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Clear Vertical Grain Douglas Fir: Where does it come from, and why?

April 4, 2012 by | Jennifer | There have been 0 comments

When you’re shopping around for Douglas fir, one of the things you’ll hear advertised often is “tight-grain” Douglas fir. Lumber suppliers like AltruFir pride themselves on the clear, tight, vertical grain of the Douglas fir they sell, and they should--this lumber is stable, strong, and beautiful--among the best building materials you’ll find anywhere. What you may not know is the story behind those claims.

Much of the tight-grained Douglas fir that’s produced today comes from the forests of British Columbia. Why is that? Why are our neighbors to the north producing large, high-quality logs, while the Douglas fir grown in Oregon and Washington is mostly smaller-diameter? There are a number of reasons why the forests in the U.S. and Canada have developed differently.

Sit back and learn the tale of two forests.

Clear Vertical Grain Douglas Fir: Where does it come from? | Altrufir

Douglas Fir Sapling

If you were a Douglas fir sapling about 200 years ago, and you planted your roots in the fertile soil of Oregon, chances are you might not have lasted very long. Even before the arrival of European settlers, forests in Oregon and Washington were historically more affected by fire than B.C. forests were. According to a study on the history of old-growth forestsby the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Northwest research station, frequent low intensity fires were a normal part of the landscape in many of Oregon’s forests. “As a result, trees regenerated almost continuously,” the authors wrote.

But, if you were a lucky seedling, you might have survived to the early days of the twentieth century. Now it’s about 1920, and Oregon is booming. All the gorgeous Craftsman bungalows in Portland were built out of Douglas fir. Douglas fir that was cut during the early days of Oregon’s logging industry. Another study from the Pacific Northwest Research station puts it this way: “The prevailing harvest practice was simple liquidation.” Large tracts of Oregon forests were cut, slash burned, and left to regenerate naturally.

And regenerate they did--for about 40 or 50 years, or maybe 75 or 80, at the longest. Then the stands were logged and replanted again-and again. Even as timber management practices have improved over the years, the demand for landowners to get repetitive harvests out of their land has not let up. An article in the Journal of Forestry, describes the race for harvest: “The intensively managed plantations being planted today in the Pacific Northwest are growing at rate on par with intensively managed conifer plantations being harvested today in other regions of the world, where the competition has continued to move ahead.”

Here’s the thing about Douglas fir that’s harvested as soon as it reaches what’s considered “merchantable diameter”--it may be big enough to cut, but it’s not fully mature. A Forest Service study on the characteristics of old-growth Douglas fir forests says that trees younger than 75 are in the fastest-growing phase of their life. “Forests up to about 75-100 years old can generally be considered ecologically young in the Douglas fir region. This is the period of very rapid growth or ‘adolescence,’” the authors wrote.

Douglas fir grows more slowly as it ages, and the slow growing phases are when it develops those tight growth rings. These adolescent trees simply haven’t had a chance to mature into the kind of trees that produce the beautiful, high-quality fiber we’re looking for. That kind of growth happens when a tree grows slowly and steadily.

Now let’s imagine that our little Oregonian Douglas fir seedling did manage to survive fire and repeated harvesting. If that’s the case, it most likely means that this tree is by now in a forest owned by the federal government.

In Oregon and Washington, most of the remaining old, large diameter trees are now on protected land. This isn’t a bad thing--old growth forests are a marvel that should be preserved for the health of the planet and for future generations. But it does mean that few large logs with tight growth rings are being harvested in Oregon and Washington these days. Federal timber harvests have fallen dramatically in the past 20 years. Instead, much of the U.S. Douglas fir is grown on private timberlands that are managed for maximum output, not slow growth and large-diameter trees.

Cross-Cut Douglas Fir | AltruFir Doug Fir Flooring

Grain on display in a Douglas-fir.

Now let’s imagine that our hypothetical Douglas fir seedling instead found itself blown northward on the wind. Imagine that it grew, instead, in British Columbia.

This western-most Canadian province is big. In fact, it’s larger than Oregon, Washington and California combined, and two-thirds of the province is forested.

And the Douglas firs that grew here? They simply weren’t subjected to the kinds of disturbance that their southern neighbors were. The study on the history of Pacific Northwest forests, the same one that mentioned the fire disturbances in Oregon and Washington forests, notes that “fire was rare or absent...” In a natural landscape in this area, the small patches of old, young, and maturing trees create a nearly continuous old-growth forest with a fine-grained texture.”

Basically, if you were a Douglas fir seedling growing up in British Columbia, nothing happened to you. Ever. To this very day, according to the best estimate of the Canadian government, 68 percent of the trees in British Columbia are 160 years old or older.

That doesn’t mean that if you grew in Canada, you were immune from the possibility of harvest. On the contrary, logging has been historically and continues to be a huge part of British Columbia’s economy. The difference here is the sheer size of the province’s forests.

The majority of Canada’s timber land--93 percent--is owned by the government, and it’s managed differently than the privately-owned forests in the U.S. The forests that are cut, planted with a single species, and then cut again in a few decades? They’re virtually non-existent here. In fact, B.C. does not have any “intensively managed” forests that meet the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s definition of a plantation forest. Even Weyerhauser, one of the largest timber companies in the world, says that it does things differently on its Canadian lands: “Because of differences in weather, soil conditions, and ownership, we manage land in Canada less intensively than we do land in the United States and Southern Hemisphere, working to maintain natural forest qualities and serve a wide range of community interests while still producing timber.”

So, let’s sum up: if you’re a Canadian Douglas fir seedling, you’re much less likely to have been torched by fires when you were young; the land you stand on probably isn’t owned by a company that feels pressured to harvest as soon as you get to 40 or 50 years old; and there are so many millions of you big, old trees that the government is still able to harvest some of you without worrying that doing so is depriving the world of the last 100+ year-old trees in the province.

Does this mean the second- and third-generation Douglas fir grown in the U.S. is worthless? Certainly not. Douglas fir is one of the best construction materials around, and the trees harvested today produce thousands of board feet of valuable timber each year.

But when it comes to the lumber we favor at AltruFir, it’s the large-diameter trees from B.C. that are more likely to pass our inspections and give us the kind of tight grained, high-quality wood fiber help us live up to our advertising.

- Jennifer Rouse


This post was posted in Douglas Fir Flooring, Douglas Fir Trim, History and Interest, Douglas Fir Paneling and was tagged with Douglas fir flooring, clear vertical grain, douglas fir trim, douglas fir paneling

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