he also finds his quest rewarding.

Looking at a freshly pruned tree, Rajala says, "You know they talk back to me. I turn around and see that tree smiling; it's like we have a conversation together."

Rajala's legacy

That conversation will echo for centuries.

What's the proof?

In the shadow of a tall white pine, Rajala reflects, "Just 300 years ago, that was just a seed. You know, that's not very long."

Ultimately, Rajala seeks a healthy forest, which includes the lost giants.

"We really had a debt to pay; and by spending the last 25, 30 years now of my life putting white pine back in the landscape, it's small payment," Rajala says.

Future Minnesotans will be in debt to Rajala when walking in the shadow of his white pine passion.

"The best time to plant a tree was yesterday, but the second best is today," Rajala says.