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Lack of federal timber payments felt across Washington

2015-01-30 Ashley Bach

Congress didn't get much done in the waning days of its session last year, especially on timber issues, and nothing was felt more strongly than the lack of action taken on the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program. For the last 15 years, the program has sent federal subsidies to timber counties hurt by the decline in the federal timber harvest, which was in turn caused by the listing of the spotted owl and other factors.

The SRS program is a critical lifeline for rural counties across the country, but especially in timber states. Congress declined to extend the payments for 2015. There are multiple explanations for this, including that some lawmakers held out because they wanted timber reform measures that would actually increase the federal harvest as opposed to just extending the payments. Laudable as this goal may be, the counties have yet to receive any SRS money for this year and it's having a huge impact on their budgets. 

Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service announced that without SRS, the timber counties will receive money under a 1908 law that gives money to timber counties but until recently had been superceded by SRS. Problem is, the money paid under the 1908 law is much, much lower than what the counties would have received under Secure Rural Schools. 

Here's how the Associated Press described the drop in key Western states:

Forest Service payments to Oregon counties drop from $67.9 million to $5.9 million; California, from $35.6 million to $8.7 million; Idaho, from $28.3 million to $2 million; Washington, from $21.5 million to $2.1 million; and Montana, from $21.3 million to $2 million.

Higher education is perched among the trees

2015-01-23 Ashley Bach

The future of the forestry industry depends on cultivating the next generation of foresters, and on that note, we have some positive developments in the Northwest this month. 

The good news rolled in this week with the announcement from Washington State University that it will restart its forestry major after a four-year hiatus. The major was shut down because of budget cuts and will now be revived beginning this fall, with the support of the Legislature and industry leaders. 

WSU's restart of the major comes, not coincidentally, as the number of forestry jobs starts to swing upward. 

The job market for foresters has improved in recent years, said (Keith Blatner, program leader for forestry at WSU and a WSU professor). The number of lumber and pulp and paper mills has declined, but the remaining mills are larger and more automated, Blatner said. Timber firms, consulting firms and governmental and non-governmental organizations all need foresters, he said.

“We’ve seen a lot of restructuring in the way lands are held and managed, but there’s still a demand for foresters out there to do the work,” Blatner said. “It’s a different mix of employers than we used to have.”

For the forestry major to be viable, WSU hopes for at least 100 certified majors within the next few years. Forestry students need a good foundation in biology, chemistry, college-level algebra, introductory calculus, statistics, communication skills and computer applications, Blatner said.

“It’s always important that our students be field-ready when they graduate,” he said. “We’ll be stressing having students get some professional experience through summer jobs so they are very comfortable on the ground when they graduate.”

Forests & Fish Law is celebrated before state lawmakers

2015-01-16 Ashley Bach

It's not often that advocates get an hour in front of the Washington Legislature to celebrate the success of the historic Forests & Fish Law, but that's exactly what happened this week. Leaders from the timber industry, environmental community and state, county and tribal governments commemorated the 15th anniversary of one of the toughest sets of environmental regulations in the country. The presentation in front of a joint hearing of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Natural Resources & Parks Committee (video here) was an expanded version of a similar discussion at the Washington Forest Protection Association's (WFPA) annual meeting two months ago.

Speakers included Mark Doumit, executive director of WFPA; Joseph Pavel, Council Vice-Chair and natural resources director for the Skokomish Indian Tribe; Jay Manning, president of the Washington Environmental Council; Joe Stohr, deputy director of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife; Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties; Stephen Bernath, senior policy adviser for the Washington Department of Ecology; Aaron Everett, the Washington state forester; and Ken Miller of the Washington Farm Forestry Association. 

The broad cross-section of speakers was no accident, as the Forests & Fish Law only works because a wide range of stakeholders came together for a common goal. Doumit said during the hearing that "these are people who have not always gotten along" but that they united for the new law in 1999 because they knew how important it was to protect fish and maintain clean water. 

"It's a model of collaboration; it is a model of working together that we fully support," said Manning, from the Washington Environmental Council.

