Jack Rajala was the rare timber man who was able to build a bridge between his family's logging business and those who wanted to conserve forests.
Part of the third generation of a lumber mill family from Bigfork, Minn., Rajala expanded Rajala Companies Inc. into an international business. "He grew the business exponentially with veneer and exports to Asia," said Al Hodnik, who served on the board of Allete Inc. with Rajala.
Rajala, who died of a brain tumor at age 77 on Aug. 2, gradually changed how he viewed the forest over the course of his career.
"He had a vision for the forest that was about access, recreation, water quality, a habitat for fish and wildlife and community interaction," said Susan Schmidt, director of the Trust for Public Land in St. Paul. "It wasn't just a forest that had an economic return."
His son Nathan Rajala said that he doubted his father was interested in sustainable forestry early in his career. But by the 1970s, more of the company's profits were going into buying land for replacing and replenishing.
"He wanted to preserve what remained of the white pine," he said.
Over more than 25 years, Jack Rajala oversaw the planting of more than a million white pine seedlings. Through his own research and study, he believed that the big native pines that were nearly logged out of Minnesota, Wisconsin and upper Michigan in the 19th Century could be brought back.
"The Department of Natural Resources did not believe that the white pine could be restored, but Jack refused to believe that," Hodnik said. "The white pine was Jack's act of faith. The DNR director eventually acquiesced, and Jack wrote a book that proved you can restore a species and have a more natural forest."
Most of Rajala's forestry expertise was self taught and learning one-on-one from others. He graduated from St. Olaf with a degree in accounting, but later took forestry management classes and attended lectures about climate change. Many times he would get up at 3 a.m. in the winter to look at the trees in the moonlight. "There's less glare. He spent night after night chasing the white pines," Nathan Rajala said.
Doug Lewis of Duluth, a longtime friend and hunting buddy, recalled deer camps with Rajala. At dinner after a day of hunting, Rajala offered a prayer of thanks for food and the trees. "He always said that we plant and care for the trees and God grows them. He knew his place in the universe," Lewis said.
Rajala came up with a way to protect the white pine against deer, which eat the tops of the young trees, stunting vertical growth. His solution was to put a 3-inch by 5-inch piece of paper folded in half and stapled around the tip to cover it. Known as bud caps, they were checked periodically until the tree grew to about 9 feet where deer could no longer reach the tip.
The "guru of the white pine" was a changed man when he was in the forest. "Jack loved the woods. That was his soul. It was like he was part of it. He read it and understood it," said Cheryl Adams, a forest resources manager at UPM Blandin Paper Company in Grand Rapids.
Former Sen. Dave Durenberger, who learned about the timber industry from Rajala, said, "Jack and the Rajalas are a unique Minnesota family that treasured the resources and the interest of the community, not their self interest."
Rajala was preceded in death by his son Nik. He is survived by his children Allison Ahcan and John of Grand Rapids, Katherine Thomey of St. Anthony Park, Nathan of Detroit and 11 grandchildren. Services have been held.