Rajala Companies: Sugar Hills Forest Stewardship


Rajala Companies used the Adaptation Workbook in January 2014 to develop several adaptation actions to be implemented at their Sugar Hills property, within the scope of their current Forest Stewardship Plan and conservation easement. These actions are currently being implemented in several demonstration areas. 

Rajala Companies manages tens of thousands of acres of forestland across northern Minnesota, in addition to their own lumber and veneer mills. As a 4th-generation family business, they've witnessed a great deal of change across the landscape and try to plan for the long term, both in terms of running a business and managing sustainable forests. Preparing for the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change is now part of that long-term vision. In this project, the Rajalas are exploring how climate-informed forest management can be integrated into an existing Forest Stewardship Plan. This project will illustrate how adapting to climate change can make good business sense as well as ecological sense.

Project Area

The Rajala Companies' Sugar Hills property south of Grand Rapids covers 1,600-acres. The property features relatively steep, rolling topography and many diverse habitats. Sugar Hills is protected as a working forest under a conservation easement through the Minnesota Forest Legacy Program. As a requirement of the easement, the property is managed according to a Forest Stewardship Plan (below) that spells out the management goals for the property as well as acceptable forest management actions.

Management Goals

One of the primary goals of management at Sugar Hills is to provide high-quality sawlogs for the Rajala's mill.

Northeastern Area (NA), the State & Private Forestry branch of the US Forest Service in our region, is interested to use the Forest Stewardship Program as a mechanism to help private landowners prepare for a changing climate. The idea of this project is to implement adaptive forestry practices within the scope of the current Stewardship Plan. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Rajala Companies are both providing matching funds for the project.  

Specifically, the forest management goals for Sugar Hills include:

  • Enhance and maintain the mesic hardwoods and other forest communities on the property
  • Sustainably produce high-quality wood fiber from a variety of native tree species, ages and sizes, with specific emphasis on high-quality saw logs and veneer logs. Valued species include paper birch, northern white-cedar, aspen, black ash, northern red oak, and basswood.  These species should be encouraged by management at all stages.
  • Incorporate the natural succession of Native Plant Communities over time and to adapt to possible changes in climate and moisture regimes.

Climate Change Impacts

Frosted red pine at Sugar Hills.
Staff from Rajala Compaines, Minnesota DNR, and Forest Service Northeastern Area used the Adaptation Workbook to evaluate the potential climate change impacts for Sugar Hills. Potential climate change impacts that are of major interest include:
Tree species habitat suitability is projected to change in the future. Balsam fir and white spruce are projected to decline, while sugar maple, basswood, red maple, and white pine are projected to increase.
Forests pests and pathogens may be more damaing under climate change, particularly if they encounter stressed trees. Gypsy moth and emerald ash borer are also likely to arrive in north-central Minnesota before long. Vigorous trees and stands may be best
Drought stress is anticipated to be more problematic under climate change, due to warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons, and more erratic precipitation patterns. Species like red oak and bur oak may be more tolerant of drought stress.

Adaptation Actions

Project collaborators were able to identify several potential actions that could help adapt to changing conditions. Adaptation actions have been consolidated around three potential projects, each designed to test possible adaptation tactics in different forest types characteristic at Sugar Hills. Examples include:

Paper birch and oak regeneration
1.4. Reduce competition for moisture, nutrients, and light.
9.3. Guide changes in species composition at early stages of stand development.
Pre-commerical thinning around desirable crop trees, 600-700 crop trees per acre
Favor individual stems of paper birch and northern red oak, and prune halfway up the trunk
Medium-quality northern hardwoods
5.1. Promote diverse age classes.
9.1. Favor or restore native species that are expected to be adapted to future conditions.
Group selection harvest of 1/2-acire to ¾-acre gaps to encourage mid-tolerants.
Conduct the harvest in summer or fall to disturb the ground surface and expose mineral soil
Poor-quality northern hardwoods
1.4. Reduce competition for moisture, nutrients, and light.
9.3. Guide changes in species composition at early stages of stand development.
Clearcut poor quality northern hardwoods stands which have fewer than 40 crop trees/acre
Follow up in 5 yrs with pre-commercial thinning.

Project Photos

Click to enlarge photos

Cheryl Adams (UPM-Blandin) discusses an idea with Jack Rajala during a November 2015 field tour at Sugar Hills.
An area of dense hardwood regeneration before thinning.
John Rajala explaining the Raivos thinning treatment.
The Raivos thinning treatment emphasizes thinning clumps of regeneration down to a single, vigorous stem.
John Rajala in another area of thinned and pruned crop trees.

Project Documents

Project Videos

John Rajala explains the Raivous thinning treatment. .
John Rajala describes northern hardwood thinning at Sugar Hills.

Next Steps

Project partners completed the Adaptation Workbook in winter 2014 and started implementing forest management activities in summer 2014. Many of the adaptation actions identified for Sugar Hills have been implemented as of fall 2016. The group selection, clearcuts, and Raivos treatments will be monitored over time to evaluate if they produce the anticipated regeneration. Project partners led a field tour on the property for Minnesota DNR, UPM-Blandin, Aitkin County, and others. Adaptation treatments are still being considered for an oak stand, which may be a further area to manage in the future.

Learn More

To learn more about this project, contact Stephen


Upland hardwoods, Management plan, Regeneration

Last Updated

Friday, November 25, 2016