Meet the Pacific albus tree, harbinger of green forestry

This fast-growing, light-weight poplar is finding a market in a more carbon-conscious forest-products industry.
Crosscut archive image.

Pacific Albus Tree Farm, with the new Collins Upper Columbia Mill in the background.

This fast-growing, light-weight poplar is finding a market in a more carbon-conscious forest-products industry.

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 'ꀜhobby panels'ꀝ from your local Lowe'ꀙs or Home Depot. The pale wood is 'ꀜPacific albus.'ꀝ

Never heard of it? Neither has anyone else. It'ꀙs 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'ꀙt a traditional source of lumber. But the Portland-based Collins Companies have already started milling it there beside the Columbia River. You don'ꀙt 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 'ꀜthe first forest products company in the U.S. to be a signatory to the World Wildlife Fund Climate Savers Tokyo Declaration.'ꀝ 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙt 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'ꀙs 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 'ꀜpagoda'ꀝ framed with Collins'ꀙ Pacific albus was exhibited at last year'ꀙs International Greenbuild Conference in Chicago, then in Portland'ꀙs City Hall. It has subsequently been sent to Portland'ꀙs 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'ꀙt 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'ꀙt 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'ꀙs 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.

Why Boardman? Eighteen thousand acres of hybrid poplar grow on the land of a defunct old potato farm just south of the river, where Potlatch planted them in the early 1990s. The idea was to provide a sustainable flow of chips to a pulp and paper plant in Lewiston, Idaho. This looked like the next big thing. Forest products companies and private landowners started planting fast-growing tree species all over; they planted poplar and cottonwood in Washington and Oregon, eucalyptus in California. The idea was to provide a steady source of wood for nearby pulp mills. This was sustainable harvest before 'ꀜsustainability'ꀝ became fashionable.

'ꀝThe fast-growing poplar tree could provide an alternative source of wood pulp to timber-starved Oregon mills and a new cash crop for Willamette Valley farmers, say Georgia-Pacific Corp. officials,'ꀝ the Seattle Times reported on Feb 27, 1994. 'ꀜThe giant timber company says that by next year it plans to plant up to 2,000 acres annually to boost wood-fiber supplies for its pulp and paper mill in Toledo. Up to 15,000 acres — or more than 23 square miles — may be planted in what now are grass seed fields and marginal Willamette Valley croplands. The Times explained that the 'ꀜpoplars, a hybrid of native cottonwood and poplar species, can be harvested after just seven years. Poplar was the dominant fiber source for the country's fledging paper industry in the 1800s.'ꀝ

But the forward-looking forest products companies that planted poplar and eucalyptus were looking forward through cloudy crystal balls. The pulp market declined, harvesting those fast-growing trees turned out to be more expensive than using waste from sawmills, so the plantations of trash species just didn'ꀙt pencil out. In the late 1980s, Simpson Timber, now Green Diamond, planted 10,000 acres of eucalyptus in northern California to feed a pulp mill in Anderson. In 1999, it sold the plantation to Aaction Mulch Inc. of Fort Myers, Fla, which started chipping the trees to sell as garden mulch.

With no reason for anyone to cut them, the fast-growing trees on the Boardman plantation kept growing, and now they'ꀙre big enough to cut for lumber. (The same thing has happened in the Southeast, where forest products companies also planted acres of trees for pulp. Those trees have grown big enough to cut for lumber, too, companies have built mills to process them, and as a result, the Southeast now produces roughly as much lumber as the Pacific Northwest.)

A couple of years ago, Mosby explains, the company learned that Potlatch wanted to unload its poplar plantation near Boardman. Unlike a lot of timber land, which is stuck way out in the boonies, the Boardman plantation stands in a regular transportation hub. Interstate 84 runs right by the back door, so to speak, as do the railroad and the Columbia River. Shipping won'ꀙt be a problem.

Collins will run the mill, but won'ꀙt own it. Portland-based GreenWood Resources will manage the plantation, but won'ꀙt own it. Both will work under contract to the GreenWood Tree Farm Fund, which will own the whole shebang. Both Collins and GreenWood Resources own minority shares of the fund. Most of the fund'ꀙs money comes from Europe, with some also from the East Coast.

The cheap dollar made the investment more attractive to Europeans. It has also made American forest products more attractive to foreign buyers. Ivan Eastin, director of the UW'ꀙs Center for International Trade in Forest Products (CINTRAFOR), explained recently that the U. S. and Canada basically owned the Japanese market in the early 1990s. But the Europeans arrived in the early 1990s, and by 2000 — aided not only by the strong dollar but also by their greater willingness to accommodate the Japanese — they had largely displaced the U.S. With the dollar in the toilet, that has changed. The U.S. is doing business in Japan again, and it is exporting wood to China and Vietnam. A lot of that wood is alder, which will be stained, made into furniture, and sold back to us. Actually, Eastin said, American forest products exporters'ꀜcan sell a lot more than they can ship'ꀝ Getting wood across the Pacific is the sticking point. 'ꀜIf you'ꀙre looking specifically at wood,'ꀝ he explained, 'ꀜthe problem is shipping vessels.'ꀝ

Russia had been a competitor, selling a lot of cheap logs abroad, but — in hopes of forcing Finnish and Swedish pulp and paper mills to relocate — the country has imposed a 25 percent export tariff, which is scheduled to rise to 80 percent . Eastin explained that the tariff had ticked off the European Union, which was talking about keeping Russia out of the WTO even before Russian tanks rolled into Georgia. (A recent decision to delay this year'ꀙs scheduled tariff increase has eased the tension a bit.).

The Europeans who put money into the Boardman plant weren'ꀙt just looking at the cheap dollar; they were also attracted by the idea of sustainability, Mosby says. In fact, they wouldn'ꀙt have made the investment otherwise. Western Europe has long been more committed to the idea of sustainability than the U.S., a mindset that years ago helped create a European market for alder as an alternative to tropical hardwoods. 'ꀜThese are long-term people,'ꀝ he says. They were impressed by the fact that the Forest Stewardship Council had certified all Collins'ꀙ forests. In fact, Mosby says, 'ꀜthat was key.'ꀝ


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.