Macro Solutions Needed

All too often we hear about Forest Service projects being delayed because of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) compliance.  Why is this?

Forest Service specialists spend a great deal of time doing painstaking work to ensure that all of the micro level details are measured and addressed before a project can move forward.  This sounds good, right?  Hydrologists studying water flows, soil scientists trying to understand the impacts of differing activities, botanists identifying sensitive plants, and wildlife biologists making sure all considerations are met for the species of animals that live or might live there……all of this seems like the right thing to do.   In theory, it is.  In reality, something else happens.

Should we study forests like this....
Should we be making decisions from here…
Or should we be looking at them from this vantage point?
Or should we be making them from this vantage point?

It takes years to compile all of this work.  Even if Forest Service personnel or contractors are dedicating their time, it usually takes more than a year to get the requisite information together.  That doesn’t consider the interruptions created by staff movements and the impact of fire season (different, yet crucial topic).

So, if it takes a while so what?  Aren’t the forests important enough to take the time to get it right?

Under normal circumstances, it would seem logical to take our time to ensure that we are doing the right things when we manage forests.  The approach sounds good, but it can have disastrous consequences.

In 2015 we saw a project that spent over two years in planning, that was prepped for bid in October, burn in August.  Now, in the summer of 2016, the remaining unburned portions of the project still haven’t been offered for sale.  The mill that was counting on this volume had to shut down in part because of this missing volume, but also because the fire season shut down the forests for about a total of 7 weeks.  The small log mills in the area had a total of 7 weeks of log inventory.   Something had to give and it did.  One of the two mills was shut down for 6 months while the inventory replenished.

Just a few hundred yards from this sign, work was to be done, but now that it's burnt it needs to wait for more study.
Just a few hundred yards from this sign, thinning was to be done, but now that it’s burnt it needs to wait for more study.

If we were able to have the NEPA efforts streamlined into one field season, the project would have been sold and operated the year before the fire. This would have created multiple positive outcomes.  First, the mills would have has better inventory levels to weather the fire season disruption.  Second, the fire would have been much smaller because much of that heavy fuel load would have been managed.  The third and most important outcome is that we would still have green forests instead of charred remains of what was once a forest in line for thinning.

If we don’t change what we are doing and how we are conducting NEPA we will continue to see this outcome repeat itself over and over again.  Unless significant changes are made to address the macro level problem we will fail to reach the pace and scale of forest treatments necessary to create meaningful change.

On the flip side, solutions are available.  The benefits are great if we choose to make the necessary changes.

  1. Let’s honor our collaborative groups by funding their efforts. This will ensure that the projects are carried out in ways that not only meet economic needs but balance the needs of the community for healthy forests, improved recreation, and conservation.
  2. We need to allow dedicated third party contractors to carry out much of the scientific fact checking, so the work gets done promptly.  Forest Service employees regularly have to attend training for firefighting and fire preparedness.  They regularly transfer to improve their careers.  All of these issues slow the process down.  Having dedicated professional contractors that are committed to hitting deadlines, while still performing quality peer reviewed work will allow for needed work to done in one field season.
  3. We should also maintain a good set of records so when these areas are re-entered we just have to update a previous plan.  There is no reason we need to do a complete NEPA analysis on land that has had it completed in the past.
  4. Focus on long-term plans that include returning to projects to treat areas that were not part of the original harvest units.  All too often we see project areas that are 18,000 acres total with a harvest area of 3,200 acres.  There are more that 3,200 acres in the project areas that need addressing, and over time those need for treatment increase.  Including that as part of the original planning effort maks sense.

There are more things that need to be done than what I have outlined here.  This problem is much akin to eating an elephant; as we look at the task it can be overwhelming, but the only way is one bite at a time.