"The (timber) industry voluntarily stepped up (in 1999) to a rigorous set of (environmental) standards, some of the most rigorous in the world," Manning added. "They should get credit for that and we have tried to give them credit for that."

Washington DNR wants to ramp up forest thinning across the state

2015-01-11 Ashley Bach

Momentum could be growing for more active management of Washington's state-owned forests. After a record wildfire season last year, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is asking for $20 million over the next two years to thin forests and other forest fire protection, a leap over the $4 million that DNR got from the Legislature the last time it asked.

Washington DNR has long bemoaned the poor health of the state's forests, especially in Eastern Washington, where the trees are wracked by insects and disease. 

In the past five years, the state has spent about $200 million fighting wildfires, but only about $31 million trying to keep Washington’s forests healthy and less likely to burn.

While dry weather and repeated lightning strikes were part of what made the 2014 fire season so severe, the condition of the state’s forests also was to blame, (State Forester Aaron) Everett said.

“Our first line of defense is the condition of the forests,” Everett said. “Right now, our forests are stressed out.”

State officials estimate that about 30 percent of forests in Eastern Washington — about 2.7 million acres — need restoration treatments, such as thinning trees or planting fire- and insect-resistant ones. Government agencies, private landowners and timber companies only complete treatments on about 140,000 acres statewide per year, Everett said.

That has left many Washington forests crowded, filled with small trees and wood debris that fuel fires and make them burn hotter.

In the past, the Legislature has not given DNR nearly the full amount it's requested for forest thinning, but this year lawmakers may be thinking differently

Plum Creek, Pope Resources lead the way on land conservation

2014-12-23 Ashley Bach

Two major land deals that will preserve working forests in Washington moved forward in the last few days, and Washington timber companies are at the heart of both transactions.

Plum Creek Timber Co.'s sale of 48,000 acres of forestland along Interstate 90 in Washington (as well as 117,000 acres in the Blackfoot River Valley in Montana) just became final last week. (We first wrote about the deal last month.) The Nature Conservancy takes over both the Washington and Montana land, which the group says it will still use, at least in part, for timber production.

James Schroeder, director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy, told the Kittitas County Public Lands Advisory Committee on Monday that there will be a series of public meetings regarding the use of the land and recreation access, with the first expected to be scheduled for February.

“We want to get people’s input on developing our management and recreation plan moving forward,” Schroeder said.

...The goal is to have a recreation and land-use management plan in place by June or July, so the Nature Conservancy can apply for timber harvest permits. It plans to do both commercial and noncommercial harvests.

“We’ve projected out 10 years annual harvest and we are hoping we can make it pencil out,” Schroeder said. “We’re not looking at this as a moneymaker. We’d put money back into restoration if it does pencil out.”

Congress adjourns without progress on timber legislation

2014-12-19 Ashley Bach

There was some momentum for this post-election "lame duck" session of Congress on timber issues. Namely, Republicans will be taking over the Senate next month, and so Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had only weeks to make his mark before he lost his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. Wyden has been trumpeting his bill on Oregon timber reform (which would likely steer the national debate) for more than a year, and he also has a bill to change the way forest firefighting is paid for that could free up money for timber restoration.

Out of desperation, innovation, right?

Not so fast. Wyden's bill, which would increase the harvest in some timber counties, was opposed by many timber groups and some environmentalists, and even with the added urgency, Wyden's bill failed to get enough support before Congress adjourned for the year this week.

The Oregonian editorial board this month cited Wyden's failed bill, as well as another Oregon timber harvest proposal from Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader: 

It's tempting to give Wyden, as well as the three Oregon congressmen who championed the House bill, credit for working hard in a difficult political environment. But there are two big problems with accepting one more failure as a necessary step toward eventual success: Rural Oregon has been waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting ... for decades. And, the Oregon delegation will be operating with less political clout next year as Republicans test out their new power.

