Increased timber harvesting is one way the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and United States Forest Service might improve forest health after two years of record-breaking wildfire seasons. On the Olympic Peninsula, several state agencies and conservationists are looking at ways to encourage commercial use of trees collected during thinning projects. Some environmental experts say it could also revitalize the state’s mill and timber industry.
Forest Overgrowth And The Spotted Owl
One of the challenges facing both the state and the Forest Service in trying to make their land more fire resilient is forest overgrowth, after much of the logging in the state ceased during the early 1990s. That was when the federal government placed the spotted owl under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
A 2014 analysis by the Nature Conservancy and Forest Service found nearly 2.7 million acres of eastern Washington forestland required some sort of active management due to poor health. Half a million acres of Forest Service land were in need of thinning and prescribed burns.
Private landowners are also hoping the Forest Service will take a more vigorous role in managing its forests so they have a “healthy neighbor,” said Cindy Mitchell. Mitchell is the senior director of public affairs for the Washington Forest Protection Association.
Absent a more active role, the Forest Service will be “creating a condition that results in a McMurray,” she said in reference to the ongoing Fort McMurray fire in Canada. The wildfire has burned 1,457,910 acres so far.
A Market For Mechanically-Thinned Timber?
One idea under consideration by the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Committee for improving forest health is to come up with commercial uses for the material gathered from mechanical thinning projects.
University of Washington Professor Dr. Thomas Deluca believes cross-laminated timber (CLT) could service that need. Deluca is the director of UW’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.
CLT combines several pieces of wood into a single board. Due to their smaller diameter, narrow trees collected during forest-thinning projects are not suitable for CLT use, because they are just too narrow; most component boards for CLT demand a greater width.
Removing Fire Fuel, Making Money
However, Deluca says advances in CLT production could expand the uses of narrow trees culled for forest health, and create market demand. This would give the Forest Service a financial incentive to remove relatively young tree stands in national forests where logging abruptly ceased decades ago.
“It sounds like a pipe dream but I think it’s absolutely possible,” Deluca said at a January 28 meeting of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Like DNR, the Forest Service uses mechanical thinning as part of their wildfire prevention efforts, but the projects are costly because the refuse has no commercial use beyond pulp. It’s also had financial constraints. Wildfire fighting consumed over half the agency’s budget. As a result, they engaged in “fire borrowing,” taking funds from other parts of their budget to cover the costs.
The Forks-based Olympic Natural Resources Center (ONRC) is exploring possible ways to use small hemlock trees from DNR-land for CLT. Also involved in the discussion is Forterra, the state’s largest land conservation, stewardship and community building organization.
Specialty Timber Mills Needed
If they manage to find a way to expand the use of thinner trees for CLT, the next step would be to create financial incentives for private CLT mills to open up in the state, said ONRC Director Bernard Bormann.
The nearest CLT mills to Washington are in Oregon and British Columbia.
A lack of nearby mills is one of the Nature Conservancy’s biggest obstacles for timber harvesting, according to Government Relations Manager Tom Bugert.
Private organizations like the Nature Conservancy use timber harvesting as part of their active management strategy. The conservation organization owns more than 100,000 acres in the state.
Bugert told Lens that while they try to generate revenue from the harvests, the projects are carried out with “conservation and restoration outcomes in mind.”
Benefits Seen For Owl Habitats
Logging thin trees in federal forests would address environmental concerns by opening up the land for owl habitats, said Bormann.
Logging might play a role in the discrepancies between federal and state forests’ health. While half a million acres of Forest Service land require thinning and prescribed burns, just 96,280 acres of DNR-managed land need the same treatment. The state conducts 30 times more logging than the Forest Service when comparing volume of timber per acre harvested, according to a 2015 report by State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13).
This wasn’t always the case. In 1986, the Forest Service harvested 1.4 billion board feet of timber on its forest lands in Washington compared to just under 1 billion board feet harvested on state land. By 2011, the volumes had dropped sharply and the roles had reversed. The state’s harvest was just over 400 million board feet of timber, while feds logged less than 100 million. A board foot is a common measure referring to the volume of a one-foot length of board, that is one foot wide and one inch thick.
‘A Lot More Litigation These Days’
Forest Service Media Relations Specialist Stephen Baker says that since changes to the ESA in the 1990s “there’s a lot more litigation these days” by environmental groups targeting logging projects. A Forest Service timber project has to go through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. If a project is approved, the agency then puts out a competitive bid for a private logging company to conduct the harvest.
During the NEPA process, many logging projects are blocked that in the past would have gone through, said Baker.
Environmental groups have also successfully restricted logging activity on state and private forest lands. In 2007, a federal judge prevented Weyerhaeuser from logging on its own property in Southwestern Washington. Two years prior, a King County Superior Court ruling put a stop to DNR’s 10-year plan to increase the amount of timber cut in Western Washington.
A Way Around ‘The Old Timber Wars’
However, Bormann believes logging thinner trees for CLT could be one way around the “old timber wars,” because it only involves logging newer trees that would be removed anyway as part of mechanical thinning projects.
Along with new job creation, another potential benefit from CLT-based logging is additional funding for local schools and roads in the counties where the trees are located. Proceeds from both federal and state timber sales go to public schools and roads. However, only state forests are required to generate profit from logging.
Last year, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers introduced the FORESTS Act of 2015. The bill would have set up Forest Active Management Areas in the national forests, where timber harvesting would create a “dependable source” of revenue. A fourth of the revenue would go to public schools and public roads in the state where the logging took place. The bill was eventually referred to the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry but did not get a vote.