MULLICA TOWNSHIP, N.J. — When Colin McLaughlin cut white cedar deep in New Jersey's Pine Barrens, he'd truck it down to a North Carolina sawmill, losing money every mile the timber rolled south.

So McLaughlin, 47, of Pittsgrove, Salem County, doubled-down on a career gamble he took 12 years ago. First, he left a lucrative job as a union ironworker, trading skyrises in Philadelphia and Manhattan for a life of cutting trees in swamps and bogs and shipping them off to buyers. Now, McLaughlin and his wife, Debbie, are opening a sawmill of their own in South Jersey. There are others in the state, but the McLaughlins' mill may be the first to open in perhaps 80 years.

"We've studied everything to make sure this is going to work," Colin McLaughlin said. "It's a chance, but I think it's definitely worth it."

The couple purchased the former Abbott Cedar Mill in Mullica Township, Atlantic County, just a few miles from the heart of the Pinelands.

Colin McLaughlin walks the grounds near where the new lumber mill will be, in Mullica Township.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Colin McLaughlin walks the grounds near where the new lumber mill will be, in Mullica Township.

Forests cover about 45 percent of New Jersey, the nation's most densely populated state, and the Pinelands make up 1.1 million acres. Although McLaughlin will also make pine and maple products, the Atlantic white cedar is New Jersey's most valuable tree, hailed for its resistance to both rot and insects. Many of the trees he harvests were felled by storms, and when the mill is operational next year, he plans to market cedar siding and decking, cooking planks, shingles, even large logs for duck decoys, all under the banner of McLaughlin's Forest Products. One of his largest clients is Williamsburg, Va., where cedar is used to repair the historic Colonial buildings.

New Jersey is not often thought of as a timber-producing state, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 88 percent of its forest is considered timberland. The Pinelands Protection Act of 1978 keeps  landowners from cutting cut down large swaths of forest, however, without seeking permission first, and it slowed business. The previous owners of McLaughlin's mill transitioned into vinyl fencing in recent years.

Bob Williams, a longtime, private forester in the Pinelands, is a believer in forest management, which calls for thinning out dense undergrowth and conducting controlled burns to ward off larger fires.  He believes a mill can encourage landowners to thin their forests by giving them a market. 

"You can't have stewardship without the economic aspect," Williams said at McLaughlin's mill recently.

Williams was quoted heavily in a 2016 Rolling Stone article titled "Will America's Worst Wildfire Disaster Happen in New Jersey?" That article said fires in the West "dominate the headlines," and that's true again now, as the Camp Fire in Northern California has become the state's deadliest. Williams said President Trump's tweet about "poor" forest management in California isn't wrong, but ignores other issues that made the state such a tinderbox in recent years, including climate change.

"Those lands are certainly drier and warmer, but nonetheless, we need better management," Williams said. "If we're solving the atmospheric carbon dioxide problem, we're talking about a very long-term solution. In the meantime, the fires are exacerbating the situation."

A 1963 fire in the Pine Barrens burned 190,000 acres and killed seven people. Today, the New Jersey Fire Service has a mitigation plan that includes controlled burns. An average of 1,500 fires burn in the state each year, most caused by humans, and the fire service would like to reduce that number to 1,400. The fire service is often seeking federal grants to help with thinning efforts.

A large ghost forest of dead Atlantic white cedar at Dennis Creek Wildlife Management Area in Cape May County, N.J.
Frank Kummer / Staff
A large ghost forest of dead Atlantic white cedar at Dennis Creek Wildlife Management Area in Cape May County, N.J.

The number of sawmills operating across the country is a "constantly moving target mainly because of log supply conditions and lumber market conditions," said Roy Anderson, a spokesman for Forest Products Planning & Consulting Services, an industry group in Oregon.

Charles D. Ray, a professor of wood and forest science at Penn State, said a Pennsylvania survey 15 years ago estimated that there were 1,000 sawmills in the state. "I would guess there are certainly fewer than 500, possibly fewer than 300," he said of the current number.

No figure was available in New Jersey, but Williams found maps at Princeton University from 1828 that show hundreds of them, many in the Pinelands. One of the oldest operating mills in the state belongs to Spike Wells, whose third-generation business in Shamong, Burlington County, sits beside a bar famous for buffalo wings.

Wells, 67, is a true "Piney" who works on his own time.

"I'm out in the middle of the woods right now tracking a deer," Wells said Tuesday afternoon. "Can I call you back?"

Later, after Wells found the deer, he talked about his grandfather making cedar crates and scoops for cranberries in the pines.

"We always done it," Wells said. "I got all 10 fingers. Figure I might go another 10 years. There's nothing like it. You don't hear nothing but the birds in the woods. It's peaceful."

Spike Wells in 1991.
Inquirer archives
Spike Wells in 1991.

The McLaughlins have spent plenty of time with Wells, but they've also traveled all over the country and Canada to study sawmills. On this November morning, they were heading up to Vermont to see another one.

They visited the Abbott Mill so many times before making the purchase in August that, they said, the former owner grew tired of seeing them.

"Nothing was given to us. We started this business ourselves, so we really wanted to do our homework," Debbie McLaughlin said. "Every time we worked it out, it fit."

The McLaughlins' mill, admittedly, looks a bit shabby at the moment, but they've been doing major overhauls, piling up old vinyl fencing and stacks of unused cedar. Some of the buildings have dents from trucks crashing into them; others contain machines that are likely antiques.

"We just got a big horizontal grinder, so even our waste wood won't be waste," Colin McLaughlin said.

Soon, he will be able to stop thinking about studying sawmills, and start thinking about wood, hoping he'll still have time to get out to the forest, among the picturesque and pole-straight cedars.

"To be out in a cedar swamp, there's nothing like it," he said.  "If you want to solve the world's problems, spend some time in a cedar swamp."

Debbie McLaughlin and forester Bob Williams at the new lumber mill, in Mullica Township.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer.
Debbie McLaughlin and forester Bob Williams at the new lumber mill, in Mullica Township.