Brent and Annette Cole have been supplying sustainably sourced, high quality sound boards or 'tone wood' to string instrument producers since 1995
We ambled down the road and through the rain to our first lesson in woodworking. Alaska Specialty Woods (ASW), co-owned by Brent and Annette Cole, is a major soundboard producer on the island. We pulled into the drive and were immediately welcomed by Annette who was grinning and eager to show us the operation. The place was caked in sawdust. Antlers dangled from the rafters and every available space was jam packed with plates of wood. These soundboards will be mandolins, guitars and other string instruments someday strummed by the hands of established musicians and frustrated hopefuls.
Brent founded ASW in 1995 as a family operated business with a single saw in hand. Annette emphasized the business' humble and family oriented beginnings.
"The kids were really young and they would go out with backpacks with him [Brent] and pack a wood block, whatever they could handle in their backpack…"
Today, business is booming and the charming bucolic series of wood sheds in the Cole's yard is being replaced by a shiny new manufacturing facility where processing, drying and storing can all happen under one roof. This advancement is welcomed by Annette and Brent who explained how even minimal exposure to the elements can influence a sound board.
So what makes a good sound board? Sitka spruce is the glory of sound board wood, which is why Brent's products are in demand by everyone from big names like Gibson to independent string-instrument crafters across the globe. To demonstrate the quality of this wood for sound production, Annette pinched a ‘½ sound board set' between her thumb and forefinger and let the wood hang. With her other hand she tapped and flicked the center of the sound board. A beautiful sound reverberated from the wood and a big grin crawled across her face. "Just listen," she said.
Straight, slow growing, ancient Sitka spruce with tight uniform rings (and the way the wood is cut) produce the stiff, tough softwood quality necessary for musicwood. The particular trees that meet the stringent requirements necessary to produce high quality sound are not widespread. ASW salvages ‘dead standing' or ‘dead down' old-growth spruce for their production. They will search the forest for appropriate trees and apply for the necessary sale with the US Forest Service who then refer to a long-list of requirements before administering the sale. Brent and Annette sometimes even source wood from logs used on abandoned float houses or old logging bridges! This mantra of salvage, reuse and eliminating waste is pivotal to Brent in both his business and personal life.
"All through my life as a young adult and an adult, I have focused on utilization and not letting stuff go to waste- not our resources, not our groceries, not leaving the lights on- as best as I can. As far as the timber acquisitions and how it relates, it goes back to conserving and responsible use. I know this timber resource, though it is renewable the particular materials necessary for producing soundboards is not renewable in that it takes an old-growth habitat to produce what we have for the fine texture...This salvage that we do, is it wasteful if it is part of the environment? I don't know that it's a waste. But, I like to see it get used and if it's used to put groceries on a family's table then, I think that's a good thing."
As Brent points out, although wood is technically a ‘renewable' resource, the types of trees he sources are limited and stewardship and care are required to assure their presence in the long run. One thing is for certain, once an ancient spruce is adopted by the Coles, very little is ‘wasted'. Every possible space on their property is cram packed with boards and the small offcuts are used to make deer calls or even jewelry. One tree in particular is being coveted by ASW and not a single inch of this wood will be unused. When excavating their property to build the new facility, Brent stumbled on an old spruce buried during a landslide, twenty feet under the earth.
"We thought this was waste wood at first. But once exposed to the air, the blonde wood began to change to a brilliant blue gray." Intrigued, they sent a sample off to be carbon dated. "It's 2800 years old, plus or minus thirty years" Annette proudly announced. This wood is being processed and soundboards are sold under the ‘Ancient Sitka Line'. The story of this wood reminds us just how astonishingly unique our natural resources are. The rarity, age and significance of our forests gives a story to our lumber that adds unparalleled value to wood products manufactured here in Alaska.
The Ancient Sitka Line of sound boards is crafted from a 2,800 year old Sitka Spruce that was uncovered during excavation on their property. Once unearthed and exposed to the air, the blonde wood turned a brilliant blue gray color with spectacular streaks. This tone wood is available for purchase on the ASW website.
"There's a lot of history recorded in these boards... every one of those growth lines is a year and we aren't going to use anything less than a 300 year old tree to get a sound board out of."
Protecting the longevity of the musicwood industry rests on the careful management of old-growth forests in Southeast Alaska. Part of a responsible management scheme will involve maximizing the best use and highest value for the raw material.
"I like to see the resource, the fiber, being used for its best purpose... I wouldn't take something that could be a sound board and turn it into a floor choice. Now you need good quality timber, but there's certain criteria that is specific for a soundboard and yea, it would make 2 x 2 for a wall but, it needs to be used for what it's best value is-where it will do its best for everybody."
