We are all highly aware of the extreme polarization across all aspects of the political sphere in the United States, especially during this presidential election. Front and center in this tense landscape are issues surrounding the environment and the appropriate management of our public lands—with the recent Malheur occupation in Oregon reflecting some of this friction, and only amplifying the divide.
However, in this age of changing climate and declining forest health, I believe there’s an enormous opportunity to find common ground through sustainable forest management and mass timber products—specifically, through the emergence of cross-laminated timber (CLT).
Gifford Pinchot, the founding head of the U.S. Forest Service, envisioned foresters as conservationists and frontline stewards of the land. But from the 1950s to the 1980s, the practice of forestry on federal lands strayed from its conservation roots to an economically driven model of harvesting and replanting. The goal became maximum production rather than sustainable management, and the health of the federal forest system quickly declined.
As the impacts of these practices became clearer, the public began to equate forestry with extractive industries, such as mining and oil exploration. This shift in public perception fueled demand for greater conservation of public lands, and also helped drive major policy changes to federal forest management. The result was an abrupt reduction in forest harvest on federal lands from the mid-1990s to today (timber harvest on U.S. Forest Service land in Washington is now at 5 percent of what it had been in the ‘60s), leaving what were once heavily managed forests in a state of unmanaged regeneration. The impetus for these changes—preserving our forests—was noble and necessary. Yet wholly unmanaged regeneration, without the purifying and stochastic influences of fire or wind-throw, end up creating overstocked forest stands that are neither appropriate as wildlife habitat nor productive as forests.
So the question is, “How can forestry, something that was deeply embroiled in polarization in the Pacific Northwest, and an engineered wood product simultaneously help address ecological and social divides?”
In the last decade, we’ve observed a revolution in wood building products that began in Europe and eventually spread to Canada and Australia. That revolution is the generation of mass timber products—extremely strong panels and beams created from the glue lamination of smaller boards—that can be used as structural components in large buildings. These CLT panels can be up to 40 feet in length by 10 feet tall and eight inches wide, and they can be used partially in place of steel and concrete in the production of wood-based tall buildings—allowing wood construction 10 to 20 stories tall (and reducing the impact of steel and concrete as major sources of CO2 emissions in the region). They create buildings that are structurally sound and fire-resilient, and they use materials that are fully renewable and that can be produced sustainably.
Since CLT is built from smaller boards, as well, I believe it could increase the value of small-diameter trees taken via thinning and restoration harvests. Targeting those trees could help improve the health and resilience of previously overstocked stands, restore wildlife habitat and reduce fire severity, and facilitate carbon storage in preserved mature trees and in CLT panels. Finally, building tall with wood represents a smart approach to urban densification, reducing pressure on rural landscapes and changing the way our cities and towns grow in the next 50 years.
There’s still more to learn about CLT and how best to build an industry that upholds and respects the values of so many interests. But the potential is real, and clearly gaining momentum.
During the last year, along with a number of faculty and staff in SEFS, I have been working with a group of researchers, agency personnel, environmental organizations, architects and private industry who have come together to plot the future of CLT in the state of Washington—and to do it right on all fronts. We see CLT as a catalyst for change in the built environment that is holistically integrated with sustainable land management, and we have organized events and testified in senate and house hearings on the development of CLT. Coming up on April 21, a well, we—SEFS, Forterra, the Washington Department of Commerce, and the Washington Forest Protection Association—will host renowned architect Andrew Waugh for a guest lecture on green building with mass timber products in Europe (RSVP to join us at the talk!).
Long-term, I have great hope for CLT development in the state, in large part because of the diverse cross-section of stakeholders invested in its success. We represent what might be considered disparate interests, yet we share a strong desire for a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future. That’s a powerful roadmap for overcoming polarization and political gridlock, and I look forward to our role in advancing this movement.
Tom DeLuca School of Environmental and Forest Sciences