[ INDUSTRY ]
The birch bark peelers drove their four-wheeler up a hill to where
spruce and white pine were joined by hard maple and paper birch.
It was a two-man crew: Will Lehning and Tim Putnam. Lehning is
a couple years out of Paul Smiths’ forestry school and working full
time for Long View Forest Management, the outfit in charge of the
job. Putnam’s employed for the summer, making money before he
heads off to college in the fall.
Both men donned their climbing gear – the only tools they
carried were a utility knife and a putty knife. “It’s a perfect day
for this,” said Putnam as he scored the bark of the first birch
with his knife, cutting a line about three feet long into the trunk.
“Sunny, warm, right after a good rain is ideal.” He used the putty
knife to get the bark started on the left edge of the score mark,
then worked his fingers in between the outer and inner bark. With
moderate effort, he peeled the sheet of bark a quarter of the way
around the tree. Then again. Then the last pull made a half rotation
and the bark fell free. “You’ve got a dry side and a wet side here,”
he said. “It should get better as I go up.”
They paid the landowner $3.50 for that sheet of bark. Tim climbed
the tree, reaching up as far as he could for each vertical cut, and was
able to get five more sheets before he got into branches.
Mid-June to late-July is the prime peeling window – it’s when
the bark’s loosest. But even then every tree peels differently. “I
keep trying to nail down why, exactly, a tree is hard or easy to
peel,” Will said, “but can’t. But I’ve developed bark intuition; I just
get a feeling as I look at a tree and can usually tell how it’s going
The crews typically peel about 20 percent of the trees in a
stand, but on good sites the bark comes easy and they peel more.
Payouts to landowners this year  have been between $200
and $2,000 – that big number coming on a smashing 2- to 3-acre
site where they peeled around 600 sheets. Stripping the bark kills
the tree, so the work is done in conjunction with a timber harvest
on trees that are scheduled to be cut within a year.
When the sheets of bark are collected they’re stacked and
stickered, just like lumber. Weight is added back at the yard so they
dry flat. In a few months they’re ready to sell – buyers come to the
yard and rifle through stacks of bark; they buy by the square foot.
Long View sells to interior decorators, furniture makers, wedding
planners, craftspeople. One guy recently bought a custom-peeled
14-foot sheet for a canoe.
If you’d watched these men work you would have probably been
surprised at how fast everything went. How easily the bark peeled.
How quickly they climbed the trees. It seemed like it took only
minutes to completely strip a trunk. Afterwards the trees looked
golden and glowed amidst the dark maple boles that surrounded
them. In a few days they were maroon-colored. A few weeks later
they were headed for a sawmill.
Dave Mance III