The man who saw the forest and the trees

Jack Rajala flashes a thumbs up to his daughter on the stage of the Great Northern Radio Show on June 18, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota (Grant Frashier).

Jack Rajala flashes a thumbs up to his daughter on the stage of the Great Northern Radio Show on June 18, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota (Grant Frashier).

Jack Rajala was a lumberman. He was the son of a lumberman. He was the father of a lumberman. Trees were his business, and he knew his business well. The Rajala company is one of the best known timber and lumber operations in Itasca County, and has been for generations.

But that’s not the main reason I had Jack come talk on my Great Northern Radio Show this past June. Jack was much more than a lumberman: he was a conservationist and a scientist, who spent the last decades of his life trying to regrow the white pine forest that had been leveled by more than 100 years of loggers like him.

Opinionated, like most loggers, Jack was one of the few who could change his mind. Even as many in his political circles denied climate change, he could see it for himself. He touched it with his hands, and recorded it in the rings of tree stumps. But believing that climate change was real wasn’t good enough; he had to do something.

So he planted trees.

You might think of planting a tree as an Arbor Day exercise, a little red wagon filled with saplings. Jack planted trees by the tens of thousands, 5 million pine trees in all. His commitment didn’t stop there. He also spent thousands of hours protecting those saplings as they grew into viable trees.

Deer love to eat white pine saplings. But they won’t eat them if you loosely staple a piece of white paper on the buds in the springtime. It’s called bud capping. Jack would spend weeks on the task every year.

Jack really hated deer. I’ll always remember his colorful hunting season encouragements to deer hunters to slay as many of them as possible.

Shortly after I booked Jack on the show in May, family rushed him to the hospital where he learned he had a large brain tumor. After emergency surgery Jack’s family cautioned he might not be able to be on the June 18 broadcast. But he insisted.

Jack walked on stage holding a canoe paddle. He thought it looked better than a cane, which he refused to use. I asked if he wanted me to explain that he was only a few days separated from brain surgery when he went on stage, but he didn’t want me to talk about that.

A few radio listeners asked me why he spent so much time searching for words. They couldn’t see the fresh scar that reached around the side of his head. They also couldn’t see the smile that refused to leave his face as he talked about the forest.

In a short moment he explained the beauty of the white pine forests that dominated Northern Minnesota for centuries, and how we’ve learned to grow them back. He talked about how sustainability was good for business, and how he so loved where he lived.

When he was done, the show moved on. The hustle and noise continued, and Jack returned home to his rural Itasca County home.

Rajala died there amid a summer thunderstorm early this morning, Aug. 2, from complications related to the tumor. He was 77. He was surrounded by family, and white pine.

Funeral arrangements are pending with Rowe Funeral Home, though services will likely be held Monday at St. Andrews Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids.

“There were discouraging days and early failures of trying to re-establish white pine in our forests,” wrote Rajala in his 1998 self-published book “Bringing Back the White Pine.” “The encouragement of others helped inspire me to keep on trying. I’ll always be thankful for what brother Dean said the first time we drove through the stand along Wolf Lake: “These lands don’t just simply grow white pine, they demand it.”

If you’ve got it in you, try planting a tree or two. I’m sure Jack would appreciate it.


  1. Thank you for this piece.

  2. Reid Carron says

    That is a beautiful tribute to a person who made the world better.

  3. Andy Sween says

    A man of great faith and great character. Thanks For taking care of the forests Jack!

  4. Kathy Kooda says

    So well said Aaron, thank you. It was such an honor to see Jack on the GNRS stage. He was an icon, and such a wonderful man.

  5. Beautiful tribute.

  6. Karen Karls says

    Beautiful tribute. The radio show provides a lovely record of his ongoing passion for the forests. Jack with the canoe paddle is the perfect picture of a northern Minnesota hero.

  7. Shawn Linder says

    What an incredible man he was. Blessed to have known him! Rest in peace Jack, you have left a mark for generations to come!!

  8. Paul Dubuque says

    Thank you, Jack. I’m very glad to know that yours is a definitive legacy for our future forest. No doubt about it. Your passion for white pine had a subtle but important influence on the numerous acres of seed tree harvests, birch/aspen under-plantings, and deer browse protection projects on the public lands of Northern Minnesota. Despite differences between economic obligations and land stewardship ethics of today, I am certain of your positive influence on foresters and natural resource professionals in the region. As one of those emerging foresters back in the day, I can personally testify. Anybody remember the Bear River Demonstration Forest? Ha, Ha! Go check out the young white pine (and mixed species composition) on State lands in Northern Itasca and Western St. Louis County. Many of those projects are over 10 years old now. Let’s not forget about the public land White Pine Initiative in the late 90’s and early 2000’s either

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