Forest Planning on National Forests

The following are my comments about the upcoming Forest Plan for the Colville National Forest.   These planning processes are entirely too involved and take up too many resources.  We need less time focused on Forest Planning efforts and more time, energy and dollars spent executing forest restoration projects.  In many of these forests, collaborative groups have agreement on what needs to be done and where it should take place.  My sincere hope is that this will be the last time we see Forest Planning done this way.  Instead, we need to support collaborative community efforts to direct the activities on our forests.


Colville National Forest

Forest Plan Comments


Forest Planning is inherently difficult due to the number of variables the Forest Service needs to consider.  That being said I still think the Forest Service’s ability to carry out Forest Planning efforts should be questioned at the highest levels. 


As interested parties of the National Forest we are asked and encouraged to collaborate on all things related to the way those forests are managed.  We form groups of people and organizations from various backgrounds to attempt to put aside our perceived differences and focus on our interests within those National Forest lands.  When Rick Brazell (Former Forest Supervisor of the Colville National Forest 2003 – 2009) asked the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (NEWFC) and the counties to come together to collaborate the upcoming Forest Plan for the Colville National Forest in 2006 we all took it very seriously.  Over 100 people showed up at the Chewelah Peak Learning Center to kick off the meetings that were co-convened by NEWFC and the Stevens County Commissioners.  This started a series of Saturday meetings that continued to be well attended for months.  Topics included harvest levels, land allocations, Wilderness, recreation, roads, and a multitude of others.  This was the first time in a long time where local citizens felt like their voice was about to be heard. 


Unfortunately, the Forest Planning Team had other ideas.  About 2010 the team started conducting roll out meetings to share their findings with certain community groups to get feedback.  A group of NEWFC members including myself attended one of these meetings in Tonasket.  The plan that they chose to unveil had almost nothing to do with the meetings that we all took part in.  When we showed our displeasure in that meeting the group was surprised; as if we were supposed to just take their “professional opinions” and adopt them as being the best option.  There’s no real reason to hash out all of the details, but needless to say, everyone was dismayed in the community.  Unfortunately, we no longer had Rick Brazell as the Forest Supervisor to force the issue with the planning team.   New Forest Supervisor Laura Jo West promised to create an alternative that would reflect those collaborative forest planning meetings and agreements.


Alternative B was supposed to be the “Blueprint” alternative that was generated by following the suggestions of the NEWFC generated Blueprint.  Although this is a step in the right direction, it misses the collaborative mark.  The most glaring part is the volume of timber generated by this alternative. 


NEWFC created three zones:

1.     Active Management Areas

2.     Restoration Areas

3.     Inventoried Roadless Areas

The Active Management Area was studied using mapping information based on the available LIDAR at the time, taking into account open areas with no trees, sensitive habitat areas, and stocking levels.  This resulted in 80 million board feet annually for a 20 year period, at which time we would evaluate what would be sustainable and renewable.  Keep in mind that this covered approximately 490,000 acres of the Colville National Forest and didn’t count volume that would result from efforts in the Restoration Area, which is about another 350,000 acres. 

To have volume targets on this alternative that doesn’t reflect collaborative agreement is absurd.  It is my understanding that this alternative was created to show what was agreed to by collaborative interests.  Volume figures should be in line with those agreements and not the 37 million board feet annually shown in Alternative B. 


The Wilderness Component of Alternative B of 220,300 acres is also taken out of context.  It has always been the intent of NEWFC that we would work through the issues of each Inventoried Roadless Area with affected and interested groups to figure out balanced solutions to issues like recreation, grazing, and access.  Some of our membership is very much for Wilderness as a core principle, yet as a group, we’re committed to protecting areas for their current “Wilderness Characteristics” until we can create agreements that would lead to some sort of protection including Wilderness Legislation.  That in no way prevents NEWFC and other groups from coming up with solutions that protect areas in some other way besides a legislated Wilderness area.


My request is that Alternative B gets recalculated using 80 million board feet from the Active Management Areas.  And Wilderness areas reflect current areas of agreement and set the tone for future agreements on areas that could include future Wilderness areas or some other agreed upon collaborative solution.  This is the only way to accurately provide an alternative that was developed by community-based collaboration.


