A Comprehensive Article on Cross-Laminated Timber: And the Views of Some Environmental Organizations

Clemson’s Outdoor Recreation Center made with CLT  https://www.structuremag.org/?p=17338

This Vox article by David Roberts is the best comprehensive view of CLT I’ve run across, well worth the read.  As you know, I’m working on a project about “potential areas of agreement in fuels reduction/restoration efforts”.

It seems, at least from the responses to the Climate Smart Forestry and Ag request,  that many ENGO’s put biomass at the bottom and want woody material to go to a higher value product. More on that later.  So it seems like CLT has the ability to build bridges between the formerly maligned timber industry and environmental concerns, plus the issue seems to not be partisanized.

If you wonder what makes CLT, how small the material can be and so on, I recommend you read all of this article.  There’s even a video of blast testing! And this from the Public Lands Commissioner in the State of Washington.

Forests in the West have become tinderboxes, in part thanks to climate change and in part thanks to years of poor management. They are filled with trees dead or weakened from pine beetle infestations. Decades of overzealous fire protection have left them choked with closely clustered, small-diameter trees. Lately, with all this kindling around, “there’s so much fuel, the intensity of the fire wipes out everything,” says Hilary Franz, commissioner of public lands in Washington state. The land is being permanently scarred.

The forests on public lands badly need thinning, but there’s never enough funding. This has given Franz an idea: use weak and small trees, for which there is no other market, for mass timber. (Logs with tops as small as 4.5 inches will work.) A sufficiently large market for mass timber would create funding for thinning those trees out. As a bonus, Franz wants to use mass timber to build low-cost affordable housing on publicly managed land.

Numerous environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club, signed an open letter to California state officials in 2018, urging caution about mass timber. Notably, they did not oppose it outright. They argued that, thanks to current forestry practices, its climate benefits have been exaggerated. “CLT cannot be climate-smart unless it comes from climate-smart forestry,” they said.

The letter provides a short list of principles that should guide climate-smart forestry, including: “Logging of the world’s remaining mature and primary forests, as well as unroaded/undeveloped and other intact forest landscapes, should cease.” And: “Tree plantations should not be established at the expense of natural forests.”

While it is not perfect, they concluded, “FSC certification of privately owned forestlands can support progress in the right direction.”

“There’s no question that [FSC] is the gold standard,” says Jones, “but it’s all better than not doing anything.”

Now you might find this puzzling, as the Sierra Club seems to be against the FS becoming certified to FSC. At least that’s what 15 year old rumors said.  So I noted that the link to the letter from the Sierra Club site was broken and asked Roberts for a copy.  The letter is now hosted by another site the Pacific Northwest Building Coalition, which seems to be an organization of concrete producers (competitors in the building sector).

The principles in the letter sound very much like how the Forest Service manages. Which is not surprising, given studies like this from the Pinchot Institute.

“Therefore, we should permanently protect those forests that are the most carbon-rich, including U.S. federal public forestlands” Except that they are not all (all FS lands) carbon rich, as we know; and doesn’t directly address the fuel treatment/restoration “the alternative is burning in piles” question, as articulated by this WSU Civil Engineering Professor, Don Bender.

And who signed the letter? A bunch of organizations that are the usual suspects in our line of work, as well as others.
Jason Grant, Sierra Club
Rolf Skar, Greenpeace USA
Debbie Hammel, Natural Resources Defense Council,
Jim Ace, Stand
Dominick DellaSala, Ph. D., Geos Institute
Chad Hanson, Ph. D. John Muir Project
Denis Hayes, Bullitt Foundation
Peter Goldman, Washington Forest Law Center
Adam Colette, Dogwood Alliance
Bill Barclay, Rainforest Action Network
Lisa Remlinger, Washington Environmental Council
Randi Spivak, Center for Biodiversity.. and many more

So it seems like support depends on landownership, and not anything to do with the ecosystem or the science. And of course, one of the difficulties with FSC is that it’s ultimately based on a forest management for forest products model, and not a fuels treatment/restoration model. That might require the development of a different certification system.  But that might lead to equity concerns in which a broad national system might exert power-over the informed decisions of collaboratives on the ground.

But perhaps I’m misinterpreting the sentence in the letter. I have tried to clarify with folks from the Sierra Club, but have not received any clarifying replies, including the media desk. If anyone has a good contact there, please let me know.

8 thoughts on “A Comprehensive Article on Cross-Laminated Timber: And the Views of Some Environmental Organizations”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Sharon. The link to the open letter is broken, but you can find the text here:

    It is noteworthy that the Sierra Club sign on to the letter — this is good news. The excerpt below shows that the groups are at least in support of some form of timber harvesting. However, the points below mention old-growth and mature timber, which are rarely if ever used in producing CLTs or MPS (mass plywood panels), which are made from relatively young timber — just the kind that needs to be removed from forests — esp. federal forests — for resilience, restoration, and fire risk reduction. Yet the groups write that “we should permanently protect those forests that are the most carbon-rich, including U.S. federal public forestlands.” That represents a huge roadblock to increasing CLT production and better federal forest manegement.

