Keep up with essential planning news and commentary, delivered to your inbox every Monday and Thursday.
A Bipartisan Case for Mass Timber—Combating Wildfires and Developing Local Economies
The West Coast is on fire, with blazes burning uncontained across multiple states. The thick haze of smoke brought dark days and plunging air quality that left three major west coast cities—Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco—with the worst air quality in the world. Temperatures are rising, and increasingly severe natural disasters are the new norm across our country.
We need to start taking the necessary steps to drastically reduce our impact on the environment. We need to reimagine how our economy works, a sustainable economy designed around our future that doesn’t degrade our beautiful natural resources, or leave communities bereft of economic opportunity. Mass timber can help.
Mass timber construction, which encompasses several types of innovative prefabricated building materials made out of timber pieces often laminated together, is a 21st-century update to an age-old industry. Mass timber addresses multiple problems: buildings can be constructed from previously unusable wood, creating an economic incentive to thin wildfire-prone forests of combustible material; economic revitalization of rural America by returning long-lost timber jobs to small towns; and the opportunity to significantly reduce construction climate emissions while sequestering carbon in buildings.
What’s good for our forests and planet can also be good for our jobs, communities, and the economy. That’s why we’re writing this together—an ex-Democratic political operative and an ex-Republican staff member who want to see mass timber flourish in America.
Preventing Wildfires with Sustainable Working Forests
Natural disasters and the weather phenomenon behind them are increasing in regularity and intensity, costing the United States approximately $45 billion in 2019. The sad truth is that science has determined a combination of factors are conspiring against us. Due to human activity, forest management practices, and climate change, the number of massive wildfires doubled between 1984 and 2015 in the western United States.
Wildfires are devastating—with significant risks to life, property, and public health. Smoke drastically reduces air quality and can cause or enhance respiratory and eye illnesses, especially among vulnerable populations. The severely hazardous air quality up and down the West Coast of the United States from 2020’s wildfires is also likely to make the COVID-19 pandemic more deadly and dangerous.
People are losing their homes, and in hard-hit Oregon, more than 500,000 people—over 10% of the state’s population—were under evacuation protocols as more than 100 wildfires burned across the West Coast. Billions of dollars of property damage have occurred, with many families likely to never financially recover, and more than 30 people have died.
Not only local communities are suffering—federal and state budgets are too, with the U.S. Forest Service fire suppression expenditures ballooning from 16% of their budget in 1995 to more than 50% by 2017. The US Department of Agriculture warns that these costs will only continue to increase with fire seasons growing longer and more devastating, resulting in fewer funds for forest management—crucial to avoiding destructive wildfires in the first place.
Mass timber can help fill the gap; unlike traditional wood construction, which uses the healthiest of trees, mass timber pieces can be made out of younger and diseased trees. This means we can construct new buildings by thinning forests to prevent wildfires. In Washington State alone, mass timber developed from sick or damaged wood could allow salvage logging of more than 2.7 million acres of dead and dying timber. Washington State’s Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, has already begun pursuing this strategy.
Mitigating wildfire damage while providing a steady supply of mass timber products, bringing jobs back to lumber mills, and revitalizing rural economies, is an economic win-win for rural and urban areas. With mass timber products such as cross-laminated timber panels actually outperforming steel in fire tests, creating sustainable buildings that sequester carbon from the atmosphere and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than other building materials is a safe, logical step forward.
The Economic Case for Mass Timber
With mass timber able to be made locally in rural communities and used for needed housing construction in urban communities, mass timber is a significant opportunity to bridge the rural-urban divide that has widened in America. Nationwide, many rural communities have been left behind in recent years due to the effects of digital transformation and automation. Mass timber can revitalize stagnant economies in logging communities and develop jobs for the long term.
Suppose we embrace the idea of a Green New Deal-type jobs and construction program—that we need to wean the country off of fossil fuels and move to sustainable industries with high-paying jobs—then mass timber can reach far beyond the logging communities of the Pacific Northwest. We need new energy-efficient buildings and more housing across our country, and the Southeast is home to softwood forests (mainly pine, spruce, or fir) that are perfectly adaptable for mass timber. Many of these communities have been struggling since the 2008 housing crash, and the COVID-19 pandemic certainly hasn’t helped; mass timber can reopen closed mills and revive stagnant economies.
With some imagination, the impact of mass timber could be even farther reaching. A 2019 study in Nature Ecology and Evolution found that the amount of land being abandoned from agriculture is now outstripping the amount being converted to it, particularly in Western Europe and North America. By foresting select abandoned farmland, we can grow sustainable working forests and extend the economic benefits of mass timber to rural communities across the country.
Combating Climate Change
Mass timber is a unique opportunity to reimagine the construction industry in a sustainable manner. Construction alone accounts for an estimated 23 percent of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions. This is driven by concrete and steel, which account for 14% of global emissions.
We aren’t going to stop building; the United Nations predicts that over the next 40 years, humans will build a new Paris every week, and in the United States, more than 1.9 billion square feet of new structures will be built. If mass timber were substituted for steel in new construction, we could reduce carbon emissions by between 15% and 20%. Compared to concrete, mass timber buildings are also roughly 25% faster to construct and require 90% less construction traffic.
All told, mass timber should be a bipartisan no-brainer. Revamping an old industry to meet today’s demands has the potential to not only pay for itself in economic gains and defrayed disaster costs, but to bring thousands of American jobs and millions of dollars to our local communities while reducing carbon emissions. As one of the few issues that can comfortably straddle the urban-rural divide, mass timber should be a cornerstone of America’s new green economy.
Co-authored by Conor Bronsdon, mass timber policy writer and former Democratic political consultant, and Adam Noble, former forestry professional and staff member for Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R).