The plantations of the Ralmar Ecoforestry Corporation are designed and managed in a fashion to produce native timbers sustainable with minimum environmental disturbance.
The first step is finding suitable land. It must meet certain criteria:
· Land use: Old or abandoned pasture is preferred.
· Access: It should have transitable road connecting it to major arteries.
· Location: It must be in an area suitable for the growth of a variety of tree species and can be easily reached by the corporation's forester.
· Labor pool: Sufficient workers must be available in the area to operate the plantations.
· Physical characteristics: Slope, soil conditions, water, etc.
Once the land has been selected, planning and operations can begin. A general management plan for the land must be written and submitted to the Costa Rican Forestry Directorate in order to enter the Forestry Regime program and enjoy its advantages. This plan outlines the characteristics of the land, plantation design and management procedures.
The corporation plans to plant 10 hectares (one hectare equals 2.47 acres) of land owned by the corporation, or the maximum amount of plantable area remaining if under 10 hectares, with seedlings each year with a variety of native tree species of varying growth rates and wood quality as long as there is plantable area available on land owned by the corporation. Each species will be planted in blocks ranging from one-third hectare to three hectares forming a mosaic of many different species coexisting on the corporation's land. Most of these blocks will consist of only one species but some will have mixtures of two or possibly more species.
The various tree species planted can be broken down into three broad categories:
1) Fast‑growth: Final harvest in about 10 years, three hectares planted per year
2) Slow‑growth: Final harvest in 30 or more years, two hectares planted per year
3) Intermediate-growth: Final harvest occurs between the fast and slow‑growing species harvests, five hectares planted per year.
This planting scheme allows the plantations to begin producing in approximately 10 years from the first planting when the first, fast‑growing species reach harvestable age. Species with longer rotations (length of time between planting and harvest) will continue increasing production for years afterwards as they too reach harvestable age. The staggered planting of 10 hectares per year and immediate replanting also guarantees that once production begins there will be harvests every year, perpetually.
The fast‑growing species produce softer, lower quality wood used for some interior construction, concrete forms, crates, etc. Intermediate species generally produce good quality wood used in general construction, furniture making and interior carpentry, among other uses. Slow‑growing species produce fine and precious woods that are very valuable and used in fine carpentry and furniture, art and novelty items, flooring, etc.
Each year the area to be planted and the species to be planted there will be selected and the layout of the new plantings decided upon. Sections of land that are too steep or vital to the protection of waterways are set aside as protected areas and not used for timber production. Firebreaks and access lanes are included in plantation design to defend against possible fires and provide efficient access to all parts of the plantations.
After planning, seeds and seedlings of the species to be planted are obtained, beginning in September or October, and the tree nursery initiated to produce the seedling stock needed for the new year. It is considerably more costly and risky to buy and transport seedlings from outside nurseries. The nursery is established on site to minimize transportation cost and damage.
The next step is to prepare the area to be planted. This chiefly involves clearing unwanted growth such as shrubs and weeds and is done by machete. Once the area is prepared it is marked for planting (each spot where a tree is to be planted is marked maintaining a set distance, such as three meters, between them to form a grid pattern) the seedlings (which are usually in 4x8 inch plastic seedling bags in which they have been growing in the nursery) are transported to the site, the holes are dug and the seedlings are planted.
The onset of the rainy season in May marks the beginning of the planting period. Planting occurs from May to August in order to take advantage of the abundant water which eases the shock that outplanting (from the nursery to the planting site) causes the seedlings. The removal from nursery conditions, transportation to the site and planting in a new and different area stresses the seedlings. The plentiful water of the rainy season also aids the seedlings in becoming well established in their new home and attaining good initial growth.
Planting later than September is risky since the seedlings could die if they do not overcome the shock of planting and grow enough before the beginning of the dry season in December. They may not be able to tolerate the rainless, hot days of the dry season.
Firebreaks (strips of land three to five meters wide cleared of all vegetation or natural firebreaks such as rivers) are important to help protect against the entry and spreading of any possible fires into and within the plantations during the dry season. They surround the perimeter of the plantations and run through their bodies at regular intervals, if necessary. The firebreaks are created when a plantation is initiated and periodically cleaned each year during the dry season to maintain the risk of fire at a minimum.
During the first two or three years of the trees' lives in a plantation they will need cleanings (keeping weeds low so that they do not overtake the seedlings and young trees) and scalpings (creating a small circle around the seedling free of all other growth to avoid competition). The cleanings are done by machete, but the two or three scalpings a seedling may need are usually done with Roundup (a low‑impact, non‑residual herbicide that affects only the non‑woody plants where it is directly applied), which is extremely cost-effective.
The plantation trees are generally spaced three or four meters apart from each other, depending on the species. This close spacing is used to provoke competition for light between the young trees which makes them grow straighter and gives their trunks good form. Straight trunks are essential for producing merchantable timber. When the trees reach a point in their growth where they are invading each other's space and are blocking too much of each other's light (and this competition causes a loss in their growth rate as a result), they are thinned.
A thinning consists of removing a certain percentage of the trees of a certain stand (one of the blocks of the plantation). This opens it up and decreases competition between them, therefore maintaining optimal growth rates while also maintaining sufficient competition to produce good form. The thinning is also a tool for culling out the trees that have poor form or growth, injuries, or are unhealthy. Most stands are thinned several times during their life. The first thinning is the heaviest one (generally 40 percent ‑ 50 percent of the stand) and takes place early on, when the trees are still fairly young. This thinning usually does not produce an income since the trees are too small to be sawed into lumber or used as posts. Later thinnings are lighter and occur as needed, whenever the trees of the stands begin to compete too much with each other and their growth begins to suffer. These later thinnings, being of trees of greater size, do produce income for the corporation.
Some tree species also need pruning in order to produce high quality wood. Forks in the trunk and excess branches of these species need to be removed so that the tree has good form and the wood does not contain dead knots, something that significantly lowers the value of lumber. This is usually done within the first six years of the trees’ life.
When a stand reaches the end of its rotation, it is time for the final harvest of the remaining trees. By this time there are 200 to 300 mature trees left per hectare. All of these trees are harvested, hauled to an on‑site (on plantation land) sawmill and made into lumber which is later sold. (It is, at this time, projected that an on‑site sawmill(s) will be used. If a more efficient option should appear it will be utilized.)
In all of the thinning and harvesting operations care is taken to minimize environmental impact. No heavy machinery is used in order to prevent damage to the trees and land. Trees are felled with care and hauled away by oxen. Oxen can extract an impressive amount of logs from a plantation in a day with very little disturbance to the land.