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Atlantic White Cedar Products

Prized for its beauty, versatitlity and resliency, the wood of Atlantic white cedar (AWC) is highly sought after in the modern forest products landscape. Limited supply of the tree keeps availabilities and pricing at a premium. The current marketplace for wood products leans toward fast-growing and abundantly available southern pine and eastern hardwood species, including many from outside the United States. US landowners often feel pressure to participate in these generic products that are often seen on the racks of "big box" retail stores. AWC is not one of these generic products. The wood is light-weight, resistant to decay, straight-grained, Present day uses include flooring, siding, boat railing, telephone poles, piling, ties, and ice cream tubs (USDA Forest Service).

Detailed Utilization History

Prior to man-made wood preservatives, e.g., creosote and pentachlorophenol, people relied upon the natural decay resistance of certain tree species to provide building materials that could withstand biological agents that could quickly destroy ordinary wood.  In the eastern United States, the species of greatest importance were American chestnut (Castanea dentata), longleaf pine (Pinus palustris ), baldcypress (Taxodium distichum ), Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) .  American chestnut -- widely distributed throughout the Appalachian Mountains, and arguably the most important timber tree in the eastern United States at the time – was destroyed by the chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) between 1900 and 1950.  Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) covered about 92 million acres in the Southeast when the Europeans arrived (Early 2004); today, about 3 million acres still remain (Finch et al. 2012).  In 1901, there was an estimated 40 billion board feet of cypress in the Southeast, compared to about 6 billion board feet in 1956 (Krinbill 1956b).  The cypress volume in 2010, based on FIA data, was 7.7 billion cubic feet (Greis et al. 2012).

When European settlers arrived, Atlantic white cedar (AWC) occupied about 500,000 acres (Kuser and Zimmermann 1995), including 115,000 acres in New Jersey (New Jersey Forest Service 1997).  The exact composition of the total acreage was presumably stands dominated by AWC.  The largest concentration of AWC was in peat swamps of eastern NC and Virginia, particularly the Great Dismal Swamp.  Possibly half the AWC in eastern NC was cut between 1880 and 1900 (Frost 1987), mostly by John L. Roper Lumber Co. (Anonymous 1907) and Richmond Cedar Works.  In the 1890s, AWC occurred on about 200,000 acres in eastern NC (Pinchot and Ashe 1897); another 100,000 acres was in Virginia (Akerman 1923).

By the late 1980s, the acreage of AWC had decreased by at least 90% in the Carolina’s (Frost 1987).  In 1990, the combined volume of AWC sawtimber ( ³10 inches in diameter) in the northern and southern Coastal Plain of North Carolina was ~210 million board feet (Johnson 1990; Thompson 1990).   Davis et al. (1997) stated that less than 10,000 acres of AWC (= 5 inches in diameter) still remained in NC, with more than half in Dare Co.  Only 5700 acres had stands in which AWC comprised 50% or more of the basal area.  In 1999, AWC occupied an estimated 32,000 acres in New Jersey with a merchantable volume (trees = 5 inches dbh) of 120 million cubic feet (3.5 million cubic meters) (Widmann 2005).

Range-wide, AWC was present on about 530,000 acres in 1990, but it was dominant (=50% of the trees) only on 108,000 acres – about 20% of the total (Sheffield et al. 1998); stands where AWC composed 75% to 100% of the stems occupied only 50,000 acres. The range-wide estimate of merchantable volume was 850 million board feet (9.8 million cubic meters) (Sheffield et al. 1998).  Estimates of annual cut are variable, ranging from 10 to 19 million board feet per year in the 1990s (Sheffield et al. 1998; Ward 1989). Currently, the annual harvest of AWC is about 0.2 to 0.5 million board feet in NC.  Perhaps 0.2 million board feet of AWC have been cut annually in NJ during the last 20 years (Bob Williams, personal communication).  The resource, if properly managed, could easily sustain a greater cut each year, but public policy currently makes little provision for active management (personal communication: Bob Williams).

Across its range, AWC is not in danger of depletion, but that generalization might not apply in every locale (Sheffield et al. 1998).  Based on FIA plots, the region-wide merchantable volume of AWC increased a little in the 1990s (Sheffield et al. 1998).  However, the distribution of AWC has become so patchy that FIA plots probably do not have enough resolution to estimate the current acreage with reasonable accuracy.

Historically, AWC was prized for siding, shingles, shakes, decking, cooperage, decoys, buckets, tankage, fencing, shutters, posts, and poles.  Owing to its light weight, straight grain, ease of machining, ease of finishing and painting, low shrinkage, and extreme resistance to decay, it was also the wood of choice for small, shall-draft boats.  Howard Krinbill, a graduate of Biltmore School of Forestry, was hired by John L. Roper Lumber Company (Washington County, NC) in 1911 to cruise their forest holdings in eastern NC.  Late in his life, Mr. Krinbill reminisced that AWC was 2 to 5 times more valuable than other species, so loggers made a special effort to reach it wherever it could be found (Krinbill 1956a).

