Forest of Dreams

These trees shall be my books.

                      —Shakespeare

Christopher Dow

Let’s take a drive. We’re on the country highway between Merryville and Singer, two small towns in southwestern Louisiana. On either side of the road stand tall pine forests. We stop the car, get out, breathe deeply of the scented air.

 

To the casual observer, the woods on either side of the two-lane country highway are simply a forest; however, the ordered neatness finally reveals the truth. This is not a forest—it is a farm where trees are cultivated instead of corn or wheat or rice. But this farm, known as the Rice Land Lumber Company, is more than a farm, so let’s explore. Let’s take a walk beneath the pines.

 

Sowing the Seeds of Scholarship

 

When the Civil War ended, this part of the country was completely undeveloped. A few settlers dotted the vast forest of native longleaf pine that stretched across Louisiana and into East Texas, but there were no towns here, no roads or railroads. The federal government owned most of the land and sold it at bargain prices to speculators who promised to develop it. William Marsh Rice joined in the speculation and purchased three tracts in Beauregard Parish totaling 50,000 acres. When Rice died in 1900, the Beauregard Parish property formed a significant portion of his bequest for the establishment of the Rice Institute. The institute’s first board of governors organized the Rice Land Lumber Company to handle management of the property, and Benjamin Botts Rice, W. M. Rice’s nephew, served as president.

 

At the time, the land’s main value was in its trees, and during the first decade of the century, timber operations were in full swing throughout the area. Initially, there were no communities, just sawmill camps, but the timber industry flourished in the old-growth forest. The American Lumber Company, where the timber from Rice Land was processed, had, at its peak, 1,500 workers, and it was just one of many local mills. With the workers came families, tradespeople, and commerce, and towns like Merryville quickly blossomed.

 

Modern logging equipment can maneuver almost anywhere, but in 1911, when operations began at Rice Land, logging was a much more primitive enterprise. Trees were cut by two-man teams working huge crosscut saws. Felled trees were dragged by mules and oxen to one of the many tram lines built to cart the logs to the Merryville lumber mills. Though the rails and ties of the tram lines were removed by scavengers during the Great Depression, the long, grassy lanes where they once ran are still visible among the trees. Today, these paths are used as logging roads.

 

During the years of the first cutting, the Rice forest was clear-cut—the standard operating procedure for the timber industry at the time. Funds from the sale of the timber financed the construction of the first buildings on the Rice campus: the Administration Building (renamed Lovett Hall), the Mechanical Laboratory, South Hall (renamed Will Rice College), and the Institute Commons (renamed Baker College). Interestingly, the land helped fund other schools in addition to Rice. In about 1920, Rice Land donated 160 acres to the Beauregard Parish School Board. This tract became the site where Merryville built its primary, middle, and high schools, and the school board continues to use the rest of the property as its own small pine plantation to raise funds for the school district.

 

By 1915 the land that had been forest had become prairie. Reforestation was not a viable concept at the time of the first cutting, and through World War I and the Depression, the property had little value. Gradually it transformed into an open range, where herders grazed cattle, sheep, and pigs. And thus the land lay for three decades, pastoral, fallow, and basking in the Louisiana sun.

 

Sustained Growth

 

When activity finally returned, it came with a bang. World War II airplane and tank crews preparing for the invasion of Normandy used part of the property as a training ground and target range. As late as the 1960s, tank tracks were still visible in aerial photographs, and three large mounds of dirt used as targets by pilots during strafing and bombing runs still dot one tract. Nearby cement blocks and rusting pipes mark the foundations of the modest army post that occupied the site.

 

World War II, however, brought more than momentary excitement to the dormant land. It heralded change. Alterations in tax laws and advancements in technology made reforestation practical as well as desirable, and after the war, the Rice Land Lumber Company created a management plan that called for complete reforestation. The objective was to establish a crop rotation that would provide a renewable resource and produce sustained income for the university. The first resident forester was hired in 1948, and during the 1950s, the initial reforestation efforts took place. Some of the property was planted with native longleaf pine, but most was planted with slash pine, a tree that matures in twenty-five to thirty years—30 percent more rapidly than longleaf.

