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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.

Opposition increases against Sen. Wyden's timber bill

2014-09-04 Ashley Bach

In May 2013, it seemed like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was the great hope for federal timber reform. He had just taken over as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, putting him in prime position to finally get the Northwest timber harvest kickstarted after decades of meager activity.

Wyden's proposal, finally announced in November 2013, only covered Oregon timber counties in the former Oregon & California (O&C) Railroad Co. lands. Timber owners in Washington and other timber states would have to wait.

Meanwhile, Oregon timber companies and rural counties actually preferred another bill that would have increased the Oregon harvest. That bill, from Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, was folded into a plan from Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that would increase the timber harvest around the country. Hastings' bill was actually passed by the House but at last check, it's stalled in the Senate. 

That left Wyden's proposal, coupled with Wyden's prime leadership position, as a possible way forward. Timber companies and rural counties opposed his bill, but it seemed like it could be a starting-off point for negotiations, with perhaps some elements of DeFazio or Hastings' bills added on to reach a compromise that both timber leaders and environmental groups could at least stomach, if not support.

Now that kind of compromise feels more distant.

New beetle invader arrives in Washington forests

2014-08-29 Ashley Bach

Washington's forests are in poor health, with trees diseased by pine beetles, spruce budworms and root rot. The situation got so bad that in 2012, State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark declared a forest health-hazard warning for parts of Eastern Washington, a warning that is still in effect two years later.

It's no coincidence then that Washington is enduring one of its worst wildfire seasons ever, including the Carlton Complex fire, the largest single wildfire in state history. Diseased trees are kindling for forest fires. 

The rampant fires have led the Seattle Times, the Olympian and other community leaders to demand more funding for what's been the solution all along: active forest management.

Skamania County needs timber reform in a special way

2014-08-22 Ashley Bach

The anger and frustration over the lack of federal forest management recently boiled over in Skamania County, Wash.

It's no wonder. As we noted in a post last year, 80 percent of Skamania County is taken up by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest; another 8 percent is owned by the state, and another 10 percent of the county is private timberland, which generates significant tax reveue only when it's harvested. That means only 2 percent of the county is private, regularly taxed property.

Skamania County is heavily dependent on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest being managed properly, and since the advent of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, the forest isn't even being harvested at the levels laid out in that plan, let alone levels that would allow the county's residents to be able to live and work in their communities.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, recently convened a roundtable of about 35 federal, state and local leaders, who met in Skamania County to discuss potential solutions and also tour the Silver Creek thinning project in the Gifford Pinchot forest.

Private timber harvest is up, but federal harvest still lags behind

2014-08-15 Ashley Bach

If recent news coverage and town hall meetings are any indication, anger is growing in rural communities over the lack of timber activity in Northwest federal forests.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has actually done more than most federal lawmakers to try to reform federal forest management, but that didn't stop him from getting an earful from constituents at a town hall last week in Eastern Oregon. This was in a rural area (Grant County) that had not just one but two wildfires burning while the meeting took place.

For some of the town hall meeting, Walden was joined by leaders from the U.S. Forest Service.

Young loggers bring promise to the forestry industry

2014-08-08 Ashley Bach

If you're looking for signs that the future of the forestry industry is in good hands, look no further than Billy Zimmerman.

The 25-year-old from Rainier, Ore., just across the Columbia River from Washington, recently started his own logging company, according to a recent story in the Longview Daily News. It's no secret that the forestry industry is aging, and experts say that industry leaders of the future will need to be experts in social media and perhaps even be fluent in Chinese. But more than anything, the industry needs young people like Zimmerman who are willing to commit to the business at a young age.

What helped Zimmerman is like so many people in the industry, forestry was in his blood. He grew up on a tree farm in Rainier on property that his great-grandfather bought in the 1920s.

Frustration boils over as Congress stalls on timber and wildfire reform

2014-08-01 Ashley Bach

The wildfires raging across the West are spurring calls for congressional action to change the way that wildfires are funded, but they are also raising a lot of complaints about congressional inaction. When community leaders call on Congress to pass one of the bills that would free up more money to fight wildfires, they are also making their pleas with more than a hint of exasperation.

As we wrote last week, there are two wildfire funding proposals in Congress:

-- A bill supported by President Obama and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), among others, that would treat wildfires as natural disasters and free up more firefighting money and preserve money for thinning and other fire reduction activity.

-- A bill from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others that would also free up more money to fight forest fires, but in addition, it would require the Forest Service to focus on thinning 7.5 million acres and give the timber industry a bigger role in the process.

Northwest wildfires spur call for improved forest management

2014-07-24 Ashley Bach

The wildfire season in the Northwest this summer is unprecedented. Eighteen large fires have burned 900,000 acres in Washington and Oregon, including the largest single wildfire in Washington state history. The Carlton Complex Fire has raged across north-central Washington since July 14, burning more than 250,000 acres and destroying 300 homes. The fire, burning for 11 days, is still only 55 percent contained and threatens an additional 1,100 homes.

The human impacts of the Carlton Complex Fire are wide reaching, like the man who died from a stroke while trying to protect his home, much of the city of Pateros being burned to the ground and fruit farms being destroyed. 

The fires also rage as Congress is considering two different bills that would increase the amount of money the U.S. Forest Service has to fight wildfires.