In addition to its high value as standing timber, logs from ancient AWC forests – embedded in the peat and muck of swamp soils -- were commercially important. Loggers often excavated buried logs (Defebaugh 1907), especially after severe fires which consumed the peat matrix, thus exposing the logs (Hall and Maxwell 1911; Ruffin 1861).  The acid, anaerobic peat combined with extreme decay resistance of AWC created conditions where logs were essentially pickled within the peat matrix. 

Optimum management practices can increase utilization and value.  Clear AWC lumber or lumber with tight knots commands high prices, whereas wood with loose knots has much less value.  When grown at moderate spacing, AWC retains dead branches for decades, resulting in wood with loose knots.  Natural stands with high stem density self-prune at an early age, yielding clear wood thereafter. Therefore, future regeneration and silvicultural practices must be tailored to produce wood that is clear or has tight knots if restoration of AWC is to be commercially feasible.

In recent years, AWC occurred on about 500,000 acres across its range, but, “as stands dominated by AWC have been cut, the resource tends to exist more and more in mixed stands, thus discouraging the utilization of the species for timber products (Sheffield  et al. 1998).”  Regeneration and silvicultural practices must be determined which yield pure stands or stands with a high AWC component.  Owing to their high value, such stands will be more attractive to loggers, which should increase utilization if suitable markets exist.

The mechanical and structural properties of AWC are similar to those of western redcedar (Thuja plicata ) (WRC).  Both are light weight (22 pounds per cubic foot at 12% moisture content) (Glass and Zelinka 2010) and similar in strength and hardness (Kretschmann 2010).  Shrinkage of WRC is equal to or slightly less than AWC (Glass and Zelinka 2010).  In other respects, however, the two species are strikingly different.  Old-growth WRC could live to extreme age, and sometimes reached truly herculean size.  Darius Kinsey documented logging in the Pacific Northwest between 1900 and 1945.  One of his pictures shows a monstrous WRC -- the biggest tree in the state of Washington -- that was 100 feet in circumference at the base (Bohn and Petschek 1978).

AWC is a pioneer species with typical longevity of 200 to 300 years (Ward and Clewell 1989), but ring counts from buried logs indicate a maximum potential age of 1000 years (Defebaugh 1907).  The longevity of AWC is limited by its susceptibility to windthrow, fire, and lightning.  Literature from the 19th century suggests a maximum size of 100 to 120 feet in height and 4 to 5 feet in diameter (Krinbill 1956; Korstian and Brush 1931), but older accounts document even larger trees.  In 1812, a huge cache of buried AWC logs was discovered in a swamp near Dennisville, NJ, with some logs up to 6 feet or more in diameter (Defebaugh 1907).  In 1792 (verify?), Johann Schoepf , a German naturalist) observed AWC iin eastern NC 12 to 15 feet in circumference at the base (Morrison 1911).  The North Carolina Forestry Historical Society (Durham, NC) has a picture of an AWC -- likely taken in the 1890s (See archived pictures) – that was close to 6 feet in diameter (at 1.3 m) (Baines 1989; North Carolina Forestry Historical Society). [Note: that same picture was incorrectly identified by Pinchot and Ashe(1897, page 121, plate XIII) as eastern redcedar].  Current logging operations in eastern North Carolina and New Jersey harvest AWC trees averaging 12 to 14 inches in diameter, with occasional trees of 20 to 24 inches (Brian Martin, personal communication).

The existing reserve of WRC dwarfs that of AWC.  In 2004, British Columbia had an estimated 750 million cubic meters of WRC (Gonzalez 2004).  By comparison, the estimated merchantable volume of AWC (trees = 5 inches) in 1998 was 9.8 million cubic meters (Sheffield et al. 1998) – less than 2% of WRC.  WRC is widely used for a variety of products, is recognized and accepted by consumers, is backed by two strong marketing organizations ( ; ) and is exported to numerous foreign countries.  Although AWC wood is suitable for the same products, comparing the commercial footprint of AWC to that of WRC is like comparing a Piper Cub to a B-52 bomber.
Increasing the acreage and utilization of AWC likely will require positive economic incentive(s) for landowners and other stakeholders.  The Longleaf Alliance ( has been successful, in part, because it provided “a reasonable economic argument to complement the strong ecological argument (Johnson 2012).”  The need to link a profit motive with conservation is clear in the following quote (Phillips et al. 1998):

