Photo by Caleb Riston on Unsplash

The supply chain is often thought of in terms of units and space, inventory and throughput, distribution and delivery. Pallets are the components that integrate these processes together, and their ability for recycle and re-use are a significant cost and complexity saver for many companies. The flow of pallets is a constant in the modern supply chain and the machinery used to transport goods will typically break down a wood pallet over time. As a product made from a renewable resource, when old pallets are removed from the system, they are often replaced with new wood pallets.

These pallets are part of a larger system of forest products and practices, and the lumber supplied for new pallets has an interesting origin story that begins in the forest with the harvest of raw timber. That harvesting is part of a system of management called silviculture. This week’s post will dig deeper into the role that silviculture plays in the process of providing raw materials for the wooden pallet and container industries.

Humans & Wood

Human beings have relied on wood since before recorded time as a resource and tool. At first, that reliance was based on a natural resource in the wild that was bountiful and could be felled and transported with domesticated animals and burgeoning technology. As humanity’s population centers grew and their needs multiplied exponentially, trees and their cultivation became first an art and then later grew into the science of silviculture.

Silviculture can be defined as the art and science of growing and cultivating woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of the landowners and a society in general. Those needs and values are balanced in concert with established sustainable goals like wildlife species preservation, managing water resources to help a forest thrive, mindful recreational activities of the general public, and of course timber production.

The practice of silviculture requires an understanding of ecology, soil preservation, entomology, botany, and in modern practices, crop science. It is typically delineated among three distinct processes that incorporate these mentioned fields of study:  regeneration, cutting, and protection of the resource for continued use.

Regeneration

The cultivation of trees follows a natural progression of replacing old timber with new growth over time. These old and new growths are also known as stands and the progression has developed into a cycling process over time called regeneration.

Regeneration can occur naturally or artificially; it depends on the needs and values of the participants involved. A plan is developed that starts with the preparation of the existing forest and ends with the establishment of appropriate goals for new seedlings and their development. The regeneration plan follows a pattern according to the type and species of tree and the forest environment as a whole. This rotational pattern is based on the growth of a defined generation of trees.

Timber Cutting

The cutting of timber during the development of a forest takes place at many different stages. These intermediate cuttings as they are known include both young and old tree growth and are designed to maximize the use of the forest as an asset.

This includes the strategic harvesting of trees for commercial use in industries like home building, architecture, and the pallet industry. The aim being to extract the most utility from the timber cutting process while harmonized with the overall health of the forest.

The results of this cultivation and harvest are guided by the various species in the woodland stand, and what is deemed as most beneficially attended to by the needs, values, and goals of those involved in ownership, trade, or use.

Protection

Of course, as the processes of regeneration and intermediate cutting are implemented, the stands and forest must be protected from many different natural and man-made events. These include everything from the possible introduction of new insects and animal species to fires generated both naturally and via human activities, to unforeseen weather events like hurricanes or climate changes.

The collaboration of industry and governments establishes initiatives like ISPM-15 to mitigate the migration of unknown insect species through the trade between countries. These insects can have a decimating effect on forests, and sometimes species of tree in particular.

The introduction of animal species must be well thought out and consider the ecological layers of the forest and how they are impacted by the interaction of a new species with the existing flora and fauna.

Wildfires have had a huge impact recently with both forests and the populace that live near them. In some cases, this has directly resulted from how a forest is managed overall and how climate change is altering the way that scientist and forest workers must prepare for these events as best as possible with the resources they have available.

Most often, people hear about and are familiar with processes like controlled burns and establishment of fire lanes in forests to help alleviate damages to the forest itself or the populations in and around them. Fire protection and science in regard to forests goes much further than what can be covered in this post.

Severe weather and climate change must be accounted for as well. The results of a severe weather event can be prepared for in a nearer term strategy. This is often accomplished in part with the positioning of stands in relation to one another, the makeup and development of the stand, and the utilization of the natural landscape in the overall plan.

Climate change, while in some sense a result of our own industrial activities, must be reckoned with over a longer period and mitigated both at forest level and globally. Whether man-made or not, the generational aspect of growing trees is most susceptible to climate change as an active force. This continues to change how foresters practice and execute the tenets of a silviculture plan.

While the techniques and technologies available to provide regeneration, intermediate cuttings, and protection must be deployed effectively to ensure the goals of interested parties are met, silviculture in practice will evolve due to all the processes and forces mentioned.

The renewable resource of harvested trees will continue to supply raw materials for many industries, including the manufacture of wooden pallets and containers. This in turn will provide supply chains with the necessary wood pallets to keep products moving so the economic flow continues.

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