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Speech

Changing How America Builds

Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen
Portland, OR
International Mass Timber Conference — March 21, 2018

It’s a pleasure to be here today. I am here on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to reaffirm our commitment to sound forest stewardship and our commitment to the use of wood as a green building material. Mass timber is about both: it lets us connect sound forest stewardship to the sustainable use of wood for buildings.

So I am honored to be here today. Amazing to think that just three years ago was the first Mass Timber Conference! I look forward to hearing about new developments in the field of mass timber and learning where the gaps might be so we can work together through partnerships to make this market stronger than ever.

 

Background

First, a few words about me. As you might know, I am serving as Interim Chief of the Forest Service, a position I have been in for all of two weeks. But I am not new to the Forest Service, and I know the agency well. I have been a partner to the Forest Service and the conservation community for my entire career.

I am a trained forester, originally from Washington state. I worked as a wildland firefighter for many years. I went on to serve as State Forester for both Washington and Arizona before joining the Forest Service. Since 2010, I have served as Associate Deputy Chief and then as Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry in the Forest Service.

So I have extensive firsthand knowledge of the challenges we face at the Forest Service, many of which have to do with forest health and growing threats from wildland fire. The solutions often involve active forest management and the sustainable harvest of trees to protect communities from catastrophic fire and to restore forests to health. We can use the materials removed through mass timber technologies to meet our nation’s need for construction, jobs, and economic opportunities.

 

Creating Opportunities

Every challenge is also an opportunity, and one challenge is population growth. The Pacific Northwest is growing by leaps and bounds, and many people come here for the amenities—the beautiful landscapes and the opportunities for a lifestyle in communion with nature, maybe with a home adjacent to public lands. The same thing is happening all over the country. One home in three, roughly 44 million units, is now in the wildland–urban interface.

As you know, many of those interface landscapes are naturally prone to wildland fire. Living in fire-prone landscapes means exposure to all the dangers associated with wildfire, and those dangers have been growing. Since 2000, fire seasons have become longer and fires have become larger and more severe. Last year was a record fire year in many regards, with more than 10 million acres burned nationwide and more than 8,000 homes destroyed. That was far more than the national ten-year average, and the trend is rising.

We know what to do in response. Since 2009, the entire wildland fire community has come together behind a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Our strategy is based on restoring healthy fire-adapted landscapes and on building fire-adapted human communities. To accomplish both, we need to remove excess woody materials from overgrown forests. We owe it to the citizens we serve to do everything we can to restore healthy, resilient forests while protecting homes and communities from wildfire.

That takes active management. In many cases, it takes fuels and forest health treatments, including timber sales and mechanical fuels treatments like thinning. These projects create jobs and economic opportunities in rural areas where other sources of income might be few. Often, the materials we need to remove have little or no value, but if we can find new uses for those materials, then maybe we can market them and stretch our scarce taxpayer dollars. Then we can get even more work done—more bang for the taxpayer buck.

So the challenges we face are also opportunities … if we can step up our game in mass timber. I see no downside here because wood is a green building material, far better for the environment than cement or steel. A thriving mass timber market can help us meet our demographic challenges while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. A thriving mass timber market can help us reduce hazardous fuels and restore forest health. A thriving mass timber market can help us protect homes and communities in the wildland–urban interface while also boosting our rural economies. Any way you look at it, the outcome is communities that are safer, greener, and more prosperous.

That’s why we’re here today. For the Forest Service, this is a no-brainer. We are working hard to support the development of the mass timber market, and we are also looking for better ways of supplying our nation’s builders. We want to continue supporting this building revolution. We want to work with you to change how our nation builds.

 

Partnerships for Mass Timber

And together with our partners, I think we have made a good start. Many of you are probably familiar with our Wood Innovation Grants. We work with state and private partners to promote the sustainable use of wood in energy, construction, and other sectors through seed money for promising projects, including mass timber technologies, buildings, and markets.

We also work with federal partners to create synergies in the mass timber sector. Within USDA, our mass timber partners have included Rural Development, the Agricultural Marketing Service, the Agricultural Research Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. As you might know, the Commerce Department has also supported development of the mass timber sector in Oregon, Washington, and Maine.

Several parts of the Forest Service are working together on mass timber: our Research and Development arm through our Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin; our Wood Innovations team, which works on marketing and technology transfer; and all the people on the national forests who are planning and administering timber sales and hazardous fuels treatments. Our researchers, technical experts, and forest management practitioners are all working together to advance mass timber production and construction, and we have created some outstanding synergies together with our partners.

We bring some special capacities to the table, not least through our Research and Development organization. We have one of the world’s premier research organizations dedicated solely to conservation, and we can bring a lot of high-power science to bear in collaboration with universities and other partners. Our Forest Products Laboratory in particular has worked with partners to conduct research on mass timber and cross-laminated timber. We have worked closely with the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and the National Science Foundation in testing and demonstrating the fire, seismic, and blast performance of CLT. Our scientists have also conducted research on the durability of mass timber, proving its resistance to insects and decay. We have also worked to develop life cycle assessments and environmental product declarations. All this information supports the scientific basis for mass timber in U.S. building codes.

