The Surprising Second Life of a Michigan Tree

In the Upper Peninsula, not too far from Tahquamenon Falls State Park, in the midst of the vast, 23,800-acre Two-Hearted River Forest Reserve, a sugar maple tree grows. Also known as a northern hard maple, this particular tree has been growing, along with many of its peers, for decades. It seeded naturally, as is common in Michigan's prolific forests, and now it's nearing the end of its life in the ground. But as far as the many families and businesses supported by the wood products industry in Michigan are concerned, the life of that tree is just getting started.

"Those types of trees are kind of the bread and butter of Michigan," says Scott Robbins, director of SFI and public affairs for the Michigan Forest Products Council. "It's extremely hard, it makes good firewood; it makes good flooring; it makes good furniture; it makes good tables; it's got a lot of uses."

One of those many uses, flooring, has put Michigan maple products into a pretty high-profile spot. As the official flooring for the NCAA, as well as a number of NBA teams, Michigan maple floors made in Amasa are seen by millions of basketball fans around the globe every year. And before they get there, they touch the lives and economies of multiple communities right here at home. In fact, wood products account for nearly $14.6 billion in annual economic activity in the state, and the industry supports 154,000 Michigan jobs.

And it all begins with that super maple growing in the forest.

The Harvest

Maple trees grow all over Michigan, and are harvested from a number of forests, public and private, to make wood products and keep those forests healthy. Those that end up as NCAA tournament floors also grow in several Michigan locations. To follow just one, however, we return to the Two-Hearted River Forest Reserve.

A logging contractor would work with the landowner--in this case, a nonprofit--to harvest the trees. In the case of privately-owned forests, landowners often work with private foresters in advance to determine which trees should be harvested at what time. And those transactions support a much larger part of local Michigan economies than some may imagine. According to Robbins, there are thousands of logging companies and more than 1,000 private foresters in Michigan.

(Video via YouTube, created and published by WLUC-TV6)

And that's where the economic impact of this sugar maple begins. Those loggers may pay a landowner $300 to $400 to cut it down.

"That's a pretty nice tree," says Robbins. "It's going to be about 20 inches on the stump and be about 32 feet of saw log in it to be that valuable."

The logger then takes that tree to a truck, where it begins its first movement away from the forest toward the NCAA tournament: The trip to the sawmill.

The Mill

Connor Sports, the company building the basketball flooring in Amasa that eventually makes it to the NCAA, works with about 40 different sawmills, so that sugar maple could find its way there through a number of routes. Close to the Two-Hearted River Forest Reserve are the Tester Saw Mill, Newbury Lumber Co. and Newberry Wood Enterprise.

"There are hundreds of small hardwood sawmills," says Robbins. "They are usually family-owned businesses."

As is the case with small, local business, that maximizes the economic impact, keeping the dollars earned by those circulating locally.

"The forest products industry is the economic backbone of many communities," says Robbins. "It keeps families interested in living in rural areas."

At the sawmill, the logs are rough-cut in preparation for a variety of uses. Based on the grade of wood each tree produces, it may be routed to a facility that makes pallets, furniture, building materials or other products. Our high quality, hardwood maple, however, is going straight to Amasa to be made into basketball flooring.

From Log to Court

Though already having touched many lives and bolstered economies in two Michigan communities so far, the most exciting stage of the sugar maple's journey is when it's about to start its second life as a brand new wood product. That process begins for our maple from Two-Hearted River Forest Reserve when it is delivered to the Connor Sports flooring plant in Amasa.

"They come in on a semi in big packs," says Jason Gasperich, director of sustainability for Connor Sports."We break those packs apart and they go through a drying process for about two weeks."

Once the wood is dried to just the right moisture, it begins to be further cut and processed to the right length, width and configuration for a basketball floor. All of that work is done by about 125 employees at the Amasa plant, which is a pretty big number for a city with a population of just over twice that number.

"Being the largest private employer in the county, it's difficult to go to a restaurant or any business in the community and not have that business substantially supported by our employees," Gasperich says. "The economic impacts are quite substantial."

That one sugar maple, as well as others like it from around the state, are now ready to be put together into a basketball floor. From Amasa, they are shipped to an out-of-state Connor Sports facility to be painted and prepped for the big NCAA tournament. (There's a fun time-lapse video of the process here.)

From the forest landowner to private foresters to the loggers and sawmills, and finally the wood product manufacturer, it's easy to see just how broad the economic impact of a Michigan tree's second life truly is. It's no wonder the Michigan Forest Products Council estimates the total direct and indirect annual economic impact of the industry to be $51 billion, making up 10 percent of the state’s manufacturing sector.

All from those beautiful trees that we also rely on for tourism, shade, recreation and all-over enjoyment of Michigan life.

"Trees are very valuable," says Robbins. "They provide an awful lot of economic activity."

More so than most of us ever even knew.

This story is a part of a statewide Forest Management Community Impact Series edited by Natalie Burg. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
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