Recognizing the most suitable and valuable use of a given tree or piece of lumber is a critical component to maximizing benefits from our invaluable old-growth forests. Understanding when we can and can not substitute second-growth, or younger timber for wood products is an important piece to a successful industry and a responsible timber program.Business is booming and Annette and Brent are moving their family business from their humble woodshed to a refurbished facility across the street. Like the lumber ASW utilizes, the original building frame was salvaged and transported from an unused facility on South Prince of Wales.
Brent and Annette were wonderful hosts who taught us a great deal about the careful use of our globally rare wood. We admired the beautiful Ancient Sitka Line a bit longer before Michael herded us back into the truck. We slid beside piles of boards and were careful not to be hooked by a saw.
We left Alaska Specialty Woods and headed for our next stop. There, in the company of an unconventional guide, we would witness raw musicwood being extracted from the rainforest floor. Check back tomorrow to meet Mr. Larry Trumble.
Investigating a Responsible Timber Industry on the Tongass: A Conservationist’s Perspective (1 of 6 part series)
The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) formed almost fifty years ago when citizens banded together to take grassroots action to protect the natural environment of Southeast Alaska. Massive clearcuts were threatening our quality of life and the ecological integrity of our forests. Startlingly, the majority of these huge stands of temperate rainforest spruce and hemlock was being pulverized into pulp- hardly the best use of our globally rare and awe-inspiring trees. The pulp days brought transient economic stimulation and left behind clearcuts, impaired forest systems and rural communities desperate for sustainable economic stimulation and a more responsible timber industry.
Compared to the pulp behemoths of yesterday, the current logging scene on the Tongass is almost unrecognizable. Because the most economical, highest quality, and easiest to access trees have been cut, today's timber industry is much smaller in size and scope. Tongass lumber is being used for products beyond pulp such as soundboards for guitars, dimensional lumber, shingles, and furniture.
The work of the Sitka Conservation Society is also changing. We work in a new atmosphere on the Tongass, where stakeholders prioritize the forging of collaborative partnerships to tackle regional challenges and capitalize on regional opportunity.
The need to promote a land management regime that represents sustainability, rather than the ‘boom-and-bust' mentality of the past, in recognized as critical to the long-term prosperity of communities in Southeast Alaska. The composition of our forest is also changing. Clearcut areas are becoming commercially viable young-growth stands while old-growth forests become increasingly rare in the region and across the globe. The Tongass announced its Transition Framework in 2011, with the intent of moving forest management from an unsustainable and myopic focus on old-growth harvest to young-growth management and a more holistic approach to governing the Tongass.
Andrew Thoms, executive director for SCS, has been named a member of the Tongass Federal Advisory Committee and SCS staff are busy meeting community members, recording interests, ground truthing timber harvests, and digging deeper and wider to understand timber on the Tongass. We intend to use these experiences, insight, values, and ideals to help inform the Tongass Advisory Committee process as it shapes future Tongass management. Our guiding question is simple:
How can we maximize local benefits to our communities here in the Southeast while minimizing negative impacts to the ecological integrity of the forest we depend on and love. How do we ensure long-term ecological integrity and renewable resource returns?
Easy enough, right? Wrong. Answering this question is no easy task. The stakeholders are many, the ways of achieving this are endless and the goal itself is a spectrum. As daunting a course this is, we are dedicated to the cause.
To ground our vision as conservationists, it is necessary to step beyond conventional norms and walk among the lumberjacks and millers for a while. How is old-growth lumber being used, processed and manufactured on the Tongass today? We grabbed our field notebooks, left our insulated and cozy home of Sitka, hopped on a Harris Airplane and flew to Prince of Wales Island (POW) where the action is.
Prince of Wales Island: Where the action is
Unlike Sitka and much of Southeast Alaska, POW is criss-crossed with roads, old logging roads to be specific. The network of asphalt connects the towns of POW as it winds through old-growth stands, clear cuts, over rivers, along estuaries, through valleys, and over mountain passes. Our travel guide was Michael Kampnich, the Field Representative for The Nature Conservancy on Prince of Wales. Kampnich arrived to Alaska in the 1980's to log. He found a home in the area and never left. Kampnich has built a relationship with a few of the mills here on POW. Michael has a high regard for the effort it takes to operate and maintain these mills. Owners aren't in an office directing others, they're running the sawmill or operating one of the many pieces of equipment necessary to produce a shingle, a board or a piece of trim. Most of them are acquainted with Michael, and for that reason they were willing to break away from their busy schedule to chat with Marjorie and I.