Our State and Private Forestry organization brings more capacities to the table. Together with partners, we have sponsored a wide range of activities in support of mass timber, like the great work done locally by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. This Mass Timber Conference itself is the result of a partnership the Forest Service entered into with Forest Business Network four years ago. We also invested in the 2015 U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition through a partnership involving USDA, the Softwood Lumber Board, and the Binational Softwood Lumber Council. Together with the Softwood Lumber Board and Nixon Peabody LLP, we cohosted last year’s Timber City exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, where we got 80,000 visitors, raising the visibility of mass timber nationwide. We are constantly on the lookout for high-impact investments like these in cooperation with our high-performing partners, many of whom are here today. Thank you for being such a stellar group of doers and innovators!

In addition to our Research and Development and our State and Private Forestry, we have a tremendous capacity as stewards of the National Forest System. We face hurdles in the cost-effective delivery of material for mass timber, but with the market demand coming our way, we know we have to modernize the way we do business. We are working hard to become more efficient in our timber sales, and we are working to streamline the delivery of raw materials. We want to work with you to improve how we do business.

And we are building momentum. Over the past two years—in 2016 and 2017—we’ve seen more active management results on the National Forest System than in any two-year period in well over two decades. Over 6 million acres were treated on the National Forest System and 5.9 billion board feet of timber were sold. Just to give one example, in Washington state we are dramatically increasing timber harvests and forest restoration projects. The Colville National Forest in northeastern Washington is slated to become the top producer in the Pacific Northwest, a region with 17 national forests. In 2018, the Colville is expected to raise its timber outputs by 70 percent from the previous year and by over 140 percent from 2015. Almost all this material will come from forest health treatments, like forest thinning and removing fire-killed trees.

In connection with national forest timber, I know the topic of forest certification has come up. Without going into details, we have chosen for various reasons not to become certified by the certification bodies that are out there today. With that said, I want to assure you that timber from the National Forest System is some of the most tightly regulated and sustainably produced timber you can find anywhere in the world. Still, if our decision not to pursue certification becomes a serious obstacle to mass timber, then we will certainly take a fresh look at the issue.

 

Promising Opportunities

Today is an extraordinary moment in time, with promising opportunities for growth. In 2014, just four short years ago, there were no U.S. manufacturers of CLT. Today, we have two factories in production, including one right here in Oregon, and more have been recently announced. Production has also started in Oregon for a mass plywood product, supporting growth in this sector.

These are tremendous opportunities for rural communities. Some of the mass timber plants that have already been built or announced are in places that have struggled economically for many years, and we are thrilled to see these new opportunities for the people we serve. One of the standout benefits of mass timber overall is its impact on rural prosperity because we are looking at a whole new industry in places that can really use the jobs. And as this new and greener way of building spreads into urban areas, it can create valuable linkages between rural and urban communities. That’s a wonderful thing to see for lots of reasons.

So we see promising developments ahead in many regards. The International Code Council is about to vote on including tallwood building construction in the new version of the International Building Code. The Department of Defense has started using CLT in their on-base structures in response to the resiliency observed during recent blast tests. We are also seeing mass timber percolating on university campuses across the nation.

At the Forest Service, we aspire to help make America the world leader in CLT. We are proud to have leveraged our modest investment in mass timber together with our partners, and both we and our partners want to continue serving as a catalyst for development in this sector. The opportunities for innovation in design, products, and manufacturing are creating a new future for building in the United States—and around the world.

In that connection, I want to again thank our many partners, including the American Wood Council, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, and the National Association of State Foresters, just to name a few. In particular, WoodWorks has been a key partner for us. Together, we have given robust support for growth in the mass timber market, with WoodWorks focusing on two main areas. First, they give free project assistance to architects and engineers, influencing the use of wood in their projects. Second, they provide education and resources to help project teams design wood buildings. In 2017, Woodworks directly influenced 278 construction projects, delivered over 40,000 hours of education, and held 366 hosted or third-party events.

To sum up, thank you to the many boundary spanners: the manufacturers, developers, architects, engineers, builders, community planners, and many more.

 

Forest Products Modernization

Before closing, I want to emphasize one of our current initiatives at the Forest Service, Forest Products Modernization. This is one of six major change efforts underway to improve our processes so we can work with partners more efficiently and effectively. Our aim is to align our practices, policies, and guidance to become more agile, flexible, and adaptable as an organization.

The goal of Forest Products Modernization is to improve forest conditions, meet forest restoration needs, create sustainable landscapes, and increase the amount of forest products coming from the National Forest System. Forest Products Modernization will give us a new approach to our delivery of forest products so we can do a better job of improving forest conditions while also sustaining rural economies.

Mass timber technologies are giving us that opportunity. We have not significantly changed our forest products systems and technology in 30 years, and many of our production processes and policies are still based on the sale of high-value timber. Today’s forest health treatments are often focused on low-value timber, so we are updating training for our employees, examining and reforming our policy, and gaining efficiencies through better use of technology. We are also changing project management and delivery systems as well as changing the way we do business to get more work done on the ground. In fact, we are exploring change opportunities in all aspects of the forest products delivery system.

I could go on, because we are doing other things as well to promote mass timber. Suffice it to say that there is no downside here—nothing but opportunity for everyone involved. Through mass timber, the challenges we face can become opportunities for all of us as we move forward toward a new way of building in the United States. We look forward to working with you to change how America builds in the years to come.

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