Washington Forestland Needs Greater Mill Infrastructure, Says Wildfire Committee

Washington Forestland Needs Greater Mill Infrastructure, Says Wildfire Committee
In a May 24 letter, the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee highlighted the need for more lumber mills in the state to carry out forest health restoration projects. Although some are looking at increased demand for cross-laminated-timber (CLT) as a way to solve this, one official from the state Department of Natural Resources says the feds should ramp-up timber harvests on national forests, a practice which has steadily declined since the 1990s. Photo: TJ Martinell

Washington needs more lumber mills to restore millions of acres of forestland currently in poor health. It’s an argument made by conservationists and the logging industry, and now the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Committee (WFAC) is adding its voice to that group. The committee advises the commissioner of public lands on statewide wildland firefighting and fire matters, including possible funding requests from the state legislature. The 14-member group includes representatives from state and federal agencies, as well as the private sector, local fire districts and Indian tribes.

In a May 24 draft letter to National Association of State Forester’s Wildfire Deputy Supervisor Gerry Day, WFAC Chair Gary Berndt wrote that forest health continues to deteriorate, though new bills approved by the state legislature would have the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reverse that trend.

Although “the cause and effect between forest health and wildfires is not clearly understood,” Berndt wrote that “the loss of milling infrastructure has affected the ability of landowners to address the forest health issues that are a factor in increasing the size, intensity, and costs of wildfires.”

The additional mills may prove vital in reducing wildfire severity in the coming years, yet complications abound. The small-diameter trees contributing to the high forest density are primarily suitable only for low-value wood products incapable of providing sufficient profits to keep a mill in operation. As a result, their removal typically requires pre-commercial thinning projects funded through the state.

Some in the forest and timber industry, along with conservationists, believe increased use of cross-laminated-timber (CLT) can boost the value of these small-diameter trees enough to warrant commercial harvesting and thus the mill infrastructure. The state’s first CLT mill was recently opened by the Vaagen Brothers in Colville, though its distance from other parts of the state with poor forest health means higher transportation costs to ship those logs.

According to a 2016 report of the Washington Forest Protection Association, the outlook on CLT is improving, as “more tall wood buildings are being built around the world…”

Last year, the state legislature included $5.5 million in the capital budget for the construction of 10 school buildings using CLT, as well as a $50,00 grant to the state Department of Commerce to help prospective CLT manufacturers determine market demand.

Also included in that budget was a $75,000 grant to Washington State University to review the viability of CLT as a renewable construction resource material. Earlier in the legislative session, Washington State University Professor Dan Dolan presented the study’s findings to the House Capital Budget Committee. One of the recommendations he made was establishing for the construction industry a statewide design and building code for CLT structures.

Spearheading the push for CLT have been conservationists such as Forterra, arguing that increased logging activity in the state’s working forests could also address another issue many regions presently face: disproportionately high unemployment rates compared to the rest of the state.

A 2017 Forterra CLT booklet states: “If rural timber communities are to flourish in the future, they need opportunities to rebuild robust local economies resilient to shifting political and economic trends. Cross laminated timber buildings designed and built in our cities with products responsibly sourced and milled in our forest communities represents an opportunity to link the economic and environmental health of urban and rural communities to benefit both people and ecosystems in Washington.”

Nearly half of the 22.9 million acres of forestlands in Washington are classified as “working forests.” According to the Working Forests Action Network (WFAN), the timber industry supports nearly 106,000 workers and generates $5.2 billion in wages annually.

Despite Washington’s overall prosperity, a new report from WFAN shows that timber-reliant regions continue to suffer disproportionately high unemployment rates compared to the central Puget Sound region. While King County has a three percent unemployment rate, Grays Harbor’s is nearly seven percent. That county’s logging industry is also suffering. The amount of timber harvested in that county has dropped from nearly 600 million board feet in 1990 to 253 million in 2015.

“So, as Washington’s more populous cities boom, life is still noticeably rougher in more far-flung parts of our state where unemployment is significantly higher than places like high-tech metropolitan Seattle,” the report states. “And recent changes to state wage and employment laws are making it harder for these areas to catch up. Every little bit of genuine economic activity helps if we’re going to avoid more spending to offset a decades-long downturn.”

“There is an answer in our working forests,” the report states further. “Because Washington state’s forest practices are engineered for sustainability and environment benefit, even a nominal increase in activity on forested lands can create jobs in rural communities and put more foresters on the job tending to environmental concerns.”

The number of Washington mills has been on a steady decline since 1968, when there were 491. According to the latest report from DNR, there were only 97 mills remaining in 2014.

Contributing in part to the mill closure could be the remarkable drop in timber harvests in the last three decades. In 2015, DNR reported 2.8 billion board feet harvested on both private and public land, 400 million board feet less than 2014. In 1990, the total harvest was over twice that amount: 5.8 billion board feet.

More timbers sales in the right parts of the state could bring back the mills needed for restoration projects. That’s according to DNR’s Assistant Division Manager of Product Sales Tom Shay, who previously worked in the timber industry for 30 years.

He told Lens that “You have to have a constant supply of wood to run a mill. Shutdowns on a mill are a death sentence. They do everything to keep the machinery running.” If a mill temporarily closes, “you lose employees, you run into huge maintenance issues; machines run better when they run continuously,” he added.

Under the Good Neighbor Authority recently signed by Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz and U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Jim Peña, the two agencies collaborate on forest health restoration work on Washington’s national forest land.

One of the problems the feds face right now is they “just get so bogged down in litigation over trying to do anything correctly (with logging), it makes it very difficult,” Shay said. When there’s a constant supply of logs available in Central Washington, the mills will appear, he added.

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