An alien invasion is under way in North Carolina’s hardwood forests. The rolling hills are mostly clad in a rich mix of red and white oak, ash, yellow poplar and maple. But at intervals great swathes are blanketed in kudzu. This voracious oriental vine, introduced as a garden plant, has ‘infested’ seven million acres of the southern US, killing native trees by starving them of light.

An analogy has been drawn between the kudzu invasion and what’s been happening in the wider US hardwood industry. It too has been hit by imports, principally of South-east Asian, notably Chinese, furniture. Faced with low-cost competition, many US furniture makers, traditionally the country’s biggest hardwood consumers, have down-sized production and moved into importing themselves. High Point, capital of the US furniture industry, illustrates the situation. Today it’s more showroom than manufacturing centre. The hub is a 13-storey block which houses the International Home Furniture Market. In its shadow is what looks like a miniature version of Beijing’s Forbidden City. It’s billed as a museum, but in fact houses a display of Chinese furniture.

But while the US hardwood industry is facing, as the Chinese themselves might say, “interesting times”, there is still confidence in its ability to rise to the challenges. Our whistle-stop press tour of the sector, taking us from forest to factory and North Carolina to New Hampshire, did not conceal the difficulties, but it also highlighted the sector’s versatility and capacity to evolve.

A rich resource

The bedrock of the industry is the forest resource and, despite the kudzu, this is, arguably, in its healthiest state for generations. A key player in helping to restore it to its former glory is the US Forest Service‘s network of “experimental forests” which are dedicated to developing silvicultural best practice. Speaking at one of the oldest, Bent Creek near Asheville, North Carolina, forester Susan Jeheber-Matthews admitted the forestry sector still has problems. These include dealing with the alien plants, and convincing an increasingly ‘green’ US public that commercial management of their local forest is not just environmentally acceptable, but often preferable.

“Fragmentation of ownership is also an issue,” she said.”Forest products companies have divested huge areas and there are now 10 million private owners, making it more of a challenge to spread best practice.”

The good news, she added, is that the experimental forests and forestry companies themselves are establishing the ideal blend of human intervention and natural regeneration. Bent Creek is divided into plots to evaluate how different tree species and age mixes fare in different sites with varying levels of management. One area, the Buell Plot, had been completely clear cut in the 1930s and in contemporary photos resembles a moonscape. Today you’d hardly know a tree had ever been felled.

The hardwood forests of New Hampshire have proved equally robust, according to Jamie French of the New London-based Meadowsend Timberlands (and also hardwood processor, distributor and exporter Northland Forest Products). “By the 19th century, 70% of our woodlands had been cleared for sheep,” he said. “But when cotton arrived, farms were abandoned and today 85% of the state is forested.”

The Meadowsend woodlands, which include pine, hemlock, white and northern red oak, yellow birch, soft maple and a little black cherry, rely on selective felling and natural growth or “working with nature rather than fighting it”. “As a result, achieving FSC certification was relatively painless,” said Meadowsends managing forester Jeff Smith. “Apart from slightly more emphasis on wildlife and conservation issues, it involved little we weren’t already doing.”

“And the good news is we’re finally getting a 3-5% premium for certified timber,” said Mr French. “That’s vital to get more landowners to certify.”

Further down the hardwood chain, North Carolina sawmiller T&S acknowledges that recent depressed domestic demand for red oak, traditionally its biggest product, has caused stress. “It’s a fashion thing,” said general manager Jack Swanner. “The architects and designers are going for lighter species.”

The company, which produces 18 million bd ft of lumber a year at its Sylva NC mill, with two plants in Georgia generating a further 38 million bd ft, is hoping for a recovery in red oak consumption but in the interim it is exploiting new opportunities. “We’re now exporting 35% of production, with growth markets including South Africa and, of course, China,” said Mr Swanner. “We also have an agent in Egypt who is ordering a lot of red oak and getting us into the Libyan market.”

Recipe for success

According to president Ross D’Elia, the recipe for success at hardwood sawmiller HHP in Henniker, New Hampshire has three ingredients: using the latest technology, making use of every scrap of raw material and maintaining a balance across several product categories. Its computer-controlled mill is all about minimum labour and maximum output, employing 13 people to produce 8 million bd ft of lumber a year (currently aiming to even out the species blend and get red oak from 80% to around 65% of output).

HHP has an equally efficient pallet plant and, completing the picture besides its foresting operation, it runs a chip operation which is currently being boosted by the oil-price fired demand for wood fuel. “It’s a business mix which works well for us,” said Mr D’Elia. “And we’re now investing US$4m in new kilns, a bin sorter and a pallet heat-sterilizer.”

Northland Forest Products is also moving with the times. The timber-walled warehouses at its Kingston, New Hampshire site might create a traditional image, but the business is adapting to the global business environment. The latest innovation is Picture Tally. Developed jointly with River City Software, the computer systems calculates lumber pack piece counts and total board footage from digitized photos. “It’s over 99% accurate, so, if customers have problems with a pack we can check the record to see if it was OK at despatch,” said Mr French. “Sales staff can also refer to it online.”

The system, he added, which costs under US$100,000, is now being trialled by other companies.

Northland, which has sales of US$80m and exports 40% of output, is also a model of modernity in order flexibility, with mixed container loads now the norm.

“One load can include 10 products and we also supply mini packs,” said Mr French. “I can see a time when we do fully pre-packaged product for Europe too.”

As for certified timber, supply for Northland is not an issue – it stocks a range of certified US species, plus a small quantity of FSC mahogany from central America. The challenge has been exciting the demand. “But that is improving,” said Mr French. “Last year FSC timber comprised 6% of sales. This year we expect it to be 10%.”

Manufacturing opportunities

Growth can also be found in certain areas of hardwood-based manufacturing in the US. While the furniture sector may have suffered of late (and latest estimates put plant closures at 225 and job losses 61,000 since 2000) flooring producers have flourished – and it shows at Columbia Forest Products. The company is also a major plywood and veneer producer (and it’s currently launching its rotary-cut Appalachian Traditions range in Europe). But recently a key focus has been its flooring plants, of which it now has eight following an acquisition in Malaysia. It produces 6,000 linear miles of solid flooring a year and has recently been developing its business in engineered products, comprising multiple veneer layers bonded to a plywood core. These are made in adjoining factories in Danville, Virginia. The plants are already modern and, as new robotic handling systems highlight, investment continues.

“Demand shows no sign of abating and we may soon be running all week,” said flooring marketing manager Patrick Warren. Under British president, David Wootton, he added, the business is also evaluating European export opportunities.

But perhaps the place that encapsulates the enterprise and future potential of the US hardwood industry best is the Conservation Center, headquarters of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF). Set up in 1901, the Society’s aim is to develop the best operating model for multi-use forestry. Some of its woodlands are reserved for nature study or leisure use.

But it is also committed to advancing timber production and application. In fact, its headquarters are a wood showcase; a feast of solid and glulam beams, cedar cladding and modern joinery, including a stunning red oak staircase. The buildings are hugely energy efficient, using natural ventilation and light, solar panels and thermal mass systems – even the dry toilet system is ‘flushed’ with wood chips.

“The future of the forests and the US timber industry depends on balance,” said SPNHF president Jane Difley. “Wilderness and forestry are equally important – one supports the other.”