Could a revival of Oregon’s timber industry reduce the fuel load in public forests and ease the blistering wildfires that choked much of the state in smoke the past few weeks?
At this point it’s an intriguing question without a simple answer. But it arises as university researchers and industry officials explore advanced wood products such as cross-laminated timbers — called CLT — and mass plywood panels, which can support multi-story wooden buildings, even modest high-rises. Only two Western Oregon mills and a handful of others nationally make the products, but they appear to hold promise.
For one thing, the massive beams and panels can be made with small-diameter logs, the very type crowding forests and contributing to the explosive growth of the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and the much larger Chetco Bar Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the southwest corner of the state.
A recent report by Oregon BEST, a quasi-public entity that funds clean technology startups and links entrepreneurs to university researchers, said CLT and related mass timber manufacturing could create 2,000 to 6,100 direct jobs in Oregon. Income generated from those jobs would range from $124 million to $371 million a year, according to the report. The estimate came from an analysis by Business Oregon, the state department.
Oregon BEST said Oregon and Southwest Washington are “poised as a manufacturing hub for the emerging Cross Laminated Timber market in the United States.” Pacific Northwest forests could easily and sustainably supply the wood needed for production, the report said.
People working in the field issue a cautionary, “Yes, but.…”
“In theory, it makes a lot of sense, but it requires for the forests to be actively managed in that way, and an outlet for that wood to be taken up,” said Timm Locke, director of forest products for the Oregon Forest Research Institute, an organization founded by the Oregon Legislature to enhance collaboration and inform the public about responsible forest management.
Locke said the public forests most in need of restoration and thinning work are east of the Cascades, where much of the milling infrastructure has “disappeared.” It doesn’t make economic sense to move poor quality trees from Eastern Oregon to mills in Western Oregon, he said.
“We need to be thinking about what’s stopping us at this stage,” Locke said. “What are the issues there?”
One of them, he said, is a lack of trust between industry and the public land agencies — principally the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Mills that once depended on logs from public forests were “burned” when the timber harvest was drastically reduced due to lawsuits and policy and regulatory changes over threatened species, wildlife habitat and watersheds. An often-cited statistic shows the Forest Service manages 60 percent of the timberland in Oregon but that land produces only 15 percent of the annual harvest.
“It’s difficult for government agencies to make significant changes quickly,” Locke said. “There’s a lot of process that has to happen.”
Locke believes the Forest Service is on the right track, but noted that conservation groups often oppose increased logging on public land.
“It’s a tricky subject, no question about it,” he said. “Public discussion about public land management — I think we’re ripe for that conversation.”
A Forest Service official said the agency makes 600 million board-feet of timber available for sale annually in Oregon and Washington, and the perspective that it is holding up an industry revival is “dated.”
Debbie Hollen, director of state and private forestry for the Forest Service in Portland, said the agency hopes tall wood buildings provide the market for restoration logging and thinning.
The agency’s Wood Innovation Grant Program provides funding to help create a market for fuel that needs to be removed from the forests.
“Our hope is that it will be the value-add that makes it worthwhile,” Hollen said. “Industry is not there yet.”
The research infrastructure is swinging into place. Oregon State University’s colleges of forestry and engineering have teamed with the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture to form the TallWood Design Institute at OSU. It is the nation’s first research center to focus exclusively on advanced structural wood products.
At this point, the one constant is fire.
John Bailey, a professor of silviculture and fire management at OSU, said the amount of biomass accumulated on forested hillsides is greater than ever before. Whether people see the biomass as scenery, recreation site, wildlife habitat or timber, it’s going to “exit the system” one way or the other, he said.
Humans remove less of the biomass through logging and thinning than in the past, which contributes to the fierce, explosive, “climate driven fire” that has gotten our attention. With more forested acreage closely connected, and with hot, dry, windy conditions prevailing, fires quickly grow large, he said.
Bailey said the Forest Service is doing all the management that society allows it to do, and it’s time to “rethink what we do with the hillsides in light of fuel accumulation” and climate conditions.
“They are going to burn,” he said.
Oregon BEST CLT report: http://bit.ly/2fhpFTd