Leaving big influence on southern forests

The lack of markets for southern pine forest products facing foresters today, frequently called a “wall of wood,” is a problem that has been encountered before.

More than 50 years ago, foresters were aggressively reforesting the South following the harvest of the virgin forests during the early 20th century. Millions of acres of cutover land were then becoming productive due to application of natural and artificial reforestation practices. These restored forests were young and needed forest management practices that required appropriate markets for forest products.

The problem then is somewhat different from the one now. Then, markets were needed for trees that were much smaller than those that had been harvested from the virgin southern pine forests. Today, markets also are needed for mature forests which require a somewhat different technology.

In the early 1960s, the concern was so great that a concerted effort began, coordinated by the Louisiana Forestry Association (LFA), to develop new technology. There was a need to develop a forest products utilization research capability in the South — then such expertise resided only in the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. Longtime Louisiana U.S. Sen. Allen Ellender became a strong proponent of the effort and convinced Congress to fund a forest products utilization research program at Pineville, Louisiana.

Such a facility would require a lot of infrastructure and specialized equipment. To house such a facility, the Alexandria Forestry Center (AFC) was created on land surplus to the Veterans Administration hospital in Pineville.

The AFC became the largest U.S. Forest Service research complex in the South. Not only did it provide for a forest products research program, it also housed the offices of the Kisatchie National Forest, four other forest research programs and the offices of the forest health protection programs of State and Private Forestry. The AFC was dedicated in 1963 with considerable fanfare. It was touted as the only place in the Forest Service where all three branches of the agency were co-located. To honor Senator Ellender for his efforts, the Louisiana forestry community hosted a dinner for him at the Hotel Bentley in Alexandria with statewide participation.

National search for a research leader

Peter Koch was recruited to lead the wood utilization program for the Southern Forest Experiment Station. Koch had a good background for the job and was well-qualified. His father was a legendary Forest Service ranger in Montana in the early 20th century, he had a doctorate in wood technology from the University of Washington, he had flown bombers “over the hump” into China during World War II, he had taught at Michigan State University, he had managed a lumber company in New Hampshire and he had demonstrated his creative genius by helping develop headrig chippers. His first book, “Wood Machining Processes,” was published in 1964.