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From weed tree to money tree.


Do you know anyone who is in the business of farming dandelions?

Not likely. Still, out in the great conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest, such timber giants as the Weyerhaeuser Company are seriously studying the feasibility of starting plantations of red alder - a tree that Northwest loggers traditionally have regarded with all the enthusiasm of a farmer contemplating a pasture full of thistles.

What happened to turn this "weed tree" into a money tree?

Nothing less than the old law of supply and demand. The supply has always been there, in great plenitude, because red alder (Alnus rubra to be technical about it) is a tree that moves speedily to establish itself in river bottoms and lowland areas once the dominant conifers are gone. Thus, within a year after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, foresters were astounded to see alder shoots determinedly pushing through the ash-laden mudflow that had wiped out conifers in the valley of the Toutle River, and by 1982 the trees were already seven feet tall.

One reason for alder's fecundity is nature's perverse insistence on assuring the proliferation of its leastwanted species, as can be attested to by any homeowner struggling to enjoy a weed-free lawn next door to a vacant lot choked with dandelions. Like the lighter-than-air dandelion seeds, alder's gossamer seeds are windborne for great distances, in contrast to heavy Douglas-fir seeds that drift only a few dozen yards away from the source tree.

Dave Sweitzer, secretary-manager of the Northwest Hardwoods Association, describes alder as "a come-along species." Once a conifer forest is clearcut or destroyed by fire, alder usually is the first tree to move in.

And because it grows so fast - as much as 15 feet in five years - and is intolerant of other species, it overtops the slower-growing conifers. That's why Northwest timber companies over the years have spent millions of dollars spraying alder - just as suburbanites use herbicides to rid their lawns of weeds. As far as timber managers were concerned, that's just what alder was - a weed.

So the supply of alder in the coastal forests of Oregon and Washington has never run short. The problem was the absence of demand for all that supply. And that's the part of the equation that now is changing the face and fortunes of the Pacific Northwest's timber industry.

"There has never been a decline in the demand for alder, not since our association began in 1955," Sweitzer insists. "The demand for alder is always going up. The only reason our alder sawmills shut down any time this past year was a shortage of logs. As far as the demand goes, they can sell everything they turn out. In fact, most of them are booked six to nine months ahead for orders."

Randy Bailey, log buyer for Cascade Hardwood of Chehalis, Washington, one of the 85 companies comprising Sweitzer's association, agrees. "Our biggest problem is that we've got too many dollars chasing too few alder trees," he says.

Such a problem is a real anomaly to industry foresters who have spent their careers trying to get rid of alder and now find themselves suddenly faced with the cheerful prospect of being well paid to cut it for the sawmills. But Sweitzer says they should have seen this coming.

"Alder hasn't been a 'weed tree' for 15 years," he argues. "The spray-kill mentality has been with the managers, not the loggers, who are aware of its value. But in the last few years, there has been a definite change in the management of alder-conifer stands. The new mentality is to manage alder, not kill it."

For one thing, foresters have learned that alder is a beneficial tree in that it fixes nitrogen in the soil from nodules on its roots, so that once the alder dies (its lifespan is about 80 years), it leaves a better environment for conifers.

But the chief reason for the change Sweitzer cites is the booming popularity of alder chips in Japan's pulp and paper industry, which uses the shortfibered chips for production of clear white and photocopying paper.

In Port Angeles, Washington, for example, M & R (formerly Merrill & Ring) Timber closed its softwood sawmill but kept an alder-chipping plant, which it sold to neighboring Daishowa, a paper manufacturer. M & R now is cutting huge stands of alder that have been growing for half a century after springing up following a forest fire, and selling the logs to Daishowa to be ground into chips and shipped off to Japan. It is this growing export-chip market that is putting the squeeze on alder sawmills.

"We couldn't compete with that export market," complains Randy Bailey of Cascade Hardwood," when alder was bringing up to $32 a ton for pulp." The complaint didn't bear much weight with the chippers, who were tickled pink to get a return for logs the hardwood mills took previously only because no one else would have anything to do with them.

"The sawmills have operated for years on a big margin of profit from low-cost timber," argues Rod Cuesnel, an M & R forester.

Paul Kriegel, log buyer and forester for one such firm, Goodyear Nelson of Sedro Woolley, Washington, admits as much. "Alder mills paid enough money to get people to haul logs to them, but not enough to get anybody excited about it, and certainly not enough to interest land managers," he told a Seattle newspaper.

Two years ago forest managers getting rid of alder from their conifer lands were happy to receive $14 for a ton of the stuff to be ground into pulp chips. By early 1989, this price more than doubled. But a slackening in overseas demand sent pulp prices tumbling as the year ended.

Traditionally, alder has been popular with firewood cutters, going back to the Makah Indians, who insist on alder as the only fuel for their famous salmon bakes because it throws out fewer sparks. But today the tree has practically priced itself out of the labor-intensive firewood market.

Price fluctuations in the chip market also have escalated the price of sawlog-quality alder, from less than $190 per 1,000 board-feet in 1988 to as much as $260 in the fall of 1989, which is what Bailey's company was offering for 12-to 14-inch logs in 24-to 40-foot lengths, scaled and delivered to the Port Angeles harbor. From there the logs are rafted down Puget Sound to Olympia, thence trucked to Chehalis. The firm regularly runs a small advertisement in the Port Angeles newspaper seeking alder logs or stumpage. "At today's prices woodland owners can make a little money clearing off alder that would have gone to waste a few years ago," Bailey points out. He adds ruefully, "But we're having to stretch farther away to meet our demand."