Another interesting piece of information is the study ( conducted by The Nature Conservancy’s Ryan Haugo in partnership with the Forest Service’s own Tom DeMeo came up with the need to restore forests on the Colville National Forest that would result in over 90 million board feet of harvest.  That would coincide with 80 million board feet from the Active Management area and 15 million board feet per year (+/-) from treatments within the Restoration Areas. 


These plans need to consider the need for restoration treatment and not allow volume targets to be driven by budgets.  It’s not fair to the forests, and it’s absolutely not right for the communities that the Forest Service continues to do this.  This is a general statement that applies to all National Forest System lands.


My next comment has to do with the request from multiple entities for an extension to this comment period.  I find it appalling that the Forest Service would not grant this request.  The reason is that multiple groups and individuals have finally been able to come together to discuss some very important topics that could result in some of the most helpful comments to date.  If groups are able to come together collaboratively to discuss their differences and common ground it could really impact the quality of the comments for this Forest Plan.  I understand the desire to move forward, but if the Forest Service really wants a plan that works and is supported by the people, then it should consider allowing those people more time to discuss these important changes to the landscape.


I have some real concerns about the Forest Service’s ability to collect these comments and understand what the commenters are really attempting to articulate.  There have been multiple occasions at the project level where comments were taken out of context.  This results in Proposed Actions that do not accurately represent the intent of the comments.  I would like the Forest Service to consider allowing a group like Sustainable Northwest to review these comments and reach out to the community for clarity.  I would suggest that this be done on a contract and SNW report directly to the Regional Office in Portland.  I must share that I am on the board of Sustainable Northwest, but in no way get any financial benefit from any contracts entered into by the non-profit organization.


Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my comments.  I am commenting as an individual as the organizations that I am a part of did not pre-approve these comments.  That being said it’s important to note that these affiliations absolutely affect gravity and detail of these comments.


Russ Vaagen


Vice President, Vaagen Bros. Lumber, Inc.

President, Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition

Chairman Emeritus, Timber Product Manufacturers Association

Board Member, Sustainable Northwest





The current trajectory of our forests isn’t the beautiful, healthy evergreen forests most people think.  Our National Forests are dying and burning at an alarming rate.  Regardless if you believe in climate change or if it’s human caused, the fact remains that our forests aren’t green.  They stand to get much worse before getting any better.
This story by Chad Hanson highlights the problem between those that want to engage in finding solutions and those who want to create false realities.  I must admit I haven’t read any other of his writings.  This opinion piece makes it seem as though dying forests aren’t a problem and certainly aren’t an indicator of needed change.

These images show what happens when we don’t actively manage forests. Both are next to major open road systems.

Morel mushroom picking is one of the benefits post-fire.  However, a stand replacement fire isn’t necessary for quality mushroom picking conditions.
This is an example of an unhealthy forest with dead and dying debris primed for a stand replacement fire. This forest could be thinned and most likely spared mother nature’s reset button
These are stark examples of why it’s so important for us to come together and solve these problems collaboratively based on shared interests rather than supporting historic positions.   Forests don’t have to die and burn at the current rate, especially where we have roads and agreement on proper management areas.

Let me be clear.  Fires will happen.  Appropriate management won’t eliminate fires, but it will reduce their severity and size.  The safety and effectiveness of firefighters will improve if they are in areas where fuel loads are not unnaturally high.

We need to make serious changes so we can get back to having healthy evergreen forests.



Post harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground
Post-harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground.  An example of working towards healthy forests with by-products going to rural businesses

The forest industry has come a long way in producing one of, if not the best building product for the environment.  As I was checking my LinkedIn feed I came across this video about the life cycle of wood.  It’s incredibly well done and I believe it to be accurate.  I think the strides in forestland certification have helped, but what about the other forests that are being all but ignored?