Groups push to bridge the generation gap in forestry

2014-12-12 Ashley Bach

The aging of the nation's small forest landowners is an industry truth that's inescapable. We wrote last year about several efforts to attract younger folks to forestry and a program from the Pinchot Institute for Conservation to help older forest landowners pay their medical bills in exchange for carbon credits. 

This week the Associated Press tackled the issue with a story that looks at the problem through the eyes of forest owners in Vermont, but also with an eye on an innovative program out of Oregon State University.

Brett Butler, the coordinator of the U.S. Forest Service's National Woodland Survey, says there's a common misconception that the majority of forest land is owned by the government. Nationally, more than half of the 766 million acres of forest land is owned privately by proprietors whose average age is 62.5.

"It's really families and individuals that control the fate and the future of the forests," Butler said.

One of the biggest issues isn't necessarily aging forest owners selling their land all at once but their having no way to pass it on their children and selling the land in pieces.

The concerns of forestry professionals are more subtle than the typical worries over large-scale development: as the parcels of land get smaller the people who own them might not have the same commitment to the forests as the previous landowners.

"Our alarm bells are starting to go off, not because landowners are suddenly older, but because it's been going on long enough now that we are really beginning to see the impacts," said Mary Sisock, an assistant professor of extension forestry at the University of Vermont, who has worked on the issue across the country.

Owners of smaller parcels are less likely to invest in forestry management plans, and managing for wildlife is more difficult than on larger plots, Sisock said. And once the land gets cut up it's more likely it will be developed, and once developed there's no chance it will ever again be a working forest, she said.

State looks at landslide mapping, emergency response after Oso slide

2014-12-05 Ashley Bach

Nine months after the tragic Oso landslide, a state commission convened after the disaster is about to recommend a series of reforms in land use, landslide mapping and emergency management.

The 12-member commission, created by Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, won't issue its final report until Dec. 15, but its recommendations are starting to circulate. It's good to see that the commission wants the state to undergo sophisticated mapping of potential landslide hazard zones.

The first steps outlined in the commission's draft involve launching a program to map landslide dangers throughout the state. The maps would use LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology. They would gauge risks for busy roads and rail lines, as well as other critical infrastructure, including the I-5 corridor and mountain highways. Maps would include predicted runout zones.

The group is recommending that DNR's Division of Geology and Earth Sciences oversee the mapping. DNR could bring in geology professionals from outside the agency to assist.

“It would make sense to draw expertise from the wider geologic community,” said UW geomorphology professor David Montgomery, one of the commissioners.

State and local officials also need to improve their coordination, especially with local volunteers willing to help in such large-scale disasters, according to the commission.

At the Tuesday meeting, commissioners largely agreed that government needs to do a better job of responding to landslide disasters -- from mobilizing official responders to incorporating skilled volunteers. Loggers and construction workers from the Darrington area played a big role in pulling survivors and 43 bodies from the muddy wasteland created by the massive Oso slide.

Forest restoration in Washington still needs funding to succeed

2014-11-26 Ashley Bach

A new study from the U.S. Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy reveals that 3.5 million acres of forestland in Eastern Washington is overcrowded with small, fire-prone trees and needs to be restored. The study comes on the heels of Gov. Jay Inslee designating 720,000 acres of federal forestland in Eastern Washington for expedited and prioritized forest restoration.

As we've written many times, Washington's federal forests are woefully mismanaged, which in turn has allowed the trees to become infested by insects and disease and vulnerable to large wildfires. The Forest Service study and Inslee's forest designation will add more momentum to the cause of active forest management and getting our state's forests back to good health. 

But they are also two steps on a long road. The study from the Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy highlights the depth of the problem,  but policy changes, along with more funding, are needed to get the forests restored.

...While the recent study for the first time identifies the extent of need, no comprehensive plan exists for tackling the enormous, ongoing problem.

In recent years, state, federal, tribal and private forest managers in Eastern Washington have reduced density on about 145,000 acres annually, according to a report the (state) DNR prepared for the Legislature. That’s commercial logging and restoration-focused work, referred to together as “active management” because it’s the opposite of leaving the forests to fend for themselves.