Tune in tomorrow to meet Brent and Annette Cole ofAlaska Specialty Woods. This family of musicwood producers has more than just a great story to share, check in to oogle at their gorgeous 2,800 year old 'Ancient Sitka Line' of soon-to-be guitars.
Sitka Kitch is the recent community food project that arose from the 2013 Sitka Health Summit. SCS is spearheading this effort along with a committee of dedicated volunteers. The overall goal of SitkaKitchis to improve health, provide a new community resource and promote community development; all through the lens of food security. SCS has a history of success when it comes to promoting local food and we hope that Sitka Kitch will be no different. There are numerous opportunities for Sitka Kitch to continue to foster programs like Fish 2 Schools, partner with local food organizations, all through a shared use community kitchen.
The SitkaKitchwill start with food based education and emergency preparedness at the household level. In fact we will be offering several classes in July on how to can and prepare food for your pantry. As it grows, theKitchseeks to provide career and technical training, and entrepreneurial development opportunities. This will be achieved through a shared use community kitchen. We have partnered with the First Presbyterian Church to provide space on a limited basis. SCS and the church collaborated in April to prepare an application to the "Northwest Coast Presbytery community blessings grant." The proposal outlined a budget to renovate their existing kitchen to meet the requirements of becoming a DEC certified Kitchen and thus meet the needs of potential SitkaKitchusers. The application was successful and we were awarded $13,000 for the project! The renovations will be underway this summer with a goal of offering commercial space to users in the late summer or early fall.
For more information on classes or being a new tenant contact Marjorie at SCS ([email protected]or 747-7509).
Scaling local projects to achieve regional impact!
The Sitka Conservation Society has entered a strategic partnership with the Tongass National Forest to engage local communities in the assessment of the habitat restoration projects on Twelvemile Creek, Prince of Wales Island.
In Sitka over the past several years, we have developed the capacity and partnerships to engage our community in pro-active natural resource stewardship. This has included developing a program to implement and study the effects of projects that restore fish and wildlife habitat damaged from past logging practices, developing K-12 and university curriculum materials for salmon habitat, and getting students and volunteers out in the field conducting ecological studies and collecting information that will be used by resource managers such as the US Forest Service.
Funding that has made this work possible include the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, the National Forest Foundation (NFF), and SCS members. Now we have the opportunity to work with the US Forest Service to bring these types of programs to communities on Prince of Wales Island. Funding will be provided by the National Forest Foundation. So by leveraging capacity and funding sources, we and our partners will have the opportunity tobolster and enhance watershed and fisheries programs across Southeast Alaska, and engage communities all along the way. Other partners and participants will include the Universities of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Southeast, Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, and schools on Prince of Wales Island.
SCS Executive Director Andrew Thoms: "This funding helps us take successful initiatives we have begun in Sitka to integrate stakeholders, community members, and students in Tongass Forest management to other communities and places on the Forest."
The program on Prince of Wales will use a "Triple-Bottom-Line" approach to help build socially, economically, and environmentally resilient communities.
Environment: Working with the Tongass National Forest, we will operate a seasonal non-lethal trap to count and assess salmon smolt that are migrating out of the Twelvemile Creek Watershed on Prince of Wales Island. Collecting this type of data is critical for evaluating the effectiveness of habitat restoration activities. The USFS Tongass National Forest, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the National Forest Foundation, conducted restoration work on this creek over the past few years to restore salmon spawning and rearing habitat impacted by past logging activities. This monitoring project will be an integral part of the Watershed Restoration Effectiveness Monitoring Program of the Tongass National Forest.
Economic: The Tongass National Forest produces an average of 28% of Alaska's annual commercial salmon harvest. Because salmon support 1 in 10 jobs in Southeast Alaska and create an economic impact of $1 billion dollars in the regional economy, projects that protect and restore salmon runs are of critical importance to Southeast Alaska communities.
Economic (part 2): In partnership with the UAS Fisheries Technology Program, local youth will also have vocational training opportunities as interns working at the fish trap, along with receiving career and educational counseling from fisheries professionals - possibly leading to careers as resource managers in the backyards where they grew up.
Social: Teachers and students from Prince of Wales communities will take part in classroom-based Salmon Curriculum and outdoor-based Steam Team activities. Stream Team is a statewide program where students collect field data to assess water quality and stream health.