I can tell you the groups that I work with are not ignoring these lands.  Last week I spent two and a half hours with the executive committee of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition working on issues within the Colville National Forest.  Forest Companies are managing private timberlands in ways that are ecologically and financially sustainable.  At the same time forest lands operated by the US Forest Service struggle with budgets and personnel that allow them to manage merely percentage points of forests in need.  How is this possible?

When I try to explain this to my friends in Canada or Europe they look at me like I must be mistaken.  The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition is always working, just like many other collaborative groups in the west, to simply clean up our neglected forest lands.


Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States
Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States

After years of little to no management, the backlog of need is showing up in the form of big fires.  Wildfires contribute to carbon pollution and accelerate climate change.

If we can complete landscape level treatments to make our forests healthier, and the by-product of this important work is small logs that can produce the types of products described in this video from reThink Wood.

Our management actions are much bigger than just certifying that forests are sustainable.   It’s making sure our forests look and act the way the American public believes they are.

Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.  A vision of forests that many Americans share: Beauty, recreation, and healthy environments

Congress needs to act to fix these issues that are hindering progress.  When collaboration is working, special interest groups that choose not to be part of the process shouldn’t have the legal right to stop the collaborative agreements.

There are many instances of special interest groups using the courts to stop collaborative projects.  It’s not right.  The US Forest Service needs an organizational shift to move away from being risk averse and more towards doing the right things on each landscape.  The attitude needs to go from finding all the reasons not to go forward, to an approach of setting goals and figuring out how to get things done with purpose and urgency.

I know there may be many members of the Forest Service reading this.  I don’t mean to be disrespectful.  You’re all trying to do a good job.  Even with the best efforts the system that is in place now has several fatal flaws.

First of all, there’s no real accountability to anyone outside the Forest Service.   If your peers think you’re doing good, but the area mills are starved for logs because of internal delays or mistakes, employees still get promoted.  Speaking of promotions, the relocation of Forest Service staff is way out of hand.  The Forest Service believes that moving employees around makes them more well-rounded and builds a strong base.  Both of those are good concepts, but at some point, the employees need to stay in place to implement those well-rounded skills. Currently, it seems that each leadership position cycles between 2 and 5 years.  Fires are also a major impediment to forest health treatments, not just because of the burned acres, but the interruption of needed work by staff training and managing fires.  The same people that are required to get forest restoration projects implemented are the same US Forest Service staff that are training for fire suppression and managing wildfires during fire season.  How much time do these people have to get their work done if they are training and working on wildfires?

When we’re dealing with millions of forested acres that take generations to grow how is this process ever going to work?  If collaboration is ever going to be effective, collaboratives need to work with Forest Service leadership for at least a decade to maintain momentum and build a cohesive vision for landscape level forest health

There’s way too much organizational know-how in this country to just simply complain and not address this issue.  Our rural forested communities can be creating jobs, managing the appropriate forested lands for generations to come while providing all the essential building products for our rural and urban communities.  We can do better and for the sake of the forest and the environment, we need to do much better.  We need to share our collective vision of healthy forests and healthy forested communities with Congress to make the necessary changes to get and keep the forests we love.

A New Future for Our Forests

At the National Collaborative Workshop hosted by The National Forest Foundation, I shared the following to kick off day two. We need to take this seriously so we can create a better future for our forests.

It’s great to see such a large crowd of people here that are passionate about our National Forests. Thank you to both NFF for putting this on and being a partner to the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. And thanks to The Nature Conservancy for being a partner as well. I’m happy to share the stage with the four of you.

In such a large group of people here, I’m wondering how many of you represent an organization or family company that utilizes at least 50 loads of logs per day? (4 hands out of 200 were raised, representing Idaho

One of Idaho Forest Group's mills that handles many loads of logs from USFS Stewardship Contracts
One of Idaho Forest Group’s mills that handles many loads of logs from USFS Stewardship Contracts

Forest Group, Yakama Nation for Yakama Forest Products, Boise Cascade, and myself for Vaagen Bros. Lumber). I think it’s telling that we don’t have enough of the people here that will help us pay for the necessary work that we need to do in our forests. The Forest Industry is the glue that will hold collaboration together.

