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A Forest Industry Cinderella Story
Red Alder – A New Perspective
Ed Hendrix, overseer of thousands of acres for Longview Timber Company, marvels, “We learned a hundred ways to kill the Red Alder weed. Today it is a highly valued tree.”
Growing only in coastal regions from southern BC to Northern California, Red Alder naturally regenerates, grows rapidly, chokes other trees, and self-prunes/thins. Increasingly, the same traits that earned it weed status are being seen as desirable.
Pioneering alder research and development of alder lumber markets over 30 years have changed attitudes. Instead of killing alder, plantations are now being established. Over the last 10 years, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources has planted 2769 acres of alder.
Landowner and logger Ralph Pellham of Rainier, Ore., says because of the high prices he’s able to get for alder saw logs, he planted 10 acres in alder in 2000 and intends to replant another 15 acres in alder on his 275 acre tree farm. At $85/ton (~$750/1000), alder is paying as much as export Douglas fir.
As far back as 1985, Northwest Hardwoods (NWH) converted a stud mill in Longview, Wash., into a hardwood mill to meet the growing demand for alder lumber which has reached approximately 320 million board feet annually, 5 percent of U.S. annual hardwood production.
Unique, Versatile, and in Demand
The result of many years of killing alder, industry-wide efforts to establish pure Douglas fir stands, and the increase in market demand have led to premium alder log prices.
Unlike Douglas fir lumber, which competes in commodities markets, Red Alder meets demands in a niche market. Alder lumber is relatively hard and strong, has a uniform coloration, and exhibits a unique combination of high ratings for gluing, sanding, machining, and staining. Alder’s fine grain, with little distinction between heart and sapwood, offers a visual appeal that approximates more expensive species including cherry, maple, birch, and black walnut.
Alder lumber is marketed in over 20 distinct grades for the furniture/cabinet industry and successfully competes in paneling and pallet stock markets. Alder byproducts are also sought for hog fuel and pulp.
Benefits and Advantages
Appreciation for alder as timber has paralleled rising demand and alder log values. The fast growing trees offer potential commercial harvest in 30 years, bringing a return on investment during a landowner’s lifetime. Surprisingly, planting alder may result in long-term profits equal to, or greater than, managing Douglas fir.
Alder, like all hardwoods, is immune to laminated root rot fungus. Planting a cycle of alder (30-60 years) cleanses infected areas eradicating root rot in future conifer plantings. And it is well known that alder thrives in wetter soils than fir can tolerate.
As alder trees grow, nitrogen is added to the soil improving fertility and enhancing the value of sites for subsequent Douglas fir plantings. In mixed stands, alder trees may enhance growth of nearby Douglas fir if spacing and crowding are managed.
The rapid initial growth of alder trees typically allows pure alder stand development with minimal concern for competing vegetation. Alder is largely immune to big game browse concerns because of high initial stem counts, rapid growth, and being relatively low on the preferred menu.
Alder Stand Management
Previously unheard of, active alder management has gained serious consideration. Increased alder fiber value and a growing body of research by organizations like the Hardwood Silviculture Cooperative (HSC), Sustainable Wood Production Initiative (SWPI), U.S. Forest Service, and others is changing attitudes. Emerging trends are toward nurturing alder, not eliminating it.
Managing alder typically consists of planting and one or more pre-commercial thins followed by clear cut harvest. Optimum thinning occurs when trees have sufficient height to make merchantable saw logs (>22 feet to crown) but before growth rate has significantly slowed. Target densities are calculated by multiplying the average dbh x 2 feet (i.e. 6” trees at 12 feet apart).
Commercial thinning alder stands is generally not practiced for several reasons:
• Alder stems are easily damaged. Unlike other species, bark scarring and broken tops in young trees are often irreparable incidents devaluing logs at harvest.
• Alder trees typically grow toward the light and lean heavily making it difficult to hand fell alder trees with precision. Felling processors have difficulty grasping the non-vertical stems and potential damage to leave trees is high in close quarters.
• Over-thinned alder stands are exceptionally prone to wind throw and sun scalding.
However, commercial thinning may be viable in managed alder stands that tend to produce vertical stems of equal spacing.
A few loggers are profitably thinning mixed-aged natural alder stands. Joe Hackenberg uses small 4x4 John Deere farm tractors to assist in felling and to carefully remove trees. Winch-assisted directional felling and small equipment enable profitable harvesting of larger individual alder trees while leaving smaller fast growing trees undamaged. Joe says, “It is essential that enough larger trees that “hold the stand up” are not removed in thinning.”
Although alder plantations may change trends in the future, alder harvests have statistically paralleled softwood harvest volumes. When Douglas fir stands are either commercially thinned or harvested, the marketable alder is removed. The methods used to efficiently process fir logs though are not always best for manufacturing alder logs.
The Down Side
Alder does have its down side. The logs are more easily damaged than other species and require special handling. Erik Falter oversees quality at NWH and says that modern log handling and processing equipment can easily damage, degrade, and devalue alder logs. Beyond the visible damage created by high pressure processing heads and aggressive teeth, Erik says, alder logs can be internally bruised creating a defect in the lumber that may not be visible until the final sanding at the mill. Log loaders can also bruise the logs. Consequently, alder sawmills work closely with log vendors to ensure alder saw logs escape damage from “rough handling.”
Alder logs also degrade more quickly than other species. If not processed into lumber and dried within weeks after felling, alder logs will begin to deteriorate and stain, greatly reducing their value and that of the resultant lumber. Sawmills keep a short rotation of decked logs and encourage transport of logs to the mills as soon as feasible. At the mill, alder logs are kept wet in the summer to extend log life.
Milling and Marketing
Stephanie Happer, NWH marketing director, says alder logs’ current value resulted from extensive research, development, and marketing by alder lumber manufacturers. NWH has been a leader to develop processes, implement programs, and standardize 24 proprietary alder grades. A company-wide quality program ensures customers uniform and consistent product regardless of which mill manufactures the lumber.
Alder mills typically buy logs in three sorts – pulp, “chip and saw,” and saw logs. NWH manufactures 1-3 inch thick lumber in 6 to 10 foot lengths. Seventy percent of each log becomes grade lumber and 30 percent pallet stock, which is sold green.
Grade lumber is seasoned in green yards and carefully kiln dried. Dried lumber is rough sanded to allow accurate grading. Sanding dust is used to fire boilers to heat drying kilns. Alder pallet lumber is especially sought after for produce markets, and grade lumber is sold in markets around the world.
Although alder’s reputation as an annoying weed persists for some, more people in the industry have a growing appreciation of its natural traits and value as a lumber commodity.
1 The Woodland Workbook, Managing Red Alder, D. E. Hibbs, 1996 reprint, Oregon State University Extension Service
2 RTI Fact Sheet #22, After decades of Douglas-fir plantations, is it time for forest landowners to consider planting alder and cedar? Larry Mason
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