That’s just 4 percent of the acres that need it, according to the new study. Lead scientist Ryan Haugo of The Nature Conservancy said the study used computer models to compare current forest conditions to ideal conditions, based on what the forest looked like before people began cutting down the biggest trees and putting out wildfires.

Tall wood buildings rise in U.S. and Canada

2014-11-20 Ashley Bach

When you've made the pages of the Wall Street Journal, you know you've truly arrived. It was the Journal that wrote earlier this month about the big news: the first tall, modern wood building in U.S. history is on its way.

The 7-story office building will be constructed in Minneapolis, right next to Target Field, the home of the Minnesota Twins. The developer is Hines Interests LP of Houston, and the architect - no surprise here - is Michael Green of Vancouver, B.C.

Green, of course, is the same star architect who has been the leader in pushing large wood buildings into the public sphere in North America. He also is the star of a series of videos promoting the use of wood in large buildings. The videos are sponsored by the Washington Forest Protection Association, the Washington Contract Loggers Association, the Family Forest Foundation and the Washington Farm Forestry Association, and we wrote about Green's involvement last month.

It's no wonder that the Journal's headline reads: "Towering Ambition":

For the past 100 years, virtually all buildings over a few stories tall have been constructed out of concrete and steel. But some architects and builders are promoting an alternative they are positioning as environmentally friendlier: good old-fashioned wood.

Last week, real-estate developer Hines Interests LP, based in Houston, unveiled plans to build a seven-story, wooden office building in Minneapolis near one of the city’s light-rail lines in an increasingly popular district downtown. Hines is calling the project T3, for timber, technology and transit.

If the building is approved by the city’s preservation and planning agencies, T3 would be the tallest modern all-timber structure in the U.S., according to reThink Wood, a coalition promoting wood in architecture. The building is designed by Vancouver-based Michael Green Architecture; the firm also designed the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in British Columbia, which opened a few weeks ago and is the tallest modern wooden building in North America.

Plum Creek Timber makes huge move on NW forest conservation

2014-11-13 Ashley Bach

Seattle's Plum Creek Timber Co. recently announced it was selling 48,000 acres of forestland along Interstate 90 in Washington, as well as 117,000 acres in the Blackfoot River Valley in Montana. The sale of the land in both states to The Nature Conservancy is another reminder that Plum Creek is a major player in conserving forestland for future generations.

The scope of the forestland is massive - in Washington, the land bought by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) covers 75 square miles, an area more than twice the size of Manhattan. Both the Washington and Montana land is "among the most ecologically diverse and intact biological systems remaining in the United States," according to Plum Creek.

“Plum Creek has a strong history of conservation and is pleased to partner in the sale of these lands to accommodate the public interest in securing permanent conservation that protects ecological and recreational values,” said Rick Holley, chief executive officer for Plum Creek. “This is an important conservation project that recognizes the highest benefit these lands offer -- protecting ecological values and helping to maintain public access. We are pleased that we were able to work with TNC to conserve some of the nation’s most important forest areas,” said Holley.  

In a recent interview with REIT.com that did not include news of the land sale, Plum Creek's CEO, Holley, expanded on the company's conservation strategy.

REIT: What level of interest are you seeing for the sale of conservation, recreation and non-strategic rural lands? How do you determine which parcels of land to sell?

Holley: We continue to see interest in each of these categories. In terms of conservation, we are proud to be one of the largest purveyors of conservation in the country, having commited to nearly 1.5 million acres of land to conservation outcomes...

Wood building, Forests & Fish Law lead the charge in 2014 WFPA Annual Meeting

2014-11-07 Ashley Bach

The rise of wood as a construction material for tall buildings and the 15th anniversary of the landmark Forests & Fish Law were the most prominent themes at the 106th annual meeting of the Washington Forest Protection Association this week.

About 140 people were on hand in Olympia on Nov. 6 for the annual gathering of the state's timber industry.