This mill uses 100 truck loads of small logs (4.5" diameter to 11" diameter) per day which amounts to 50 acres of thinning per day or 12,500 acres per year
This mill uses 100 truckloads of small logs (4.5″ diameter to 11″ diameter) per day which amounts to 50 acres of thinning per day or 12,500 acres per year

Mills not only pay for the logs that are required to run the plants but as is the case in NEWFC (Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition), Vaagen Bros Lumber hosts meetings, helps fund initiatives when needed and provides employees with the latitude to participate gainfully in the process. It is critical to have all

parties at the table, but without some real Industry participation, collaborative groups have a hard time gaining real traction with projects.

We hear a great deal about ‘Pace and Scale’ of forest restoration. Some aren’t as comfortable with large scale projects. If we don’t see a significant change in the Pace and Scale of projects in our forests, we will continue to see the Pace and Scale of fire, insect and disease

Without mechanical treatments as shown in the Vaagen Bros. Youtube video Logs to Lumber we will have difficulty using prescribed fire. Our windows of time to conduct purposeful burns is shrinking, and in many cases doesn’t realistically exist. On the Colville National Forest, we have seen the retained receipts from the last three years of stewardship projects complete over 8,000 acres of a combination of prescribed burns and non-commercial fuels treatments. Those treatments would have been a fraction of the size had it not been for the dollars created by those projects. All of this was done with no cost to anyone. Completed in addition to the stewardship project all because of a small log infrastructure that adds value to the by-products of forest restoration.

It’s imperative that we strive to get the highest and best value for the by-products of our restoration projects. It’s the only way to pay for the work that needs to be done. Currently, the best value is added by sawmills with small diameter technology, pulp mills, and biomass plants. The mills pay for the small logs, the pulp mills that pay for the chips, sawdust, and bark, and the biomass plants take bark, wood waste, and pile grindings.

Does anyone here think that we’re doing an adequate job managing our National Forest Lands? (No one raised their hand which includes all of the USFS leadership)

If we need to improve so badly why aren’t we all acting with more urgency?

We need a Pinchot/Roosevelt moment. The work we are doing today is every bit as important as the creation of the National Forests themselves. We have the right people in this room. We need to reach out to our networks and make these changes happen. We need a new plan of action!

We’re all here. Let’s get on the same page and do this together.

We followed the talks with an open format Q&A with our panel and the audience. One of the focal points that I brought up was our need to fix the dispute resolution system currently in place on National Forest projects. Even if you have a project with collaborative support and approval, groups that refuse to participate can object and then follow that with a lawsuit to either stop or delay much-needed projects. I advocated for an Arbitration clause that would be much like the system that Major League Baseball uses. It’s easy to understand and most importantly takes much less time to complete. It can be done in 60-90 days, rather than the months or even years that can result from a lawsuit.  Lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits continue to cost the taxpayers money.  As is the case with many projects, they burn before the project gets completed because it takes so long to complete the environmental analysis. This happened on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest two years ago and again on the Colville National Forest last year. Much needed projects get put together with collaborative support only to burn before we can get to it. Arbitration would also improve the time that it takes to complete NEPA because specialists would be working on getting data to support the project needs and not trying to prepare for a potential lawsuit. As former Region 6 Forester Linda Goodman once said, “It’s difficult for us because even our specialists want to do Cadillac level NEPA work when Chevrolet is more than necessary.”

National Forest Foundation Workshop in Denver

The Collaborative Restoration Workshop is taking place in Denver over the next few days.  I’m looking forward to talking about two topics while I’m there.  The first is going to be an open discussion to the entire group.  My goal in this talk is to inspire people to think about the importance of our work and how we’ve only just begun.

