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New study finds opportunities for climate-smart forestry

Can rising demand for alternative wood products and mass timber construction stimulate better management of our forests, bolster jobs and economies in rural communities, and reduce the risk of wildfires? We think the answer is yes.

Local milling capacity in the dry forest region of eastern Oregon and Washington is lower than it has been at nearly any other time in the last century. When industrial timber harvest practices came under fire during the 1990s, mills once kept open by a steady supply of trees from federal forests saw steep declines in incoming raw material, resulting in the shuttering and consolidation of many facilities.

Now, however, the capacity for milling is back in demand. In dry and overly dense forests on the east side, thinning smaller trees to improve forest health is essential to reducing the increasing risk of wildfires. These restoration projects could create demand for mills to process those logs. But there are very few facilities left within an economic hauling distance from east-side forests, resulting in restoration projects that often struggle to pencil out.

Thinning pre-merchantable size trees in the dry and overly dense forests of eastern Oregon and Washington will help reduce the risk of stand-replacing wildfires. This map highlights areas with a large volume of these smaller diameter trees.

 

While milling infrastructure has been declining, new markets for alternative wood products and engineered wood building materials such as Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) have been on the rise. CLT is an engineered wood product constructed from alternating layers of kiln-dried lumber and structural adhesives.  Light but remarkably strong and easy to assemble, CLT is revolutionizing the building industry and spurring the growth of a new trend in tall wood buildings. And because CLT can be fabricated from small diameter logs and different species of wood, it’s a great fit for utilizing trees that are the byproducts of restoration work.

Could a growing market for CLT and other alternative wood products encourage better forests management and reduce the risk of wildfires, as well as rebuild milling capacity, create jobs, and spur economic development in rural communities across our region? Research from an ongoing Ecotrust study is helping to answer those questions.

This map of eastern Washington and Oregon shows high-risk fire areas in relation to existing processing facilities.

 

Using tree volumes in nearby forests, land use and zoning considerations, community demographics, and wildfire risk data, Ecotrust is working to identify potential sites for new milling infrastructure, opportunities to expand current milling infrastructure, and help rural communities generate additional revenue by processing non-traditional wood products. These infrastructure-poor areas that also have an urgent need to address fire risk and forest restoration may be a prime source for investing in new CLT mill capacity.

Our thesis is that as alternative milling infrastructure across our region increases and diversifies, so will the opportunity for economically feasible forest restoration. A mix of management approaches — such as targeted thinning, variable retention, and prescribed burning — would support forest health and watershed restoration goals, while reducing the occurrence of devastating fires.

Our study combines forest inventory data with a variety of economic and ecological criteria to identify accessible, non-protected forest sites with inherently high wildfire risk. Targeted management in these areas could:

  • reduce the likelihood of forest fires and insect and disease outbreaks;
  • supply enough timber to revitalize our current milling infrastructure and;
  • provide a base-line assessment for opportunities to invest in new alternative wood processing facilities, such as CLT mills.

The results of this study will help communities make decisions that impact the future of their forest and their economy and inform the identification of targeted restoration and economic development opportunities for Ecotrust and our community partners to pursue. Follow us on our social channels @ecotrust or sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on this work and where it goes from here.

Ecotrust’s GIS Director Jon Bonkoski contributed to this post.