One way to improve the wildfire resiliency of public forestland managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and United States Forest Service (USFS) is to increase the long-term demand for timber in the state.
That’s a conclusion reached by forest ecologists, conservationists and timber industry members united behind efforts to restore millions of acres of forests that require active restoration. Greater demand could revitalize the state’s declining mill infrastructure and increase the commercial value of densely-grown, small diameter trees whose removal is vital for forest health.
The Promise of Cross Laminated Timber
While President Donald Trump’s recent plans to impose a tariff on Canadian timber may help, experts are looking at cross laminated timber (CLT) to give the industry the necessary boost. However, for that to happen, the concept will have to catch on with the market at large. Members of the state’s eight forest collaboratives are trying to make that happen through a combination of demonstration projects and new CLT facilities. Both the state House and Senate proposed capital budgets allocate $2.5 million toward these collaboratives.
One group heavily involved in the CLT discussion is Forterra, the state’s largest land conservation, stewardship and community building organization. A 2016 study by Forterra concluded that despite its current limited use, “growing interest in CLT and anticipated, expanded allowances for CLT-based construction … suggest a market will emerge.”
Exposing Industry Members To CLT
Fortera Government Affairs Director Leda Chahim told Lens that CLT pilot projects are critical to showcasing its potential and acclimating both construction companies and building code officials to the material. One such project is currently underway with the construction of four modular classroom buildings for Greywolf Elementary School in the Sequim School District using timber sourced from the Olympia Peninsula; the design-build team is headed by Mahlum Architects and Walsh Construction Co.
“What they (pilot projects) do allow is for people to test it out. It’s a huge challenge if your contractor hasn’t used it before,” Chahim said.
She added that “The other piece of this is…the permit and the regulatory process,” because it’s a problem “if building officials don’t have experience with the product, either.”
Another critical step is the development of CLT production facilities in the state. The nearest CLT mills to Washington are in Oregon and British Columbia, but Colville-based lumber company Vaagens Brothers has announced plans to open their own facility next year. The family-owned company is part of the Northwest Forest Collaborative, whose members include the Nature Conservancy.
CLT’s potential economic benefits have also caught the interest of state officials. In a proposed strategic plan for the forest sector, Brian Hatfield, Governor Jay Inslee’s timber products advisor, calls for the promotion and manufacturing of CLT in the state..
“Imagine if we were able to link the growth in our urban areas…with our rural areas through initiatives as simple as promoting the use of products milled in our forest communities like cross laminated timber products. We will ensure the longevity of one of Washington’s original industries and protect our quality of life because milled building materials produce a smaller carbon footprint and add to our economic vitality.”
Next Step: CLT In Western Washington
Events such as the Mass Timber Conference held in March at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland have also helped generate interest in CLT among industry members. It’s something Bernard Bormann hopes will eventually lead to a CLT facility and mill in Western Washington. He is the director of the Forks-based Olympic Natural Resources Center (ONRC), which is looking at ways to restore forestland on the Olympic Peninsula by using small-diameter Hemlock trees for CLT.
Bormann told Lens that the small diameter Hemlocks would be ideal for CLT due to their limited usefulness elsewhere. However, without the demand for CLT, the cost of commercial thinning and transporting those trees to the mill are often “close to the value of the wood, or more than the value of the board,” said Bormann. “And when that happens, they don’t do it because they lose money. But, if the price of two-by-fours bumps up a little bit, given a higher demand and clear use for these hemlock, then it changes the whole equation, and all of a sudden, the DNR and the Forest Service and even private sector folk (could) make money by doing these thinnings, and it would help tremendously just on an ecological front alone.”
Greater timber demand – and with it CLT facilities – could also incentivize new lumber mills to open in areas such as Central Washington. The number of mills in the state has steadily declined from 493 in 1968, to just 97 in 2014.
More mills would mean reduced costs for both government agencies engaging in commercial thinnings as well as private organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, which uses timber harvesting as part of their forest management strategies.
Government Relations Manager Tom Bugert told Lens that although “thinning and mills on their own won’t restore them (forests) back to health…mill infrastructure is one such tool in the tool box that we need to bring to bear.”
Improving public forest health and consequently reducing wildfire suppression costs could have a multiplier effect for both the industry and forest health. Current DNR and USFS timber harvests from the state’s 10.2 million acres of working forests aren’t sufficient to fully maximize use of the state’s existing lumber mills. However, part of this is due to wildfire fighting costs imposed on USFS’s budget and hampers their ability to auction off timber harvests. Removing small diameter trees for CLT could not only reduce wildfire severity through forest restoration, but it could also leave more trees available to harvest, allowing the USFS to auction off more timber needed to justify opening new mills.
While more demand is needed, the supply for CLT is already there in the form of small Hemlock tree plantations originally intended for active management but left neglected, said Bormann. However, he cautioned that once harvesting begins in earnest, long-term sustainability will be crucial.
“We really ought to know that beforehand,” he said.