Several of the speakers and panelists said the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) to construct large buildings in the U.S. has the potential to transform the industry. Dr. Thomas Maness, the Dean of the School of Forestry at Oregon State University, said CLT helps educators connect with forestry students and push the timber industry out of old ways of thinking. 

Gene Duvernoy, President of the conservation group Forterra, said he enjoyed listening to a panel of young forestry professionals talk about the industry's future earlier in the meeting. The young professionals' enthusiasm and drive, along with the promise of cross-laminated timber for the industry, will be a potent combination. "Think about what's going to come from that next generation" in the industry, Duvernoy said. "It's really exciting."

Washington State -- with a large supply of wood, an active timber industry and a history of innovation -- has the potential to be the nation's leader in cross-laminated timber and its use in large buildings, Duvernoy said.    

The annual meeting was also an opportunity to mark the 15th anniversary of the state's 1999 Forests & Fish Law, one of the toughest sets of environmental regulations in the country. Since the law was passed, large forest landowners have improved tens of thousands of miles of forest roads, reopened about 3,800 miles of fish habitat and cleared about 5,600 stream blockages.

Woody biomass enters a new phase with new technology

2014-10-31 Ashley Bach

Biomass is a big part of the timber industry's future, but what most people talk about when it comes to turning woody biomass into energy is a process called cogeneration. This is pretty straightforward: wood waste or wood pellets are burned in a plant to create electricity.

Now another type of biomass process is getting some attention: pyrolysis. The woody biomass is still burned, but it's burned in a low-oxygen kiln to produce not electricity but liquid (bio-oil), charcoal (biochar) and gas (syngas). The bio-oil and the biochar, as of now, have the most lucrative potential.  

Just last week, the Washington Department of Natural Resources hosted a demonstration near Cle Elum highlighting the power of pyrolysis. A Salt Lake City company, Amaron Energy, brought up its mobile "fast pyrolysis" reactor, built in a 45-foot-long freight container. 

The bio-oil produced in pyrolysis is attracting special attention. The oil has the potential to be converted into car fuel, plastic, asphalt or heat for homes, and pyrolysis plants are being built or planned in several cities in Europe. Earlier this month ExxonMobil announced it's investing $1 million to create an advanced biofuels research program at Iowa State University, a program that will initially focus entirely on fast pyrolysis.

What's unique about the fast pyrolysis machine on display in Cle Elum is it's mobile, which means it could be transported deep into timber areas. With wood waste so close and plentiful, the fast pyrolysis process suddenly gets a lot more economical

Timber industry shows its impact with National Forest Products Week

2014-10-24 Ashley Bach

There may not be a more energetic time for the timber industry around the country than National Forest Products Week. The annual event, always the third week of October, is a tribute to the country's forest products industry and the 900,000 American workers who make the industry such a critical piece of the U.S. economy. 

This years's event, Oct. 19-25, includes timber tours, industry fairs, student training sessions, lectures and charity home builds, from Kentucky and Florida to Montana, Idaho and Oregon

Jim Hannan, CEO and President of Georgia-Pacific, a pulp and paper company based in Atlanta, put it well this week:

It's National Forest Products Week, a nationally designated time to recognize the contributions of forest products manufacturers to the lives of all American citizens. In my opinion, the U.S. forest products industry is one of our country’s greatest success stories.

The annual celebration was established by Congress in 1960 and leads to proclamations like this one from President Obama this year:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 19 through October 25, 2014, as National Forest Products Week. I call on the people of the United States to join me in recognizing the dedicated individuals who are responsible for the stewardship of our forests and for the preservation, management, and use of these precious natural resources for the benefit of the American people.

Skamania County declares a state of emergency over federal forests

2014-10-17 Ashley Bach

The lack of federal forest management is hurting rural communities across the West, and Skamania County, Wash., is among the worst hit in the country.

Time after time, local leaders call on the U.S. Forest Service to start finally managing the surrounding Gifford Pinchot National Forest and make it the economic engine it's set in law to be. Now, after years of neglect, the county last week declared a state of emergency. 