 

During its cycle of growth and maturation, a slash pine plantation is monitored for crooked, sickly, or damaged trees. When the plantation is about ten years old, these trees are cut out in a process called thinning. Thinnings take place about every seven years thereafter, and trees that are removed are used to make fence posts or go to plywood and pulp paper mills.

 

At last there remain thousand-acre stands of tall, straight pines. Some of these fully mature trees will be cut for lumber, but most will become pilings and telephone poles. In fact, the Rice Land Lumber Company is a major producer of southern pine poles. The next telephone pole you see might very possibly be a product of the Rice Land plantations.

 

Crosscut saws and axes are logging tools of the past, and even chain saws are being phased out for cutting trees. Today’s logging crew approaches a harvest with a wood processor called a shear. This machine rolls up to a tree and grips it with large arms, then a huge circular blade shears the tree at the base. The whole operation takes less than a minute. The tree, still in the shear’s grip, is laid backward over the machine and carried to the  “set,” or pile of logs. There a worker with a chain saw delimbs the tree, and a grapple skidder, a sort of crane with a hydraulic claw, loads it onto a flatbed trailer. A trailer holds ten cords, and a good crew can harvest up to 150 trailer loads a week. But consider this: Each of the many area mills that manufacture utility poles, posts, lumber, plywood, and paper can use up to 300 trailer loads a day.

 

Because marketable results can take forty years, forestry is a long-term proposition. This makes a pine plantation an ideal investment for an organization, like a university, that can afford to wait decades for a return. And that return all starts with year-old seedlings. As with any cash crop planted on a rotation designed to produce a sustained yield, replanting is vital. Seedlings, which are planted during the winter months, are purchased from the Louisiana Forestry Commission tree nursery in Merryville. The nursery grows millions of seedlings a year for distribution to Rice Land and other area tree plantations. Replanting requires about 800 seedlings per acre. Until recently, Rice Land’s crop rotation has permitted the harvesting and replanting of 1,000 acres a year, but as the more rapidly growing slash plantations mature, that yield is expected to double.

 

A forest may seem like a low-maintenance investment; you plant the seedlings and, aside from a few periodic thinnings, let nature do the rest. There’s not much that can harm a forest, but difficulties do arise. Snow and ice can injure seedlings and younger trees, and cancer and fungi occasionally contaminate trees at any stage of development. The thinnings remove imperfect and diseased trees, but some troubles are not so routinely solved. Of serious concern is the southern pine beetle, which can cause major infestations and widespread damage. During the season the insect is prevalent, the Louisiana Forestry Commission performs weekly aerial surveys and reports on problem areas that then can be cut out.

 

Aerial surveys are also used to help battle a forest’s greatest foe—fire. As with any danger, fire, natural or man-made, is best prevented rather than fought, and one of the best preventions is, ironically, fire itself. Undergrowth in pine plantations is diminished through controlled burning, which removes fuel that could feed a forest fire and cause it to spread with devastating relentlessness. Controlled burning also helps the trees by removing unwanted competition for water and nutrients and replenishing the soil with potash and other nutrients from the burned vegetation. And it keeps the area clear for workers during periodic thinnings.

 

But if there is a forest fire, spotting it when it first starts and accurately pinpointing its location are essential in keeping damage to a minimum. The 110-foot-tall fire tower on the company land is an indispensable tool in performing these tasks. Built in the late 1940s by the Louisiana Forestry Commission, the tower is part of a network of towers that spreads across much of southwestern part of the state. If a fire breaks out, tower personnel can locate the smoke and dispatch fire fighting units right to the source.

 

Hidden Treasure

 

Any good story comes with secrets and multiple meanings, and pine plantations and timber operations are just the surface narrative of the Rice Land Lumber Company. Unknown to anyone when William Marsh Rice included the Beauregard Parish land in his bequest, treasure lay underground—oil. Ninety-five percent of an oil reservoir, named Neale Oil Field, extends in two main zones beneath the Rice forest. The shallower of these, the Wilcox Zone, is 9,000 to 12,000 feet below the surface, while the Austin Chalk Zone is 16,000 feet or more.

