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Why not stimulate state’s timber industry by using homegrown wooden signposts?

BEMIDJI, Minn. — With the important timber industry in Minnesota in desperate shape  and our legislators calling for “out of the box” ideas, I have formed my own “shovel ready” stimulus plan.

BEMIDJI, Minn. — With the important timber industry in Minnesota in desperate shape  and our legislators calling for “out of the box” ideas, I have formed my own “shovel ready” stimulus plan. My plan is to replace metal roadway signposts throughout the state with homegrown wooden posts, harvested and manufactured in Minnesota.

This idea is not new. During a recent trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, to visit my son, I was impressed that all the highway and street signposts there are made of wood. Anyone who has been to Wisconsin may have noticed that it, too, uses wood for all signposts.

I have done some legwork on this proposal, first contacting Leslie McInenly, who is an information specialist with the Minnesota Forest Resources Council. From there I was directed to John A. Rajala, who is a member of the council and runs a large wood operation in Deer River, Minn. He informed me that all posts must be treated with a preservative, and that there are six companies in the state of Minnesota that do post treating. They include Land O Lakes Wood Treating in Tenstrike, Turtle River Wood Treating in Turtle River, Page and Hill Wood Products in Big Falls and Lake States in Duluth — all Northern Minnesota companies that would gain from this initiative. He also noted that wood may be a bit more expensive than metal, but is a renewable resource. He thought red pine should be considered, as it is treatable, abundant in Minnesota, reasonably priced, and in need of markets.

Next I contacted the signing engineer for the state of Wisconsin, Matthew Rauch. Here is an excerpt from his comments:

Wisconsin sees wood as a better value, with more benefits
“We have used wood posts for many years and we feel they offer more benefits than steel posts. They are less expensive, faster and easier to install and can handle a lot of wind loading. … Also, with the cost of steel skyrocketing in recent years, wood posts have even proved a better value. We have a statewide wood sign post purchasing contract with Lake States Lumber out of Duluth. The wood is typically southern yellow pine.
“As for safety, we are required to drill to 1 1/2″ diameter holes at the bottom of the post in the 6” face so the post will break away properly when impacted.
“As for problems with wood posts, occasionally we get some that warp that have to be replaced.  …  We have purchased some posts with MCQ treatment from Lake States Lumber and have started to test those out. The MCQ is supposed to be both environmentally friendly as well as not corrode aluminum signs.”
With optimism, I began to contact people in the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). It is here where the objections began to fly.

First I was told that because of frost and winter, that wooden signs are difficult to remove and wouldn’t be prudent. Since Wisconsin has winter, I again contacted their signing engineer, who responded that with carbide blades and using some salt around the base of a broken post, in most cases they can remove it. If they cannot, they temporarily use a steel post attached to the broken post until spring when it can be easily removed.

From MnDOT, a litany of negatives about using wood
After overcoming this barrier, I was saddled with a litany of reasons why wooden posts would not be considered by MnDOT.  Here is an excerpt from the email I received from Mike Weiss from MnDOT:

“I am not sure what agencies would consider using wood posts since there appears to be the issue of disposal when the posts would eventually have to be replaced. … Not aware of any safety issues, BUT there are issues with wood posts being hit in the winter and difficulties replacing them in frozen ground. …

“Pros/cons: replacing wood posts in the winter months; wood posts could splinter when hit; steel posts can be driven in frozen ground.

“Mn/DOT has discussed wood vs flanged steel posts a few times in the past 10 years.  As an agency we have decided to NOT switch to wood sign posts based on the following:

“• Wood posts basically break apart when hit. Once broken over, they would be a nuisance to remove the stubs AND it would be costly to replace wood post sign structures during the months the ground is frozen. 

“• Disposability of hit posts OR old posts when they need to be replaced.  Wood posts are treated and, as such, would likely require special disposal methods. Galvanized flanged channel post structures typically remain in place for a long period of time (up to 30 years or more).

“• Frequently hit signs in the Metro area now have breakaway couplings at the base, thereby requiring minimal maintenance if hit (also not required to call Gopher One Call for utility spotting since the stub post in the ground is reusable).

“• Mn/DOT has used galvanized steel flanged channel posts for over 40 years.  We had to crash test our sign structure design in the late 1980’s at a cost of over $30,000.  With this expense, we feel we have a vested interest to continue their usage.

“• Flanged channel steel posts can actually be driven into frozen ground (if necessary) to expedite reinstallation of a critical sign.

“• Our sign trucks used statewide are specifically ordered to accommodate flanged channel steel posts of varying lengths AND all of our equipment statewide is specifically made to drive and remove flanged channel sign posts.

“• Flanged channel sign post structures are easily modified, if necessary.  They are also fairly easy to erect with the specific equipment that Mn/DOT owns.

The problem of disposal
The final email came from John Sampson, director of the Environmental Analysis Section of the MnDOT Office of Environmental Services, who wrote to inform me of the big problem Minnesota would have in disposing of treated timber wood signposts.  Apparently CCA is what is used to preserve wood now and a new preservative (ACQ) which is supposed to be safe is being tested, but has copper environmental problems. Here are excerpts from his email:

” … The laws and regulations are different in Wisconsin. For one thing, in Minnesota we are required to test materials such as treated wood before disposal and then we must “manage” them accordingly.  … Several years ago we stopped purchasing CCA treated wood because we found that the vast majority of samples that would be tested would test as hazardous materials or hazardous waste. That means that we would have to dispose of any CCA treated wood in a special hazardous waste facility. At the time there were no such facilities in Minnesota with the closest being in Illinois.

“We also began using ACQ treated wood but stopped when we discovered that the amount of copper leaching out of the wood would be much greater than the soil clean-up standards for copper in Minnesota. …

“The above stated policies are for Mn/DOT only and are only for environmental considerations. Local units of government such as cities or counties are free to make any decision they choose regarding the use of treated wood.”

Others apparently overcame drawbacks
After all of this going on for over a two-month period, here are my perceptions. There may be drawbacks to using wood signposts, but our neighboring state of Wisconsin, the state of Utah, and other states have apparently overcome these drawbacks. I am sure Wisconsin and Utah are very careful to consider their environment and have necessary protections from whatever hazards the treating of wood posts may have.

I sincerely feel this proposal still considers merit.

Mike Beard, who works in retail management, is currently chairman of the board of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce. He writes a regular blog for the Bemidji Pioneer, from which he adapted this article.