Taking Kindling From the Forests to the Classroom for Forest Health

New Building Materials

This video is remarkable. First of all the speed with which they’re building this elementary school classroom is incredible. In one day, they have most of the structure in place. Second, they’re helping to prevent catastrophic northwest wildfires while they do it.

The secret is in the pre-assembled panels they’re using. Local cross-laminated timber technology is one of many new possibilities outlined in Washington’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan. Yet, what does building gorgeous new classrooms for kids have to do with wildfires?

The Problem

If you’ve been following the news, you may have noticed the increasing severity of the wildfires around our state. In 2014 and 2015 we had two consecutive years of record-breaking wildfires.

dense

Why are the fires getting worse? Part of the problem is densely wooded land. Fire is a natural, important part of the ecosystem in many of our eastern forests. However, past forest and wildfire management practices have resulted in uncharacteristically overstocked and crowded forests. Too much vulnerable underbrush. Too many skinny, small-diameter trees competing for water, nutrients and sunlight. Fires in these densely packed forests often burn with uncharacteristic severity and duration.

Think of it, if you will, as removing kindling from a fire.

When you’re building a fire, you can’t get it burning if you start with the big logs. You need to surround those logs with smaller branches before it really gets going. Wildfires in the forest work in much the same way. If there are enough branches and vegetation to act as kindling, a fire can quickly ignite the big trees and grow out of control. Take away the smaller-sized and dense vegetation, though, and the fire stays along the ground and leaves most of the big trees unscathed – maybe even improved. This is why the new forest health strategic plan for eastern Washington calls for increased amounts of mechanical thinning – so when wildfires begin, they will be more manageable, less severe, and cause little damage to larger, older trees.

Picture of man with a chainsaw
See how The Nature Conservancy is using mechanical thinning treatments to reduce fuel in the Cascades.

One of the obstacles to removing small-diameter wood and brush has been that it may not pay for itself in the way that traditional logging does. Up until recently, mills haven’t had the technology to produce useful products from an excess of smaller wood.

As part of its project to build the classrooms seen above, the state had to use Oregon-manufactured cross-laminated timber. But imagine the impact of being able to produce our own cross-laminated timber here in Washington. Imagine the boost to our rural economies. Imagine urban construction sustainability benefits. Your imaginings may become reality. Two cross-laminated timber manufactuers are slated to open in eastern Washington in 2018.

It’s the promise of solutions like this that drives one of the key goals in the new 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan: Eastern Washington:

enhance

The plan, just released by Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources that she leads, points to how forest health, wildfire risk, and rural economic development are inextricably linked in eastern Washington. Oregon produced a cost-benefit study in 2012 indicating that for every $1 million spent on forest restoration, there is approximately $5.7 million in economic benefit and return.

Well-managed, resilient forest ecosystems can provide natural resource jobs, recreation jobs, and timber products. The 33 agencies and organizations that collaborated with the Department to create the plan emphasized that cross-laminated timber and other emerging technologies can help build Washington’s economy.

jobsThe Solutions

Using locally-sourced, renewable materials would mean that our buildings are made sustainably, and responsibly. And of course, not importing our wood from far away states, (or Canada) means that we’re cutting down on harmful emissions. To that end, the organizations who collaborated on the forest health plan proposed a “local wood” marketing campaign, to emphasize the importance of buying locally.  Often, when we hear someone telling us to buy local, it’s in the context of food. But it is equally important to keep our timber supply close to home.

Part of the plan to support local economies, is to increase the amount of timber that’s selectively harvested from overstocked forests. Not only does this help the health of our forests, (removing competition so trees can grow large and resilient) but the generated revenue can help cover the cost of some of our other long-term treatment options. Logging and forest products infrastructure are needed to support many of the treatment plans, which can help keep local mills in business too.

We can also help realize this goal by supporting wood energy systems at appropriate and meaningful scales, such as support for the Washington Department of Ecology’s Wood Stove Change-Out Program to get outdated stoves replaced with clean-burning wood and pellet stoves. Pellet stoves burn compressed wood to create source heat for residential and sometimes industrial spaces. Today’s systems, fueled with renewable wood pellets, can reach an efficiency factor of more than 90 percent. Expanded use of such technologies can improve air quality, provide another market for forest restoration by-products and stimulate local economic development.

CLT Classroom
DNR Commissioner Hilary Franz attending the opening of a CLT-constructed school building in Seattle

As the Department, Commissioner Franz, her Forest Health Advisory Committee, and others from across the state work to implement the plan, watch for ways you can participate and support our state’s emerging economic opportunities too.

For the full text of the Forest Health Strategic Plan: Eastern Washington, click here.