    From the enviro groups’ open letter:

    While there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer as to how best to harvest timber to optimize carbon, in general…

    Logging of the world’s remaining mature and primary forests, as well as unroaded/undeveloped and other intact forest landscapes, should Research indicates that forest carbon is maximized where there are the highest levels of forest protection and the least amount of logging, or no logging at all.[v] Therefore, we should permanently protect those forests that are the most carbon-rich, including U.S. federal public forestlands[vi];
    Older forests sequester and store more carbon than younger forests, so there is a forest carbon benefit if logging rotations (intervals between harvests) are lengthened. [vii]. Forests should be managed to optimize the amount of carbon they sequester and store, and not for the quickest return on investment;
    Forest management that is less intensive (e.g. smaller clearcuts, more live-tree retention, wider riparian buffers) results in less overall emissions of forest carbon than more intensive management (e.g. industrial tree farms that rely on large, frequent clearcuts and applications of GHG-emitting fertilizers)[viii];
    Tree plantations should not be established at the expense of natural forests and, since forests that are managed as ecosystems rather than monocultures are more resilient in the face of climate change[ix], and have higher carbon storage, many existing plantations should be managed toward a more natural condition;
    Afforestation (planting trees in areas where there are none currently and it is ecologically appropriate to do so) is desirable because it brings near-term carbon benefits and will increase wood supply in the long term.

    Not only would taking these actions improve the management of forest carbon, it would yield numerous other important environmental benefits including less harm to wildlife habitat, relatively higher ecological complexity and biological diversity, and reduced negative impacts on soil and water quality[x].

    • Steve thanks for adding the link, I mentioned that the letter is now hosted by a concrete organization but forgot to add the link there, will now.

  2. How does one define a “primary” forest in an era where climate change and fire suppression have altered even the most remote and unloaded forests in the west?
    Also interesting to see the idea restated that old-growth logs are being milled for timer products. Large log mills are becoming rarer and rarer, yet the idea that timber companies are salivating over logging old growth remains.

    • Yes, I contacted him and he referred me to a Sierra Club volunteer who said ”

      here is the club policy language:

      “The Sierra Club support[s] protecting all federal publicly owned lands in the United States and advocate[s] an end to all commercial logging on these lands.”

      However, this does not preclude club volunteers from working toward whatever improvements are possible on the management of federal forests, even if that is far short of removing the pressure of commercial logging. CLT is a product/process for which timber can come from public or private lands. ”

      So that suggests that while the end goal is to end commercial logging, SCers can work to make whatever improvements they think. My question was more about what is the difference between supporting CLT from federal lands (if they are) and being against “logging” on federal lands.

      Is is a diameter limit thing, or what we might call a primary purpose thing, or a kind of “logging” equipment thing? So that’s what I was trying to ask.

      • I think it is (or at least should be on public lands) that logging is a result (a byproduct, especially of sound ecologically driven management) rather than a purpose. This would avoid creating incentives for logging that are related to wood products, jobs or financial benefits. I don’t think “commercial” captures that quite right, but maybe it works for their PR purposes. In NFMA terms, maybe “timber production” would be more meaningful, and I think that (and suitability for same) is tied to the term “commercial forest lands,” which used to be used by the Forest Service. If there were no lands suitable for timber production, all logging would be a byproduct of some other purpose.

        • Good points, Jon. I agree that logging out to be a result of sound ecologically driven management, but the agency need not — ought not — avoid creating incentives for logging that are related to wood products, jobs or financial benefits. Timber production is still a key goal, but not the only one, for the USFS.

          This is from to agency web site:

          “The National Forests were originally envisioned as working forests with multiple objectives: to improve and protect the forest, to secure favorable watershed conditions, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use of citizens of the United States. Forest management objectives have evolved and are broadly captured in the USDA Forest Service Strategic Plan FY 2015-2020 goals to sustain our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands and deliver benefits to the public. More specifically, timber sales and other removals of forest products support agency strategic objectives to foster resilient, adaptive ecosystems to mitigate climate change, mitigate wildfire risk, and strengthen communities.”

          And this is from the 2015-2020 strategic plan:

          “Delivery of forest-related goods and services is integral to our mission at the Forest Service, stimulating tangible economic benefits to rural communities, such as private-sector investment and employment opportunities. The economic activity we support is directly attributable to the natural resource investments we make and the use of national forest and grassland resources that result in marketable products associated with outdoor recreation, hunting, fishing, timber production, livestock grazing, mineral production, land stewardship, and other activities.”

  3. National strategic plans are policy documents that have not been through a rulemaking or NEPA process so they simply represent the agency’s opinion. It would also not be inconsistent with this policy to say that economic benefits are a secondary consideration to achieving outcomes on the land. Maybe I should have said “avoid creating INDEPENDENT incentives for logging that are related to wood products, jobs or financial benefits.” (I don’t think it was an original purpose of national forests to “strengthen communities.”)


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