In February a trade association representing general contractors urged President Joe Biden to provide relief from record lumber prices. Among their requests is to import more wood products from other countries.
However, a much better solution is available.
Contractors, consumers and the American public would be better served if the federal government increased timber supplies from the forest lands it manages. Doing so would not only support our homegrown lumber producers, it will also help meet heavy demand, support American jobs and boost rural economies.
Much has been written about soaring lumber prices that have been driven in part by pandemic-era “do-it-yourself” projects, as well as by a resilient housing market supported by low mortgage interest rates.
In the Pacific Northwest, our domestic lumber producers are doing everything possible to meet this demand but are hamstrung by workforce constraints and, especially, an unpredictable and unreliable supply of raw material. The common thread for producers is they are surrounded by millions of acres of federal forests that are not being managed for timber, forest health or wildfire mitigation.
The United States was once capable of meeting its own demand for wood products. For much of the 20th century, federal forests helped power the nation’s post-war economy. National Forests in particular provided affordable lumber to meet domestic housing needs. They also provided a robust network of forest roads for logging, firefighting and later outdoors recreation. And they provided a source of good-paying jobs and economic opportunities for many of our rural, forested communities.
But the dramatic decline in federal timber harvests starting in the early 1990s severely reduced our domestic logging and milling capacity across the west. Today the country is a net importer of wood despite our advantages in forested acres, modern milling technology and sustainable forest practices. Instead, we are outsourcing jobs and supplies to other countries, some of which do not share our environmental values and standards.
At the same time, much of our federally owned forests are unnaturally dense and overgrown. Millions of acres of these lands need active management to reduce the risks of wildfire, insects and disease. The opportunity exists for the federal government to expand its traditional partnership with the private sector to mitigate these risks while providing a supply of timber that meets the public’s need for wood products and affordable housing.
Through proactive, science-based forest management, we can reduce the intensity of today’s mega-fires, protect communities and save millions of taxpayer dollars in wildfire suppression costs. A reliable and sustainable supply of federal timber would also encourage domestic lumber producers to increase investments in their manufacturing facilities and workforce, thus increasing supply.
In addition, increasing domestic wood production can align with the Biden administration’s climate agenda. Forest management reduces fuels and helps reduce the risks of severe wildfires that can emit carbon long after a fire is out. In addition to providing sustainable timber, forest management can also boost the resiliency of forests to climate change impacts, and thus maximize the ability of these forests to sequester and store carbon.
Further, wood products lock up carbon for life, and provide a natural, renewable and less energy-intensive alternative to other building materials. Through the development of advanced wood products such as Cross Laminated Timber, architects and builders are increasingly turning to wood to help meet sustainability goals.
When it comes to increasing lumber supplies, the solution can be found in our own backyard. By improving management of federal forests, we can improve the health and resiliency of these lands, reduce wildfire risks while supporting affordable housing through American-made and climate-friendly wood products.