Birch: From weed to treasure

A look at one of the areas' overlooked tree species.

Is it time to take another look at a local hardwood? Woodlot owner Mike Cummings is also a fine woodworker who uses birch from his stand to create unique projects like the chair pictured. Photos: Laura Stovel/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

This article first appeared in print in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine’s April/May 2021 Home & Building issue. Read the entire e-edition here:

Walk onto Mike Cummings and Dell William’s woodlot at the base of Mount Macpherson and you’re in for some surprises. Growing amongst the usual array of coniferous trees that are the mainstays of most tree plantations in the Revelstoke Forestry District – red cedar, white pine, hemlock, Douglas-fir, spruce and, increasingly, larch, the latter an adaptation to climate change – you will see ponderosa pine and birch.

Cummings, who grew up in Revelstoke, sees the value of species diversity for forestry and for the ecosystem. He and William planted 600-800 ponderosa pine seedlings in 2009, in anticipation of climate change. Ponderosas don’t count towards the stocking of planted trees required by the Ministry of Forests but “we wanted to see how they would do,” Cummings said. Today the ponderosas “tower above” the other trees they planted or that grew naturally around the same time.

Birch bark. Photo: Laura Stovel/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Logging birch is another example of Cummings’ out-of-the-box thinking. Unlike many logging companies, “we like to keep deciduous trees on our blocks,” he said. “I know other outfits will come in and brush the block. They just mow down every bit of deciduous, supposedly to promote the conifers to grow a little bit faster but it doesn’t seem natural or right to me. It’s expensive to do and I don’t think it makes much sense ecologically, either,” he said. Today, paper birch and Douglas-fir are the two main woods that Cummings and William log on their woodlots.

Paper birch, which has value to foresters as a hardwood, is a fast-growing pioneer species, among the first to grow in after a disturbance like logging, a blowdown or a fire. It also grows in secondary forests. A B.C. government forestry site states that paper birch “contributes to the nutrient status of forest floor by increasing its calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and boron concentration, and reducing its aluminum, iron, manganese, and zinc concentration. The presence of birch in coniferous stands will increase decomposition and mineralization rates, thus altering humus form. This … results in increased levels of plant-available soil nutrients.” Other than the bronze birch borer, a beetle that attacks weakened or damaged trees, it has few insect predators.

Is it time to take another look at a local hardwood? Woodlot owner Mike Cummings is also a fine woodworker who uses birch from his stand to create unique projects. Photos: Laura Stovel.

Birch trees also provide important habitat for many birds and mammals. They are a favorite of whitetail deer, moose and snowshoe hares. Woodpeckers, chickadees, ruffed grouse and pine siskins enjoy the seeds. One scientific paper concluded that, “At least 24 different kinds of animals are known to feed on birches.”

Cummings has been logging and milling birch since the mid-1980s when he and Ward Kemmerer went into business together. Since then, he has promoted birch and value-added wood production. “I wanted to promote what I considered to be the value of birch. It was considered just a weed species, treated terribly, actually. I saw it as a beautiful wood. People could make useful and beautiful things from it and make some employment.”

Cummings is a fine woodworker whose stunning, modernist furniture, often including birch, has been featured in at least one exhibition at the Revelstoke Visual Arts Centre. He also used to produce birch flooring, trim, baseboards, and tongue-and-groove panelling. Now he focuses on kiln drying and milling birch slabs, 4x4s for newel posts and other boards. “Mostly I sell raw wood to folks who are doing various projects in town,” selling to artists, cabinet makers and fine home builders, among others. Last year some of his birch went to a veneer mill in Kamloops, and, depending on market conditions, he has sold birch to the Hyde Mill in Malakwa.

Although markets are evolving in Revelstoke, with more interest in locally-sourced products, Cummings doesn’t see any business surviving completely off birch. He sees it “more of a sideline for an operation like” Take to Heart Mill. There would have to be “some other high-end product, trying to squeeze more value out of something like fir, hemlock maybe,” he said.

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After note BC Timber Sales, the logging branch of the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, is currently advertising its Integrated Pest Management Plan and 2021 Proposed Herbicide Treatments for the duration of June 2021 to May 2026. The herbicides are designed to restrict the growth of deciduous trees and other plants to avoid costly brushing of undergrowth. Given the value of deciduous trees such as birch for wildlife and plants in healthy forest ecosystems, and given that companies such as the Revelstoke Community Forestry Corporation are able to log successfully without using pesticides and herbicides, even when they do remove deciduous trees, it may be worth asking whether the application of such chemicals is consistent with healthy forests.

Laura Stovel is a writer and the author of three books who has a strong interest in environmental and social justice issues. She grew up in Revelstoke but has also lived, worked and travelled in many countries around the world.