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Local alder tested in high school wood shop

Pacific red alder. (Flickr photo/Calypso Orchid)

The Sitka High wood shop is involved in an experiment to learn if young-growth timber can be made into high end furniture and other products. One of three class sections is using locally-harvested and milled alder in their projects; the other two are using traditional hardwoods from the lower forty-eight. Their teacher says his students don’t notice any difference.

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For decades, the story of timber on the Tongass was about old growth and pulp wood. When the Obama administration took office in 2009, that story started a new chapter, as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a “transition framework” for the entire Forest Service.

Scott Harris is with the Sitka Conservation Society.

“The transition vision is to move away from a dependence on old growth logging, to try to look at more multiple use, and variable use of the forest. For example, young growth restoration, recreation, supporting salmon fisheries – things like that.”

The Sitka Conservation Society has been active in developing watershed restoration projects on Prince of Wales Island, at Sitkoh Bay, and beginning next year, on Kruzof Island in Sitka Sound. Recently, the organization applied for a $10,000 grant from the National Forest Foundation to build capacity in second-growth timber. A couple of prior log cabin projects have both been well-received. Harris says SCS wanted to try something else.

“We successfully got a grant and said, Let’s find a high-end use for young growth that could help us develop that responsible relationship with our environment.”

Randy Hughey teaches Wood Shop at Sitka High.

“It doesn’t matter to me what the wood is as long as it’s relatively easy for the kids to use. And I’d love to buy it locally, if possible.”

The Sitka Conservation Society bought Hughey’s beginning woodworking students 1,800 board feet of Pacific red alder for their fall semester projects – enough to make about 100 night stands.

“The monetary aspects of this experiment are probably the bigger questions, and I don’t know anything about that. It’s lovely wood and it’s been a successful project. It has some challenges that poplar does not have: It has more knots, more tendency to split, warp, check – some of those defects may have to do with milling and drying processes and not with the wood.”

The alder was harvested at False Island, about 35 miles north of Sitka, by a contractor, who brought the wood back to town in the round, milled it, and dried it in a small kiln he’s set up. Scott Harris says this was the most challenging part of the project. The grant was intended to help build capacity in young growth, but it also revealed a few shortcomings. Building real capacity will likely take a much more substantial investment.

Randy Hughey says everyone was “learning as they go,” and that doesn’t change the fact that the alder is beautiful wood. His beginning woodworkers didn’t really dwell much on where the materials came from. They’re still learning how to use shop tools safely, and how to measure to within 1/16 of an inch.

“We had two classes using poplar, and one class using the locally-milled alder. So it’s really me conducting the experiment of how this wood is as a teaching material. And the kids just got nice nightstands.”

Besides alder, there is money in the grant to buy locally milled spruce and hemlock, which Hughey says will be used by his advanced carpentry students to construct a timber-frame bike shelter for the Sitka Sound Science Center.

KCAW’s Holly Keen contributed to this story.

The Sitka Conservation Society and Sitka High will hold an open house 4-5 PM this Wednesday (12-19-12) in the wood shop for anyone interested in seeing the students’ nightstands, and learning more about locally-available woods.


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