Steam hissed into the drying kilns at the brand-new Collins Upper Columbia Mill near Boardman, Oregon, this month. Next month, when the kilns are running smoothly, the mill will start drying more than half a million board feet of rough-cut lumber grown on a plantation right next door. Before long, you may see the pale, light-weight wood in picture frames, Venetian blind slats, moldings, shipping pallets, the interior woodwork in RVs, and the lumber used to build movie sets. If you want a light-colored hardwood for a cabinet project, you may take it home as edge-glued “hobby panels” from your local Lowe’s or Home Depot. The pale wood is “Pacific albus.”
Never heard of it? Neither has anyone else. It’s a made-up name, incorporating the Latin for the common poplar, that fast-growing, energetically suckering tree you see standing in tall rows along the edges of rural roads and prairie farmyards. Poplar isn’t a traditional source of lumber. But the Portland-based Collins Companies have already started milling it there beside the Columbia River. You don’t need big Douglas fir to get wood fiber.
Collins, which operates in California and Pennsylvania, as well as in the Northwest, has regional roots that go back more than a century. Collins bills itself as “the first forest products company in the U.S. to be a signatory to the World Wildlife Fund Climate Savers Tokyo Declaration.” It already owns mills in eastern Oregon. Senior vice-president Wade Mosby says, its new Boardman mill has hired a manager and an engineer from the company’s operations in Lakeview and Klamath Falls.
Because no one has used Pacific albus before, Collins has to figure out how to grade the wood and develop markets for it. The company’s Lee Jimerson explains that Pacific albus is best suited for niches that require light weight but little strength. Forget about 2/4s. Some of the best wood processed at the Boardman plant will go into moldings and other millwork. The very best may be peeled and used in high-end plywood. (It is so light-colored that it won’t show through a .02-inch-thick top layer of some fancier species.) Other good albus may be made into blinds, picture frames, and furniture, presumably in Asia. Ordinary pieces will be made into panels for home remodeling centers that now use South American and New Zealand radiata pine. The low-end wood will be made into shipping pallets and cases.
Jimerson says the wood is so much lighter than alder that over the course of a year, a truck operator using albus shipping pallets can save $500 in fuel costs. The same qualities may make it attractive to the shrinking RV industry, and to the builders of movie sets. The wood is so lightweight and so reflective, Jimerson says, that it’s a natural for office ceilings, too.
Specifics aside, Jimerson explains that Collins will aim at the green building market. The Forest Stewardship Council has certified the Boardman plantation as meeting FSC environmental and social goals. A “pagoda” framed with Collins’ Pacific albus was exhibited at last year’s International Greenbuild Conference in Chicago, then in Portland’s City Hall. It has subsequently been sent to Portland’s sister city of Suzhou, China.
Pacific albus represents a step beyond red alder — another former trash species now valuable for use in furniture. Like alder — even more than alder — Pacific albus won’t bear a lot of weight or take much wear on the edge of a counter or pool table. But it will look just fine, and it will take a nice cherry stain.
The logging waste &mdash leaves, twigs, etc — from all those poplars is too messy for the pulp mills, but it may have a market, too. At this writing, the company won’t say anything about it publicly, but Collins has been negotiating about supplying raw material for cellusoic ethanol. The Port of Morrow, which includes Boardman, may become a regular center of ethanol production (even as questions about ethanol’s net energy value and effects on climate continue to arise). Sacramento-based Pacific Ethanol is operating one plant there now, converting corn to fuel, and three other plants have reached the planning stage.
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