I don’t think very many people believe that we are doing an adequate job managing our national forests, so why do we keep doing the same things?  We need to do things at a pace and scale necessary to create real results for our forest and everything that depends on them.  I was recently talking with a professor from the University of Washington and he reminded me that I had mentioned a “Pinchot Moment” in a prior talk.  He told me that he believed that we were almost there for a variety of reasons.  To me, that means that we need to do things so bold that they are as impactful to our National Forests as their creation over 100 years ago.  We need to do things in ways that take us out of our comfort zones in order to have the forests that we all want.

Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles
Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles

This requires changing the way we do things in the public input process.  If communities are going to spend the time, energy and expense to collaborate on forest management efforts, then we need to value and stand behind those efforts.  If groups or individuals choose not to participate in the public process, then they should not be able to stop or stall efforts without just cause.  This isn’t to say that the input of others shouldn’t be heard and considered.  Quite the contrary.  If people cannot or choose not to attend meetings they should provide comments or concerns.  Once they are reviewed by the Forest Service and addressed by the collaborative groups(s), then the project needs to keep moving forward.

It is my belief that if we don’t fix this problem, an attempted solution will be pressed upon us.  I don’t have faith that a solution from Washington DC that hasn’t had the consensus from collaborative groups will meet the needs of the forest or the people.

My second topic will be focused on the A to Z project on the Colville National Forest.  It is a unique project where the planning, environmental compliance, public outreach, layout and design is being conducted by independent contractors.  The Colville National Forest released an RFP to have the entire process (hence the name  A to Z) completed by outside contractors.

Our family company, Vaagen Brothers Lumber, had the only proposal submitted and was selected to conduct the project.  The area just outside the town of Colville is about 55,000 acres of forest land.  This area was not in the Colville National Forest’s five-year plan but was very much in need of forest health treatments.

A group of Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition members start out of a field trip for a prospective project.
A group of Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition members collaborating with Cramer Fish Sciences on the A to Z project

The project area has a good road system, has been actively managed in the past and has considerable recreation traffic.  There are no roadless areas or wilderness areas in or adjacent to the project area.  This project also has the support of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition.


Recently the first half of this project has had a record of decision signed. Shortly thereafter the Forest Service received objections.  Were these objections from groups or individuals that worked collaboratively on the project?  No.

These are outside groups that chose not to participate in the open process and are now crying foul for a variety of reasons.  Rather than explaining this myself, I’ll let you read what The Nature Conservancy says about it.    It’s unfortunate that these projects can’t move forward quickly when the land is overdue for management.  Our hope is that this serves as an example for needed change.

Andrew Waugh brings Timber Age to the Northwest

Round table discussion at the University of Washington
Roundtable discussion at the University of Washington

The world of Mass Timber is moving fast all over the world and this week it got a boost from one of the world leaders in designing and building with wood. For those of you who may not know, there is an architecture firm in London, Waugh Thistleton, that has been pushing clients to look at the benefits of building with wood. Andrew paid a visit to both the Portland and Seattle areas last week (April 18-22) to meet with groups and individuals about his work over the past decade in the UK. I was fortunate enough to spend time with him to discuss CLT and Mass Timber in a few different settings.

Andrew speaking at UW

Andrew and his team are the real deal. They have been urging their clients to use “Timber” (In the US we use either wood or lumber to describe the same thing) in their urban developments. This drive comes from their real desire to do what’s best for the environment. They don’t think it’s enough just to put some solar panels or a windmill on the top of your building and say, ‘Look, we care about the environment.’ He acknowledges that concrete and steel are necessary to build with, but not exclusively. He makes this point very eloquently when he shows a slide of his presentation that has an image of his hand with some seeds in the palm and says, “This is what it took to create the product for that building.”