The declaration from the Skamania County Board of Commissioners was necessary because of "unhealthy forest conditions, yearly threat of catastrophic fires, and, minimal county government, schools and emergency services."

New video series highlights the benefits of using wood in large buildings

2014-10-10 Ashley Bach

Michael Green is a rock star of wood architecture. The Vancouver, B.C., architect is a pioneer in expanding the use of wood in large, modern buildings from the European cities where the practice started to the cities of North America.

He designed the largest wood building in Canada, is working on several other large wood buildings (including at least one in the U.S.) and he literally wrote the book on large wood buildings (the 200-page "Case for Tall Wood Buildings," which is available for free online). 

It's no wonder that we've mentioned Green several times (here, here and here) on this blog. And it's with great pleasure that we now announce Green is featured in a series of videos on The Most Natural Resource. The site, which explores the benefits of wood, is operated by the Washington Forest Protection Association, the Washington Contract Loggers Association, the Family Forest Foundation and the Washington Farm Forestry Association.

Mark Doumit talks about benefits of Washington's Forests & Fish Law

2014-10-03 Ashley Bach

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the landmark Forests & Fish Law, an innovative set of environmental protections that lays out how forestry is practiced in Washington. Since the law was passed, large forest landowners have improved tens of thousands of miles of forest roads, reopened nearly 3,300 miles of fish habitat and removed or replaced more than 5,100 stream blockages.

Mark Doumit, the Executive Director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, went on Comcast Newsmakers this week to talk about how the groundbreaking law has made the state a better place to live. His four-minute interview will air on CNN Headline News intermittently over the next few weeks, and it's also online.

Biomass industry faces excitement and uncertainty

2014-09-26 Ashley Bach

In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was putting off a decision on potential greenhouse-gas restrictions on biomass for three years. The delay was considered a big victory for biomass proponents and a loss for environmental groups.

Since then, biomass projects have continued to be built. The largest biomass plant in North America, using wood pellets, just opened in Ontario, Canada.

"A new era has dawned in Ontario; one where the air will be cleaner and the multiple costs of coal-fired generation have become a distant memory,” said Canada’s Minister of Energy Bob Chiarelli.   

Biomass Magazine says demand for wood pellets is strong in European countries looking to move away from fossil fuel energy, and a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency says 20 percent of all global electricity could come from biomass - whether it be wood or other materials - by 2030.

Meanwhile, an $85 million biomass plant in Port Angeles, Wash., is set to become fully operational later this year. The Japan-owned Nippon Paper Industries cogeneration plant was dedicated last fall with 20 megawatts of capacity but never hit full production because of technical problems inside the boiler. Those problems have now been fixed. 

Scientists and experts are learning from the Oso landslide

2014-09-19 Ashley Bach

Six months after the Oso landslide, our state and community are still in the process of learning and healing. There are multiple groups taking a deeper look at the slide, everything from its causes and its impact to the emergency response and how development is approved near steep slopes. A 12-member commission of experts enlisted by Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick held its first meeting last month, and a team of geologists released a report about the causes of the landslide in July.

The job of Inslee and Lovick's commission is to glean lessons from the disaster, but with the tragedy still so close and so powerful, it's impossible for commissioners to do their job without strong emotion.

The commission toured the landslide site in August and later that day, held its first meeting in Everett.

Forestry companies do their jobs with commitment and camaraderie

2014-09-12 Ashley Bach

Since 1975, TimberWest Magazine has been covering the West Coast timber industry one company at a time. It's easy sometimes to focus on the larger issues concerning the forestry industry, but day-to-day, it's forestry companies that are the lifeblood of the business. 

In recent months, TimberWest has profiled several Washington companies: Barnes and Sons Logging in Lewis County, Swanson Bark and Wood Products in Longview, Precision Forestry in Arlington-Darrington and Cascade H & A in Snohomish County.

Reading their stories, it's clear that the industry is about hard work, commitment, camaraderie, innovation and teamwork with other forestry companies.