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NMSU Research Inspires Navajo Nation To Plant Hybrid Poplars

FARMINGTON - A 26,000-acre plantation of fast-growing poplars will be planted on Navajo land as part of a tribal project to supply timber to wood-processing companies during the next decade.

Mick O'Neill, superintendent of NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington, examines a hybrid poplar planted in May 2002 at the center's experimental plot. The trees are expected to grow to 90 feet in 10 years despite alkaline soils in the semiarid Four Corners, encouraging the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry to invest $2.3 million in a 26,000-acre hybrid poplar plantation during the next decade. (02/02/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

The Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) will invest $2.3 million over 10 years to grow nearly 800,000 trees after New Mexico State University researchers demonstrated that some hybrid poplars thrive in the semiarid Four Corners. Planting will begin this spring with an initial $230,000 investment.

"If this first planting is successful and the NAPI administration goes forward with its plan, then we're talking about a small forest of hybrid poplars," said John Keenan, former director of NAPI's agricultural research and testing lab. "It's a huge undertaking that's the direct result of NMSU research on poplars."

Poplar research has been done in wetter states such as Washington and Oregon, but this is the first hybrid poplar study in alkaline soils in the semiarid Four Corners, said Mick O'Neill, superintendent of NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington.

"Hybrid poplars are fast growing, very productive trees that could bring significant economic and environmental benefits to local communities, but they've never been grown here commercially," O'Neill said. "That's why we decided to test them. "

In the last 20 years, commercial hybrid poplar production has expanded to nearly 50,000 acres nationwide because of the trees' rapid growth and potential for use in wood products and quality paper. Large plantations in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest supply poplars for pulp, lumber for small furniture, and for excelsior to make evaporative cooling pads and soil conservation blankets, O'Neill said.

Before starting the research, O'Neill met with executives from Western Excelsior Corporation, one of the nation's largest excelsior plants based in Mancos, Colo., about 60 miles north of Farmington. The company, which harvests aspen trees from the San Juan National Forest for its operations, told O'Neill it would buy all the poplars NAPI can produce to offset its dependency on aspens.

"The Forest Service reduced the volume of aspen available to us, so to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket, we're looking for new sources of raw material," said Normand Birtcher, a forester with Western Excelsior. "Poplars are in the same genus as aspens and they can be used as a substitute. We've been aggressively looking for potential producers in this area."

O'Neill is testing 20 hybrid poplar varieties from the United States, Japan and France. He planted 10 clones with about 500 trees at the center in May 2002, and another 10 with 500 more trees in April 2003.

"We saw right away that some of the clones won't do well here, but a few of them are very productive," O'Neill said.

The best-performing variety is OP-367. Some of those trees grew to 15 feet in 16 months, O'Neill said. "That variety has tremendous adaptation potential," he said. "It just shot right up after planting."

Many trees of another variety, 311-93, grew more than 12 feet tall in the same period, O'Neill said. As a result, NAPI chose those two varieties for its first planting in spring 2004, he said.

The research plots are irrigated with an above ground drip system. The center is now compiling water requirements for poplars based on research that shows the trees are extremely water efficient, O'Neill said.

"Water requirements for these poplars are about two-thirds of what is needed for alfalfa, even when the trees reach 90 feet high," O'Neill said. "Alfalfa needs about 50 inches of water per year in this area, so the poplars are showing good potential for water savings."

The trees take 10 years to reach commercial size, so NAPI will plant about 79,000 trees per year during the next decade, Keenan said.

"We want to establish an ongoing cycle with a new harvest every year after 10 years," Keenan said. "You don't have to replant poplars after harvesting because they grow right up again from the stump after you cut them down. The next crop will grow even faster because they already have an established root system."

The project will bring fallow NAPI lands back into production, O'Neill said.

"It's a win-win situation," he said. "It gives NAPI another salable product, helps address NAPI's soil conservation needs, and provides Western Excelsior with alternative material to meet its wood requirements."