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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.

Peter Koch came to the new post in 1963 with energy and commitment. He immediately began the search for research scientists and sought the most qualified people available.

One of his first contacts was with Chung-Yun Hse. Hse, a native of Taiwan, had obtained a master’s degree in forest soil chemistry from Louisiana State University. He was working on a doctorate in wood science at the University of Washington.

Koch convinced Hse to focus on wood adhesives that would bond southern pine plywood. Until this time, the South was not able to compete with the West because the lack of adhesives for resinous southern pine wood — this limited developing a southern pine plywood manufacturing capability.

Koch wanted to hire Hse, but since he was not then a U.S. citizen, he could not be hired. Koch then went to extraordinary lengths to overcome this bureaucratic issue. Thus, began Hse’s more than 50-year career with Forest Service research.

The Southern Forest Experiment Station quickly learned that Koch did not tolerate well bureaucratic constraints and became flexible in supporting his needs — he was doing cutting-edge research that was in demand by forest industry.

Other hires followed. Soon, Koch has a staff of six well-qualified scientists and developed a capable support staff.

Also, he sought collaboration with wood products scientists from all over the world. The research facilities were superb — not only the latest in chemistry and microscopy labs, but also a huge barn-like structure that housed the latest in wood testing and manufacturing equipment for research.

Koch was a quiet and effective supervisor, but also a demanding one. Early on, he realized that basic to developing manufacturing equipment is understanding to properties of the wood itself. He began an intensive effort to quantify the wood properties of southern pines — later he added documenting the properties of major southern hardwoods.

His scientists were given assignments that would become chapters in their two-volume reference text Utilization of the Southern Pines. Later, a three-volume work Utilization of Hardwoods Growing on Southern Pine Sites was produced.

These publications remain a source of detailed information of southern pine and hardwood resources and wood products.

Koch, who often worked 18-hour days, soon had information and products flowing from his team’s efforts. He was in demand to explain these developments and to provide his vision of how to make the South competitive with the Northwest.

Accomplishments of Koch and his team

Within five years, Koch’s leadership had resulted in technology that made southern forest products competitive in the world markets.

The first major accomplishment was the formation of glues that resulted in a plywood industry in the South. Also developed was a new system of gluing single-species wooden beams with the most limber laminae in the central and the stiffer in the outer, most highly stressed regions of the beam.

He cooperated with two machine manufacturers to develop three versions of chipping headrigs, which converted small round logs into square timbers by chipping the round sides, creating no slabs and wasting no material to sawdust. For these and the gluing developments, he was awarded the Superior Service medal for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1968.

Koch continued to develop new technology. He invented a method to dry southern pine 2-by-4 studs in 24 hours while restraining them so they are straight when dry. He also led a team effort to develop structural flakeboard from mixed southern hardwood and pine material. A commercial plant using this process occurred in 1983. This technology became the basis of the Oriented Strand Board, or OSB, plants that now occur across the South.

Always looking for innovative new techniques, Koch developed the concept and developed equipment to sever the lateral roots of trees, pull them with a central root mass intact for use in the production of energy or pulp and paper.

In 1974, he developed a prototype machine that would clean up logging slash comprising tops and branches, standing culls and stumps with the residue retrieved in the form of mulch or fuel chips. His results were documented in eight patents and hundreds of publications.

In 1982, Koch concluded his Forest Service work in the South and moved to Missoula, Montana. There he began similar research on the wood properties and utilization of lodgepole pine. His three-volume book, “Lodgepole Pine in North America,” provides an accumulation of resource and product information for this species.

Because of the excellence of the research programs, wood products scientists from around the world came to Pineville to work with the unit staff.

Today, Chung Hse continues at the laboratory to conduct collaborative research with international scientists. His research has focused on developing adhesives from wood itself — this avoids some of the environmental concerns of other chemicals. His research continues to maintain major international support.

Peter Koch, one of America’s most eminent scientists in wood technology, died in 1998. He left a remarkable list of credits and accomplishments. But, possibly his most gratifying is his legacy to the forest industry of the South. The modern forest wood processing industry is to a large extent built on accomplishments resulting from his ingenuity, leadership and hard work.

(James Barnett is emeritus scientist for Southern Research Station, U.S. Forest Service and Sara Troncale is a science teacher for the Rapides Parish school system.)

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