THE URBAN TIMBER CRUSADE
Pacific Coast Lumber is just
one example of sawmill owners cashing in on waste wood
By Nikki Nichols
Debris removal for
recycling and waste diversion.
is perhaps the only way you can describe the amount of lumber hauled to
landfills every year — lumber that is oftentimes not just useable, but quite
exquisite. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service reports that 3.8
billion board feet of lumber and landscape residue are generated every year.
That’s nearly 30 percent of the hardwood lumber produced annually in the United
States. The good news is trees, being a renewable resource, will continue to
grow. The bad news is, trees downed in storms, scorched in fires, smaller
diameter underbrush in fire zones, insect-infested trees, and trees that simply
grow old and die—they get a bad rap. Many home and property owners would just as
soon have someone haul away the tree log and limbs and burn it all, rather than
try to figure out a use for it. Trees with limitless potential are doomed to a
bleak and unnecessary future as mulch or firewood.
There is, however, a strong and growing army of tree crusaders — a new
group that bridges the gap between the ultra-protective environmentalists, and
the loggers trying to meet America’s growing appetite for wood fiber. This group
recognizes the potential of these trees, and also recognizes that landfills are
getting too crowded to handle the loads coming in. These urban tree movements
are gaining momentum as a new way to recycle. In other words, why cut down trees
or import rare species, when often what you want is sitting in your backyard?
The new urban tree landscape is dotted with stories of positive change in the
effort not to let these valuable resources go to waste.
Pacific Coast Lumber
Takes on Small Wood
One shining example is Don Seawater and partners, of San Luis Obispo, Calif.
Seawater owns and operates Pacific Coast Lumber. Before starting the company,
Seawater worked for more than 20 years in many roles in the lumber industry.
During that time, he owned and operated two retail lumberyards. Amajor turning
point came for Seawater when the commercial lumber market became cutthroat, and
his own businesses started to falter. In this time of great strain, Seawater had
borrowed a Wood-Mizer LT30 bandmill and sawed quite a few logs, coming face to
face with the well-documented efficiency of thinner kerf saw blades. By 1996, he
owned his own new Wood- Mizer LT40 Hydraulic portable band sawmill. Thanks to a
technical assistance grant from the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste
Management Authority, he bought a small but efficient crane truck. A second
grant eventually came along to fund the purchase of a dry kiln. The California
Department of Forestry also contributed substantial help.
What warranted the grants from the
eco-conscious California government was the fact that Seawater, with his vast
knowledge of wood species and millwork, was able to perform a great community
service. He was able to take a resource that was about to be wasted, and produce
items of heirloom status, all while running a full-service wood products
business. The root of Seawater’s company, Pacific Coast Lumber, is the term
“green building. “Urban forest materials are essentially waste products, and our
job is to divert those materials from landfills and from less useful end uses
and put them back to work. So it is considered a recycling program,” says
Effective Tools and Lots
Pacific Coast Lumber equipment, in addition to sawmill, includes an
International crane truck (8,000 lb.), a Nyle dry kiln, a Toyota 9,000 lb.
forklift, and a complete array of basic woodworking machines. Using this
equipment, Seawater and his fourperson team are able to retrieve felled logs
from offroad destinations, or simply from a person’s backyard. “Arborists,
homeowners, and everyone in between, are enjoying re-using their trees. It’s
quite a craze out here,” says Seawater. Seawater said he’s collecting between
250,000 and 400,000 board feet of lumber per year. Remarkably, much of the time
he is paid to remove this waste material from properties. Also quite remarkable
is the variety and volume of high grade, non-standard materials, which includes
an amazing variety of highly sought-after species. “We get silk oaks, acacia,
Monterey cypress, and species transplanted from other areas of the world,”
Seawater says. “It’s just a true rainbow of species, and incredibly fun and
satisfying.” He adds, “There are really serious values for and some great profit
potential for many of the more exotic woods such as figured acacia, claro
walnut, and others.”
Don adjusting Mill.
Pacific Coast Lumber produces very unique products with the lumber collected,
often products that come with non-standard length dimensional lumber. Seawater,
serving as the primary sawyer, has sawed material for community restoration
projects. The company also sells Adirondack chair kits. But perhaps the most
popular item is the Pacific Coast retreat house, which comes in several
different designs. The small cabins serve as unique hideaways on wilderness
property. Other retreat houses take on the form of garden sheds, playhouses, and
outhouses. The most unique feature on these relaxation houses is the siding.
“The siding is really interesting,” Seawater says. “It’s just a simple slab cut
with a straight edge. We can sequence match work, we can vary the thicknesses,
and it’s just a beautiful product.” Beauty and practicality often merge when
Seawater is at work. “As far as I am concerned, the effort has to do with
viability as a real, useable, practical product. Something that performs as well
as anything else.” Seawater, on occasion, will venture to the forested areas of
California and purge the area of smaller diameter fuel sources, and use tiny
logs, as little as four inches in diameter, for knee braces and poles for the
retreat houses, providing another important service in the effort to clear
forest beds of young fuel sources.
Part of a Bigger Effort
Seawater is in good company in his effort to put waste wood to good and proper
use. The California Department of Forestry has purchased several portable band
sawmills, and loans them out to communities with a particular need in the effort
to sustain urban wood. The mills are also used in workshops on value-added
products for urban trees. Seawater helps conduct some of the wood products
seminars for the CDF. In Anaheim, Calif., West Coast Arborists, a tree care
company with 350 employees, uses a portable hydraulic sawmill to cut municipal
lumber for later sale to woodworking schools, school industrial arts programs,
and for use in park benches and other projects, among other things.
Above: Dried lumber in our
dry kiln Right: 10’x14’ retreat at peace.
The list goes on, but the goal is
the same from each participant. Seawater is passionate about that goal. “There
is in excess of 40 million board feet that is attrition-related material in
California alone,” Seawater says. “That figure doesn’t include private industry.
It gives you a feel for this type of material. It gives you an idea of the cost
of waste, and to give an opportunity for people who appreciate wood and know
what to do with it.” Seawater, in his quest to salvage unwanted timber, is able
to point directly at the Wood-Mizer sawmill as bringing him a certain measure of
He likes the unique cantilevered
design, which other mill companies have shied from since it debuted on Wood-Mizer
mills more than 20 years ago. “The single mast makes the Wood-Mizer a tremendous
amount more versatile. Two masts restrict many of the logs that have size,
sweep, or bumps dramatically in the area that’s just out of range of the typical
bandmill throat size. So when you throw a log on here and it has a little bump
on the side and you’re trying to make starting cuts in, it’s so much harder to
do than with a monorail design.” Thanks to his hardworking team Seawater said
he’s flourishing after five years in business. Most importantly, he’s doing his
part to prevent trees from going to unnecessary waste. “I really love the fact
that we’re finding other uses for wood that used to go in landfills. I look at
this as a very timely and practical solution. The more people who learn about
the end uses for this lumber, then the more market there is, and the more
possible sales there are. We promote that.”
service is temporarily unavailable