“In 1989, Duke University and Weyerhaeuser Corporation conducted a diverse regional survey was conducted to determine attitudes and motives for those individuals and organizations participating in the comeback of AWC.  Included were federal agencies, universities, private consulting groups, state agencies, corporations, and a wildlife magazine editor.  The survey revealed diverse motives, but profit or economic benefit was the main reason for interest in white cedar recovery.  AWC plantations were seen as an opportunity to generate income in coastal NC counties unlikely to attract much commercial interest otherwise.  Based on this survey, conservation of the remnant stands of AWC appears to be strongly motivated by profit or the “value-added” opportunity.  Conservation could bring jobs and a stronger tax base into coastal areas with a preponderance of wetlands or marginal agricultural lands.  Indirectly, the profit motive could save an endangered species.”

Planting AWC simply with the objective of restoring it is a good rallying point, but it can only go so far when trying to persuade land owners to tie up their land for decades – sometimes beyond the life of the owner.  Unlike public agencies, landowners have to consider things like internal rate of return and return on investment.  Thus, a landowner is more likely to buy into the idea of growing AWC if there is some profit motive or economic benefit to him or his heirs.  Unless the economics of growing and harvesting AWC can be changed, the percentage of AWC on public lands likely will increase in the future (Ward 1989). 

It is reasonable to assume that if more AWC is planted or regenerated, the supply will increase, and utilization will increase.   However, increasing its utilization also will require more aggressive promotion and marketing.  It is not enough to be good biologists or good foresters, or to simply put more trees in the landscape; people working in the realm of AWC must become better salesmen, too.  Many products previously made from AWC have been replaced with man-made products – often cheaper and better -- so increasing the future use of AWC will require romanticizing the unique properties of AWC wood (Ward 1989).

Methods must be developed to ensure a more reliable annual stream of raw material to support manufacturers.  Better logging practices are needed to minimize site damage, facilitate regeneration, and reduce costs.  New products and uses must be identified.  If local markets for AWC can be developed close to home, there might be a competitive advantage resulting from lower shipping costs.  Utilization of AWC will increase only if AWC provides new and unique products, or has qualitative and/or economic advantage(s) over its primary competitor, WRC.

Natural disasters also affect the supply of AWC in the market.  In 2003, Hurricane Isabelle struck northeastern NC, and destroyed or severely damaged 85% of the mature AWC stands in the Great Dismal Swamp (Belcher and Poovey 2009).  Salvage operations in 2005 and 2006 yielded 3 million board feet of timber as well as 22 to 25 million pounds of fuel material consisting of splintered logs and logs with heart rot (Belcher and Poovey 2009).  More recently, Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey in October 2012, resulting in severe damage or destruction to hundreds of acres of AWC (Colimore 2013).  Very little is being done to salvage the downed timber, which not only represents a big economic loss, but also creates a tremendous fire hazard (Bob Williams, 2013, personal communication).  Clearly, fires and hurricanes in recent years have significantly impacted the acreage of pure AWC to the extent that the current acreage is unknown.

Although hurricanes regularly strike coastal ecosystems in the Southeast (Conner 1998), the impact of a single storm now can be far more significant that the total reserve of AWC is so low.   Similarly, a single devastating wildfire, can significantly impact the total acreage of AWC, as in The Great Dismal Swamp in 2008 (Lowie et al. 2009).  When these catastrophic events occur, contingency plans already need to be in place to expeditiously salvage the timber.  In addition, precautions must be taken by loggers and land managers to minimize the risk of fires, especially during hot weather.

Currently, there is not a reliable supply of AWC logs for mills – a situation somewhat akin to poor cash flow.  A more reliable supply likely would increase utilization of AWC.  About one-fourth of the AWC acreage is controlled by public agencies (Sheffield et al. 1998) where management objectives are more complex, management plans tend to be multiple-use, timber production might be of secondary importance, and the regulatory environment is more difficult, compared to the private sector.  In 1997, about 77% of the AWC stands in North Carolina were publicly owned (Davis et al.1997).  In some places, regulations are very restrictive towards active forest management, e.g., bedding, burning, herbicides; so any improvement likely would increase the availability and utilization of AWC, and improve the situation for forest management in general.   Sustaining the AWC resource and increasing its utilization will depend not only upon planting and regenerating more acreage, but also will require management models that effectively combine empirical wisdom and science with social/economic/political factors that operate in any particular location (Williams 2012).

Revised 21 May 2013
Eric Hinesley and Kelley McCarter


Atlantic White Cedar Initiative
Campus Box 8008, Raleigh, NC 27695-8008
919-515-9563, 919-515-7793

Last Update: September 14, 2013 8:35 PM