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Northwest expansion

Weyerhaeuser's Northwest Hardwoods division has entered Canada with the purchase of a mill in what is traditionally softwood country, British Columbia.

By Paul MacDonald

Alder timber for the Northwest mill is sourced through Weyerhaeuser's coastal operations in BC, with the balance of wood purchased in the open market and off private land.

British Columbia is well-known for being a huge "wood basket" for softwood timber and lumber in North America, and in other markets around the globe. But the province is also home to a handful of hardwood lumber producers which have successfully carved out their own market niches. Just like BC is known for softwood lumber, so, too, is Weyerhaeuser. The forestry giant is the largest producer of softwood lumber in the world and is more readily linked with dimensional lumber than hardwood product. But through its Northwest Hardwoods division-which was purchased back in the 1980s-Weyerhaeuser is also among the largest producers of hardwood lumber in the world. 

Northwest operates 14 hardwood mills in North America, turning out 400 million board feet annually. Alder represents about 75 per cent of production with the balance made up of more than 20 other species including basswood, cherry, cottonwood, maple, oak and walnut. Northwest Hardwoods recently extended its mill operations into Canada with the purchase of Coast Mountain Hardwoods of Delta, BC, just south of Vancouver. Randy Short, division manager of the Northwest operation in Delta, explains that there was a relationship in place with Coast Mountain prior to the acquisition of the mill. "It was an independent operation for eight years under the Coast Mountain name, but Northwest worked closely with them during that time to develop alder in BC and in marketing their product." 

The mill itself has had an interesting history. It was owned most recently by a venture capital firm out of Massachusetts, but it actually started out as a softwood operation back in the 1970s under Acorn Forest Products. It went through several additional owners and, along the way, switched over from softwood to hardwood production. Under Coast Mountain, and now Weyerhaeuser, alder is the name of the game for the mill. 

The mill currently produces about 180,000 board feet a day on two shifts, with 85,000 board feet going through the planer.

It produces kiln dried lumber, in customized grades for customers. The move from being an independent producer to part of a larger corporate structure has meant some changes for the operation. The priorities with Northwest operations are safety and quality. "These two areas now have a different focus than they did before," Short says. Northwest has its own benchmarks in terms of product The alder product turned out at the BC mill is, by and large, what Weyerhaeuser terms "appearance wood"-for exterior applications. 

The wood is used by major furniture, cabinet and millwork manufacturers in North America and around the world. The highest grade of wood is taken off the outside of the alder logs, while the heartwood is set aside for non-appearance wood uses, such as pallet stock and framing for furniture. In the not-too-distant past, alder was generally dismissed as a weed species in western North America, including British Columbia. But it has become increasingly accepted by high-end cabinet and furniture manufacturers, and both loggers and mills have twigged to this. 

The end users like alder because it is easy to work with, it offers huge versatility in that it can take a stain to make it look like almost any other hardwood, and it is also cost effective compared to traditional hardwoods, such as oak. "The acceptance of alder has now escalated to the point it is used in product lines that compete with traditional hardwoods in all of the upper grade spectrums," Short says. 

Sorting logs in the Northwest yard with a Cat loader.

Currently, the trend is to use alder in its natural state, without any staining, as the market favours lighter coloured wood. On the forest management side, Weyerhaeuser, like many forest companies, has come full circle in terms of alder. Rather than viewing it as a nuisance species, simply getting in the way of the more desirable softwood, the company now has significant acreage planted in alder. "It's good to see the viewpoint change in the industry and the value of the alder resource recognized," says Short. 

Even though alder may have a higher profile, Short admits he is still far outnumbered by his softwood colleagues at any forest industry gathering in BC, which still remains "softwood country". It is clear there are two distinct, and sometimes markedly different, sectors to the industry. But with softwood lumber prices being in a slump of late, there is increasing interest in alder among loggers and forest managers in BC. "There is a recognition that this industry has focus and is viable," says Short. 

In terms of sourcing alder for the mill, Weyerhaeuser coastal operations in BC provide a fair amount of the wood through their timber licences, with the balance purchased in the timber market and off private land. Some timber licences came with the purchase of Coast Mountain and these were transferred to the parent company's Weyerhaeuser coastal operations. "In addition to that, we have a staff that purchases logs from the outside," says Short. "We get logs from a mix of people. Some supply us with a lot of timber, some supply us with a small amount. We've received anywhere from a single truckload of logs to booms that are ready to go into the mill." 

The focus, of course, is on sawlogs, logs with top diameters of eight inches and larger. Logs smaller than that make lumber extraction difficult. The mill's prime cutting lengths are different from a softwood operation, with the focus on end products revolving around eight and ten foot long pieces of lumber. They are doing ongoing work with timber suppliers on bucking practices out in the woods to ensure a greater supply of prime lengths. 

The goal is to produce as much solid wood product as possible, and as few chips as possible. "It's important for our suppliers to understand what our multiples and quality requirements are. It allows us to maximize each piece of timber." quality. "Northwest has developed proprietary grades, which are quite diverse. We are involved in the market differently than other companies because of this approach." 

They have developed grades around the specific needs of customers, rather than just generic, commodity grades. Developing high grades, and consistently producing to those grades, is what sets Northwest apart from some other hardwood producers. It also steers them clear of participating in the commodity game, where price is the only determinant in getting an order. "Many people who move from the softwood side to the hardwood side are very intrigued because it is a totally different business," explains Short. "If you go into a hardwood mill, you will see logs being made into lumber, as you would in any mill, using similar equipment, but the way it is broken down, the way it is edged, the way it is graded, that's all significantly different."

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