In 2010 USFS announced the Tongass Transition Framework, a plan to move away from the large scale timber industry and enhance economic opportunities in Southeast Alaska through stewardship and sustainable young growth timber harvesting. In the spring of 2013 SCS was awarded a Community Capacity and Land Stewardship (CCLS) Grant from the National Forest Foundation. The CCLS grant focuses on the use of local, young growth wood and habitat restoration. SCS used this grant to build on its established young growth utilization program. Through this current grant, SCS continued to promote regional young growth markets, incentivize forest restoration and further the Transition Framework by creating a vocational opportunity for local craftsmen that focuses on young growth timber and exploring applications.
In the fall of 2013 the project was in full swing and focused on red alder. Red alder has been historically considered a ‘weed species', however due to its abundance and growth rates, it is quickly becoming valued for use in specialty wood products, cabinetry, furniture and architectural millwork such as wainscoting or molding. SCS and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp (SFAC) partnered along with a local miller and harvester Todd Miller and carpenters Pete Weiland and Sam Scotchmer. Miller harvested and processed red alder from False Island while Scotchmer, working as Weiland's apprentice, incorporated the final product into the Odess Theater renovation project at Sheldon Jackson Campus' Allen Hall. The result is an import substitution project featuring red alder that was locally harvested, locally dried and milled, and locally applied by skilled craftsmen.
You can find this red alder in the form of a beautiful wainscoting surrounding the entire of the Odess Theater. The wainscoting serves as a demonstration, highlighting the beauty and versatility of red alder. The red alder in the Odess joins other wood products that were locally harvested from Icy Strait or reclaimed from buildings on site. This project represents a piece of the larger community driven effort to restore and improve the community assets on the Sheldon Jackson Campus. Hundreds of volunteers have worked on this and other projects. For more information on red alder and this project, download our briefing sheet:
There are countless reasons to ‘buy local' ranging from defining and maintaining local character to strengthening the community to stimulating local entrepreneurship and keeping money in the community. In a community like Sitka that can, more often than not, present a suite of challenges, primarily, a limited capacity to produce certain goods and commodities that other communities have easy access to. Not only are we limited by capacity, we are physically isolated and rely heavily on a barge system to provide us with many of the building blocks of an autonomous economy.
The solution is simple, build a local economy around the materials you have, wood. As part of the transition framework, the USFS is diverting away from ‘big timber' and devoted to diversifying forest product economics. This includes a Land Management plan that moves towards small scale, sustainable timber harvesting within roaded, young growth areas. SCS has worked to highlight this transition through community projects that demonstrate young growth and local wood as viable building materials. This shift in Tongass management opens Sitka up to develop a local workforce centered on our assets and ensures that we will capture the economic value of our resources within the local economy. The harvesting, processing and installation of local materials leads to jobs throughout the SE. This type of economy results in not just more jobs, but enhanced social capital in our communities, healthier buildings and the beginning of a robust building supply chain. Local materials means less CO2 emissions tied up in transport and less money leaving our community.
Today, more and more architects and builders are choosing local, sustainably harvested, produced or recycled materials. Enter Jamal Floate, local entrepreneur, builder and owner of Renaissance Construction. Despite the many challenges faced here in Sitka, he is buying and building local. He constructs projects with energy efficiency in mind and uses local, sustainably harvested wood products. His current project is a private home here in Sitka. The external and support components consist of wood products sustainably harvested and milled in Wrangell. Floate hopes to use locally harvested and milled Sitka Red Alder from False Island for interior finish work. If he does, the alder can be kilned and processed right here in Sitka by Todd Miller.
Floate is equally committed to energy concerns, not only are the bulk of the construction materials locally and sustainably produced; the house will be highly energy efficient. That starts with the design and size, the building footprint is only 780 square feet, and the finished square footage will be around 1000 square feet. Despite the modest foot print, the house will include a great room with vaulted ceilings, a large loft bedroom and master bath, guest bedroom, second bathroom, kitchen, utility room and covered outdoor deck. This is due in part to the materials, as well as the building envelope, technology and design techniques. The design incorporates a radiant floor heating system that is more conductive than other types of radiant heat, and will run off of water from the home's water heater. The house will also have a zero clearance wood-burning stove, providing exceptional heating capacity and improving indoor air quality.
Floate maintains that this construction model can be replicated in Sitka, and the cost per square foot is no more expensive than traditionally produced homes made with imported building materials. The combination of design and materials will result in a healthier house and distinct character. It starts with a paradigm shift, that spaces can be smaller and with more thoughtful design and planning they can be unique and efficient. This model is linking local businesses and strengthening the community. The possibilities are endless and could result in other opportunities in the retrofitting and renovating sectors of construction as well.