Artist rendition of Murray Grove in CLT
Rendition of Murray Grove in CLT

In 2005, he used the wood generated from similar seeds to create the first major tall wood building in the UK, Murray Grove.  He had plenty of critics when he started, but the nine-storey building came together and is a smashing success. Some stats to back this up are that the apartments were in such demand from people that wanted to buy and occupy the 29 residences that the entire building sold out in 1 hour and 15 minutes. Even further evidence that it works is that 11 years later nearly all of the flats are occupied by the original owners.


Since 2005, there have been many other buildings build using CLT and Mass Timber components, including the building Andrew calls home.

Andrew lives in the upper center apartment
Andrew lives in the upper center apartment of this building in Shoreditch

Initially, the team at Waugh Thistleton had to convince developers to consider the use of CLT in their buildings. It was tough bringing potential clients up to speed on what the product was, let alone dispell myths and concerns about using CLT. Today they are in demand that fuels the rapid growth of their firm. Currently, clients are coming to them. Andrew considers themselves a ‘Timber First’ business that has 22 current projects, 21 in wood.

One of those is Dalston Lane, which is the largest global CLT project. The residential building is ten-storeys and has over of 172,000 square feet of space. This structure has some very telling statistics. First, if it were constructed of concrete, it would have weighed in at 10,000 tons, however by using CLT, it’s only 1,930 tons. The overall construction time is eight months less than conventional methods as well as reducing construction costs by 15%.

Dalston Lane in CLT
Dalston Lane in CLT

Andrew is full of great information. I feel very fortunate to have been introduced to him and look forward to working with him to advance the global use of Timber. It’s ideal for the rural communities where the product is made, beneficial for our cities and best of all it’s the best building material for the planet.

The Timber Age

Andrew Waugh of London-based Thistleton Waugh says that we are beginning the “Timber Age.” I think it’s great as do many others. New designs and buildings are popping up everywhere. This post from The Urban shows an example of a skyscraper that would be 80 storeys tall, making it the second tallest building in London.

It’s encouraging to see such grandiose designs.  I hope to see the completed building in person some day.  Although these structures are impressive there are many other uses of “timber” or wood that may be less in size and complexity, no less important for the environment.

This is an image from the Timbory Company in Germany showing off a clean CLT kitchen  design
Image from the Timbory Company in Germany showing off a clean CLT lunchroom design

Mid and low-rise mixed use buildings, schools, and even single family homes can be constructed differently with these products.

BMW Group, Alpenhotel Ammerwald.  BMW built this CLT hotel for its employees.
BMW Group, Alpenhotel Ammerwald. BMW built this CLT hotel for its employees.

It is my hope that this builds a stronger connection to our forests and the way we manage them.  Matching societies need with societies conservation ethic will be critical in achieving the best use of products and landscape.  It’s hard to tell where all of this is heading, but for many of us, it’s fascinating and exciting.


Why is it important to care about healthy forests? To some of you, it must seem simple and you may even intuitively feel like you know why it’s important. There’s a reason I ask “why.”

I recently had a discussion with my sister Emily. We were talking about podcasts and TED talks. She asked me if I’d listened to Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk about “why.” I hadn’t – So, I immediately did a search for it and opened it up to be sure it was the right one, which she confirmed.

Later that evening I made some time to watch it. It was fascinating. I would encourage you to check it out for yourself. Basically, he says that we all have a biological need to know why it is that we’re doing something. When we know why” we can get behind a cause. We feel that cause and work diligently to see if come to fruition, regardless of the odds. An example that he gave was the Wright Brothers and their pursuit of flight while there were many other entities that had more money and more support staff.  They were able to do it because they absolutely knew their why.”

So why is great forest management so important to all of us? Forests are beautiful, resilient systems that provide all kinds of benefits for us. The big push in the 80’s and 90’s was to leave that system alone and allow it to be natural. It’s a novel concept that can actually work in some areas of the remote backcountry. In the reality we now know there are dire consequences to leaving the forests alone.


Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles
Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles


People have become an integral part of the forests. Human activity influences the way forests grow, the way they die, and how they die. When we cut trees the forest doesn’t necessarily die or have to start over. We can thin forests and we can mimic natural openings that allow forests to operate much like they would naturally. Why is this important?


Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States
Massive smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States

Well, we need to ensure fires don’t get out of control and create mega-fires that scorch the earth and burn everything in their paths. Because of public safety, we will always put fires out and strive to keep them at bay. We must manage the forest systems by thinning, creating openings, and leaving clusters of trees. This will recreate a natural forest type that is resilient to insects, disease and that is ultimately fire. When managed properly in this way, fires can actually be beneficial for the landscape and can also be safely managed.

Beneficial fire
Beneficial fire that reduces fuel levels and protects forests

So why do I do this? Why is it critically important to me? Because I can easily see that we can have all the abundance we want from the forest. We can provide rural jobs in the forest, where the labor of proper thinning and grooming is done. We can also offer rural jobs in the mills, using of the byproducts of forest management to make lumber. We can develop emerging mass timber products that allow us to build better wooden structures in the ever-changing and growing urban landscape. And we can begin to reverse the massive carbon pollution and destruction that mega-fires cause in our forests, by removing some of the small and medium sized trees that threaten the forest as a whole.

Post harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground
Post-harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground

I see a historic battle of rhetoric that is built on mistrust and past war wounds. We need to set aside our biases and do what’s best for the forests and the people. This act of intentional balance can be achieved to benefit everything and everyone that depends on our forests. At the end of the day what better “why” is there?

Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area

What is CLT?

It has been asked a few times recently, “So what is this CLT stuff people keep talking about?”

It’s actually pretty simple, but it has some massive implications. Cross Laminated Timber or CLT is essentially construction grade lumber (2×4, 2×6, 2×8 etc.) that’s glued together to make a panel. The key part is that the middle layer is glued in a 90-degree cross layer. This gives the 3 layer panel strength in two directions, making it very strong. This also allows for the creation of large panels made up of relatively small pieces of wood. What starts out as 2×4’s can be cross-laminated to make panels 10 feet wide and in some cases 70 feet long. The panels can also be made into more layers to create even more strength. For instance, a 5 layer panel that would be approximately 7 1/2 inches thick would be stronger than the 4 1/2 inches of 3 layers.

Depiction of a 5 layer CLT panel
Depiction of a 5 layer CLT panel

Many people are concerned about the gluing process and the strength of the bond. We need to keep in mind that we have been using wood glues to hold glue lam beams, finger-jointed lumber, plywood and furniture for decades. This process is simply doing things we’ve done for years and applying it in a different way.

These panels can now be used to supplement steel and concrete in urban environments, thus significantly reducing our carbon footprint. Wood stores carbon during photosynthesis that can ultimately be stored in the wood when we build. This environmental benefit is compounded when we use lumber from forest restoration projects in the fire-prone forests of the west. Thinning these forests prevents catastrophic wildfire. This keeps the forest green, which produces oxygen. The by-products of these projects (small logs > lumber > CLT) go into our buildings for the most effective materials for the environment.

These panels can be engineered to go into a specific part of the building, including creating the openings for windows, doors and anything else necessary for the building. This allows for very efficient construction that is also much quieter than traditional construction. One example is the Forté Building in Melbourne, Australia. According to Lend Lease, they were able to construct the main part of the 10 story structure in 38 days, as opposed to 16 weeks if it were a traditional steel and concrete building. The implications are huge.

The Forte Building in Melborne by Lend Lease Development
The Forte Building in Melbourne by Lend Lease Development

I believe that we are going to see more and more of this. As Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton Architecture in London was recently quoted, “We’re beginning the Timber Age.” He would know. In the UK, they have already constructed dozens of tall timber structures. Their latest design will push things further, showing people around the world that we are capable of using timber in urban settings in ways we’ve never seen before.

Design for a new mass timber building in London by Waugh Thistleton
Design for a new mass timber building in London by Waugh Thistleton