Jennifer Alger wears many hats, but all of them have to do with forest products and making good use of so-called ‘urban’ wood. She wears a hat for Wood-Mizer, too.
What’s ‘urban’ wood, and why would most logging contractors give a hoot about it?
Think trees removed in urban areas by arborists, tree service contractors, and even logging contractors and land-clearing contractors. Think trees that have to be removed for utility line set-backs. Think trees knocked down by storms. Think trees killed by insects or fire. They can be a source of work and wood for small logging contractors as well as even some larger businesses.
In addition, Alger has something to offer even larger logging contractors – a software program you can use to manage your log inventory.
As you might guess, Alger grew up in a traditional forest products family – in her case, in the greater Sacramento area. Her father, Jim Evans, was a logging contractor and worked as far north as the Washington border and even in other states, like Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
In the 1980s the logging industry in California experienced a decline. Her father did contract felling in the winter. He also went door-to-door to ‘rescue’ trees that were destined for removal and mill them into blanks to be used to make gun stocks. That market went into decline as gun manufacturers transitioned into synthetic materials for stocks. In the early 1990s he began producing packaged firewood for ‘big box’ stores and another firewood company, and he also invested in his first Wood-Mizer portable sawmill to make lumber and do custom sawing.
Alger wasn’t interested in the family business. Wood products “was a heckuva lot of work,” Alger recalled, and she wanted to get out of it. She did a stint in the corporate world, working for Hewlett-Packard for nearly seven years. She wore several hats during her tenure with Hewlett-Packard, too, working on an award-winning team that helped automate accounting procedures, among other things.
She decided to go back to her roots and began managing and marketing her father’s business, which produced firewood and a small volume of lumber on a Wood-Mizer portable sawmill. Today she is the co-owner and president of the company, Far West Forest Products. She manages sales and marketing and oversees the retail store in Olivehurst. Evans, in his early 70s, manages the sawmill operations in nearby Sheridan. The company has several Wood-Mizer portable mills along with an iDRY lumber kiln and a Wood-Mizer kiln, which uses Nyle Systems components. The business employs 14 people, including four in the sawmill operations. Others include a saw filer, sales representatives for lumber and Wood-Mizer products. About 25 vendors supply logs or lumber products to the company.
When she rejoined the family business Alger began examining the lumber the business was selling and where the logs were sourced. “What differentiated Far West Forest Products from other companies?” she asked.
“What we did was urban logging,” she continued. Her father sourced logs from tree removal work in urban areas, hazard tree removals, trees removed for utility line set-backs, trees downed from storms, fire-killed trees, and so on. They also partnered with a lot of arborists who dropped trees at their location, allowing the arborists to avoid tipping fees or disposal costs. “We sent the higher value logs into lumber and the lower value went into firewood,” said Alger.
She began marketing the company’s lumber with that in mind. Only 5-10 percent of the company’s logs were sourced from traditional timber harvesting. “We decided to market it as urban salvage and reclaimed wood – wood not harvested for timber value and repurposed into a second life.”
“Far West helps people to rescue wood that is either urban, salvage or reclaimed that would have gone into the waste stream,” said Alger. “And we provide tools for other people to do that as well.” The company provides training so others – arborists, tree service contractors, small sawmill owners – can sell their wood products through the store.
Wood products made from urban trees and similar salvage material has an appeal to some people, she noted. “Our consumers love the fact these people were not taking their trees down for the timber value…They loved the fact that these woods would have gone into the waste stream had we not provided markets for them.”
According to a study commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, 7.2 billion board feet of furniture grade lumber could be recovered annually from wood sourced from urban areas, fires, utility set-backs, orchard removals, and other similar settings.
Remember those hats? Alger is also director of the Urban Wood Network Western Region, a network of 260 members that connects tree managers, arborists, lumber producers, and makers to connect the links in the urban wood supply chain.
With the aid of a U.S. Forest Service grant, Alger developed the network – which includes quite a few Wood-Mizer customers – to make use of trees killed in northern California from bark beetle infestation. “We developed markets for that wood so smaller landowners, under 40 acres, who could not interest larger logging contractors, would have a place to sell their logs or wood products.”
Alger also is the founder of USRW Inc. (Urban Salvaged and Reclaimed Woods), a non-profit that promoted the use of urban, salvaged, and reclaimed wood. USRW, funded by a grant from CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), developed the first ever Urban Lumber Standards for North America. The standards enable chain-of-custody and certification for urban wood, known as USRW Certified Urban Woods. The chain-of-custody tracks the sourcing, processing, drying and labeling for sale in order to legitimize the urban wood products and industry.
“I observed networks both formal and informal around the nation sharing a common mission,” said Alger. “Recognizing the strength in unity, USRW convened with other networks in 2019. We collectively decided to adopt the name Urban Wood Network as the official network title and retain USRW as the name for the standards that were in development.”
Alger worked with an expert team of developers and customer experience specialists to develop AncesTREE Urban Lumber Market, an inventory management system and enterprise application. AncesTree enables users to adhere to industry standards, track the chain of custody, manage their inventory, and generally better manage and grow their urban lumber businesses.
“People love the stories about wood,” said Alger, and one of her company’s biggest selling points has always been the story of the tree from which the lumber product originated. As the company grew, it was a struggle to manage inventory and maintain the connection from the unique backstory of a tree to the lumber. Inventory management was a hodgepodge of clipboards and notepads, marking paint, spreadsheets, and other outdated tools.
“We had to come up with an inventory management system to help tell the story of every piece of wood,” recalled Alger. “I couldn’t find a system that would do what we needed.” AncesTREE, available as a smart phone app, tracks the ‘ancestry’ of the wood, through the chain of custody, with tags and QR codes. “It will work for regular loggers, too,” she noted.
People with the app are entering inventory into their own databases to be sold on the AncesTREE Urban Lumber Marketplace. ‘This will allow architects, designers and builders to find urban wood from many small producers in one aggregated location,” said Alger. “Because we are working within the confines of nature’s inventory supply, we can’t predict a harvest the way you can in traditional timber, so this will allow a buyer to see which urban wood producer has what material, and they can aggregate their purchase from multiple suppliers to get enough to complete their order.”
Finally, Alger is the manager of Wood-Mizer’s California operations, which also supports Wood-Mizer in Nevada, a position she has held for over 20 years. She assists customers in selecting the Wood-Mizer equipment that best suits their needs, sawmill parts and blade sales, hands-on sawmill training, woodworking and other wood processing equipment, saw blade sharpening, as well as technical support and service.
Alger is well versed in Wood-Mizer equipment. Far West Forest Products has two Wood-Mizer portable sawmills, an LT40 Super, an LT50, and a WM1000 industrial model.
Alger was approached by the manufacturer to represent the company because she and her father had referred so many people to Wood-Mizer who eventually became Wood-Mizer customers. She decided to “give it a little try and see how it goes.”
Wood-Mizer WM1000 industrial sawmill is being used to cut material from this old growth redwood. The log was salvaged from a windfallen tree.