Bill Barrere accounts for part of that demand. He runs a store called The Woodbox, dealing exclusively in unfinished wood furniture, much of it made from alder.

"I love it!" he declares enthusiastically, wiping a smudge from an alder dining table he is staining to resemble teak. "They call alder 'the great imitator' - you can stain it to look like cherry, walnut, mahogany, you name it. It's beautiful on its own, but it can be mixed and matched to look like anything."

Besides being more workable than most other hardwoods in such qualities as its gluing adaptability and sanding and polishing characteristics, it is also superior in that it takes screws without splitting. What's more, it is cheaper than the better-known eastern hardwoods. Barrere showed me two identical desks - one made of oak, for $314, and its counterpart in alder, at $242. He prefers the alder, regardless of price.

Taking a tour of the Cascade Hardwood mill in Chehalis under the aegis of L.C. (Swede) Johnson, the mill's quality-control manager, was a great lesson in the complete utilization practiced by this 35-year-old mill in today's cost-conscious economy. To begin with, alder is a fragile resource. Softwoods such as fir and spruce can be cold-decked almost indefinitely, but not alder, which begins to rot in only two months.

"You cut down a fir, and it doesn't know it's dead," one logger told me. "Its needles will stay green for months after it's felled; and a cedar - those logs will last for years on the ground. But you leave a cut alder in the woods, and it's gone."

Though the quality of a Douglas-fir log is fairly uniform throughout, the center of an alder log tends to be pithy and therefore not desirable as furniture material. So after stripping off side boards from logs seldom running more than 15 inches in diameter, the Chehalis mill utilizes the center sections for 2 x 4 studs and pallet lumber.

All furniture lumber is kiln dried, with far fewer grades than in conifer lumber - ranging from frame, used only for interior bracing, to select. Boards are cut into eight-and 10-foot lengths and planed only on the two wide faces, as furniture makers generally do their own selective trimming to eliminate knots and blemishes.

Though there is a limited market for the bark and sawdust, the mill derives 90 percent of its fuel needs from its own wood waste, the rest going into chips sold to pulp and paper companies. "We couldn't run the mill without those chips," Johnson admits.

The Cascade mill, with 85 employees, is typical of the Northwest's hardwood industry, basically a haven for small businesses. A Weyerhaeuser official said he was surprised recently to find that the company's most consistently profitable lumber operation is its subsidiary Northwest Hardwoods, operating three alder mills in Washington state.

But all this has to be put in perspective - even though alder lumber production in Oregon and Washington has doubled in the past decade, it still accounts for only 3 percent of the total output. And though alder may be overcoming its lowly status of weed tree, it still is not about to replace conifers in the Northwest's timber economy.

Jim Vadnais, managing forester of M & R's 26,000-acre Pysht tree farm, is happy to see the one-time scrap alder bringing a good return, but he's still determined to replace it with Douglas-fir and spruce.

"Alder grows fast, and you can get a merchantable tree in 30 to 40 years," he explains. "But even so, you're talking about a yield of 13,000 to 17,000 board-feet per acre, compared with 35,000 to 40,000 for conifer. Then when you figure in the difference in the price per 1,000 board-feet - say about $200 for alder compared with $360 for Douglas-fir - there's no reason to change our minds about the longrange desirability of converting those alder stands to conifer."

Nevertheless, even Weyerhaeuser is beginning to manage alder, instead of just getting rid of it. Tom Terry, director of the company's hardwood research at Chehalis, admits that his firm's attitude has changed considerably in the past few years, particularly with the boom in the chip market. "We're still controlling alder when it interferes with conifers," he says. But he adds that he is keeping a close watch on the volunteer alder stands in the Toutle valley, and compiling biological information on yields.

Meanwhile, some of the smaller companies whose total involvement is in alder, such as the Goodyear Nelson mill, are not waiting. This year the firm actually planted several acres of alder seedlings, a development that would have been unheard of only a few years ago.

And Sweitzer insists that alder has an even brighter future ahead.

"Silviculture management now is aiming at a 20- to 25-year growth cycle, compared with the present 35 to 50 years to get a merchantable alder tree," he says. "That compares with 80 years for conifers. Our job is to work with land managers to convince them of the economic viability of this wood resource."

Figures compiled by the U.S. Forest Service and Western Wood Products Association confirm that the Northwest hardwood harvest, primarily alder, has boomed from 128 million board-feet in 1976 to 296 million in 1987. That's still a long way short of the softwood volume that is the foundation of the Northwest's timber economy. But with softwood production plummeting amid rising controversy over logging the remaining old-growth forest, the cheap, abundant, and fastgrowing Pacific red alder may fill many a lunch bucket that otherwise would go empty.

PHOTO : Alders loaded at an Olympic Peninsula tree farm (right) will wind up as chips, like the ones on this ship in the Port Angeles harbor (below), bound for Japanese pulp and paper makers. Called the "great imitator," alder can even be fashioned into butcher block (left).
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Title Annotation:red alder
Author:Clark, Earl
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Save the forests - sell the trees.
Next Article:Making our cities safe for trees.

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