 

Drilling operations into the Wilcox Zone began in the late 1930s. Today, through new technology developed to tap the Austin Chalk, Neale Oil Field is being further developed with the sinking of additional wells and the construction of three natural gas pipelines. Some of the Austin Chalk wells have the potential of producing 3,000 barrels of oil a day, and one, to be drilled to 23,000 feet, will be one of the deepest land-based wells in the United States.

 

Modern civilization’s demand for energy is equaled by its powerful need to develop renewable resources. Both are dramatically displayed in the Rice forest in the seeming dichotomy of an oil derrick and slash pine standing together against the Louisiana sky. And both are good news for Rice. Because of William Marsh Rice’s generosity and foresight, this land and these trees are not simply land and trees. They are excellent yet affordable education, they are resources for research, and they are facilities where learning, inquiry, and ideas combine to transform people and create a brighter future for us all.

 

Through the years, the Rice Land Lumber Company has become a symbol that perfectly characterizes the spirit of endowment as a gift that keeps on giving, but as we stroll beneath the trees, the true and most perfect symbolism of the Rice forest finally hits. Pine trees are heliotropic—they reach for the sun and, in doing so, grow straight and tall.

 

What more fitting endowment for a university?

Last of the Resident Foresters

 

by Christopher Dow

 

The man with the 50,000-acre backyard gestures toward the snug cottage nestled beneath huge pines. “Rice built the resident forester’s house in 1949,” he says. “There’s nobody else that lives here on the property.”

 

Kenneth Reviel is a compact man with a ready and dry sense of humor. He has worked forty years for the Rice Land Lumber Company, the last twenty-three as resident forester and manager. His nearest neighbor may be down the road apiece, but Reviel has plenty of friends in the area. Every time he gets in his pickup, it’s a honk here and a wave there. He calls out the window to a man putting up a sign for a local festival, pulls over to chat with people working in their yards, and stops to talk business with a logging crew loading timber onto a truck.

 

Reviel grew up in Beaumont and earned a B.A. from McNeese State University in Lake Charles and a master’s from Louisiana State University, both in forestry. He insists, though, that the best teacher is experience. “Before I became the resident forester, I did just about everything, mostly because the man who was resident forester then was fixin’ to retire, and he turned it over to me.” Reviel has seen a lot of changes in the industry. “I first got started in forestry in 1957, and they were still using mules and oxen and crosscut saws. Now it’s all mechanized tree processors like shears and grapple skidders.”

 

Reviel knows the Rice forest better than anyone—he helped plant most of it. “I’ve worked longer than any other Rice Land employee. When I came here in 1957, there was a big planting program. We had sixteen people, and we’d do a tremendous amount of work. It was nothing to walk five or six miles a day every day.”

 

Since then, he’s had a hand in just about every aspect of development of the property, including some of the less-obvious tasks. Reviel is amused that people could get turned around in the 135-mile maze of dirt roads that snake throughout the property. “I built these roads,” he says. “Most of them. I could drive them in my sleep.” He confidently plows through a sixty-foot morass that would completely bog down someone less sure of the terrain and laughs when asked if he ever gets stuck. “You never get stuck in the morning,” he says. “You always get stuck right before quitting time.”

 

In the forest, he points to this tree and that, naming each, talking about its season and blossoms and characteristics. At one, fallen with roots sticking out of the soil, he pauses. “You fellows know what this one is?” He cuts a couple of roots and passes them around. “Smell that.” The rich odor of root beer tinges the air. “Sassafras,” he says and cuts some more roots. “Take ’em home and boil ’em, and you’ll get a nice sassafras tea.”

 

He looks around. There are so many trees in every direction that it seems like there might be nothing else but forest forever and ever. Bugs fly though shafts of sunlight, and the only sound is the sighing of a light breeze through the branches. “In the spring of the year, when the dogwoods are blooming and the grass is green, it’s a pretty picture,” he says, then pauses. “Forestry has been a good career.”

 

Reviel will retire this year. “Rather than train a whole bunch of new people, they’re going to have consultants and contractors and no university employees,” he says. “The company won’t get the hands-on treatment that we gave it, but the final results will be about the same.”

 

His voice takes on a thoughtful tone. “I’m the last Rice management employee,” he muses “I guess I hadn’t thought about that—I’m the oldest and the last.”

Copyright 2019 by Phosphene Publishing Company

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