Alder is more than firewood

Ask Roger Smith about the price of alder logs and he will say it's pretty good right now.

Smith, who said he was a dropout from the logging industry when Douglas fir was bringing him $4,000 a load, is happy working closer to home getting between $1,600 and $2,200 per truckload of alder logs -- a wood long thought of as junk on Whidbey Island.

Smith said the price for the hardwood -- which is in demand in the furniture industry and by cabinetmakers -- is as good as it's ever been, while finding alder to cut is easy.

"The reason I am logging alder on the island is it's easy to find and log, the price is good right now and my overhead is low," Smith said.

Smith, who lives in Clinton, once owned a logging truck and trekked to dense fir forests all over Washington state. When the Asian timber market crashed in 1996, he and many others like him were forced to make adjustments.

Today, Smith waits for calls from local landowners who want to clear homesites. He no longer owns his own truck but contracts with others to truck his alder logs to mills in Everett and Mount Vernon.

Smith said the money for alder is good if landowners realize its worth. All too often, he said, alder trees taken down to make way for construction are wasted.

"There was a time when people just chopped down alder for firewood," he said. "But now it's a popular wood in the furniture business."

Popular is the operative word. Bob Zuver, a Clinton builder who was once a sawyer, said his customers are asking for alder. And with demand comes a better price for those who own, cut, mill and sell alder trees.

"It's all about what's popular, what the consumer wants," Zuver said.

Zuver said alder is a light hardwood, useful in cabinets and flooring. Though it often has a reddish tint, it has a similar look to that of maple. Unlike maple, however, alder "grows like weed," Zuver said, which translates into more product in less time.

Smith, who used to log fir that was 50 years of age or older at maturity, said the wait is not nearly as long for alder.

"Alder grows well here and doesn't take as long to mature, so 20-, 30-year-old alder trees make good logs," he said.

Pete Jordan of Freeland is a part-time custom sawyer who owns a portable sawmill. Though alder can be hard to work with -- it is difficult to get it to dry into flat boards -- it can be stained to resemble many types of wood.

Jordan also likes the fact that alder production can be a home industry of sorts on Whidbey Island. His customers either bring their wood to him or invite him to set up his mill on their property. This is the best way to go at the business on Whidbey Island now, he said.

"Since the demise of the big sawmills, a portable small mill is perfectly suited for what is left here," said Jordan.

One factor that will make or break the Whidbey Island market for alder is quality. Don Meehan, Island County's Washington State University Extension agent, said most of the alder shipped off the island now does not make top grade.

"Most of what we have here is used for pulp and composite wood," he said.

Even if the quality of island alder were higher, the wood's future as a crop is not assured at the moment. Meehan said the state encourages replanting of the highest quality wood, and that still means Douglas fir.

"The state favors forest management of the highest value of tree possible, and overall that is still Douglas fir because of its export value," he said. "The value of alder is limited because it is not sold for export."

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