A tour group led by Sierra Institute learns about an ancient sugar pine outside the Collins Pine Museum on Aug. 29.

Sierra Institute leads tour of Collins Pine, reviews sustainable forestry practices

Terry Collins of Collins Pine takes a tour from Sierra Institute out to Park Forty on Highway 36 and explains his approach to forest management for healthy forests. Photos by Camille Swezy

It’s one thing to hold an opinion about something. It’s another thing to see for one’s self a stark and vivid example of different types of forest management with one’s own eyes.

Sierra Institute held a sustainability tour — their tours used to be more frequent, and a little more elaborate — but this one came at the end of August (Aug. 29) after a season of some of the worst fires California has ever seen. A season we are only half way through. The topic was timely: Sustainable Forest Management.

It’s a select group that goes on a sustainability tour like this for fun — a couple of new people from Sierra Institute itself, a couple of people new to the area, U.S. Forest Service employees, U.S. Geological Survey. But a tour like this — educational and thought provoking — seems like a good fit for anyone who has ever voiced an opinion about forest management or fire.

The mission of this particular tour was to showcase the practices of Collins Pine, the Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber company in Chester.

The tour starts at Collins Pine and its onsite museum and a very enthusiastic fourth generation in the family business, Terry Collins, guides guests through the museum and the history of the company — including his own family lineage.

The museum, open since 2007, sits on the Collins Pine property in Chester and is a downscaled replica of the original sawmill on the site. It is open from mid-May to mid-October, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays through Sundays on a self-guided basis most of the time.

The museum takes up the history of logging for the company, but also the history of logging practices and how, for them, they’ve changed over time and a made an effort to use sustainable forestry practices. Collins walked the tour guests through exhibits on forest stands, types of lumber, all aspects of commercial milling and a video on where viewers can ponder where sustainable forest practices fit in with the carbon cycle.

There was also ample discussion of clear cutting and other more antiquated practices.

Then comes the tour of the mill itself, complete with hard hats and earplugs. Terry Collins walks the tour through all aspects of operations — stopping here and there while the tour got into the mesmerizing rhythm of the mill in synchronicity.

Of particular interest is the electric power cogeneration plant. Collins Pine used to also assemble pressed chips into particleboard. but now uses the chips and waste for its own energy instead.

The tour guests could visibly read Terry Collins’ enthusiasm and knowledge of each species of tree and each cut of wood as he led the tour through every step in the timber process, from logs coming in to the dry kiln process at the end.

Sierra Institute sponsored lunch and the tour sat on benches near the museum. It was then that the company’s practices and the current state of California’s forests loomed large in the minds of the tour goers as they sat and snacked on vegan burritos.

Through the conversation one could hear the unity — a coming together of neither a conservative nor liberal way of managing forests in the 21st Century, but a practical and pragmatic way emerging.

For example, selective logging is more time consuming than clear cutting, but is healthier for the forest and for a company that wants to still be in business for generations to come.

Another topic of conversation? Probably the most contentious topic for northeastern Californians: The opinions and decisions of coastal environmentalists and the Sierra Club on forestry management are not mired in the experience of time spent in northeastern California forests.

Coastal experience is largely based on redwoods and of clear cutting in Humboldt and Mendocino counties following the savings and loans scandals in the 1980s that led to the cuttings.

After lunch, Collins and Sierra Institute’s guide for the day, Camille Swezy, took the tour to “Park Forty.”

Park Forty is Collins Pine’s 40 acres off highway 36 that crosses the Pacific Crest Trail at the half way mark. But it has another more profound uniqueness.

Park 40 is a standing visual example of forestry practices that lay to rest any arguing on paper or the Internet.  Surrounded by federally owned land, it contains old growth trees from 5 to 6 feet in diameter.

Trees are salvaged here only after they’ve died. Fires have burned here opening up understory and according to Collins, that process “encourages the regeneration of pine.”

To tour with Collins is to tour with someone entirely in his element — a master of his craft. He can identify everything growing in Park 40 and one wonders if he has photographic knowledge of just  where every tree is.

The tour could stand and see forest to the left managed by Collins Pine with salvaging, and fire next to acreage whose management eliminated understory burning in 1910. The difference to the naked eye is remarkable and stunning. The diversity of the managed area overshadows the suppressed area like the white fir and fuel that thrive there. It’s eerie.

It’s a tour that redefines arguments and perspectives with visuals that haunt the tour guests ever after and it’s nearly impossible to go home at the end of the day without thinking about the future of California forests.