How Surprising is That Really?: “To Fight Wildfire, California Gets a Surprising Solution: a New Sawmill”

A new sawmill under construction near Lake Tahoe is offering hope to state officials and some environmental advocates. Its first job will be to process wood from trees killed in the massive Caldor Fire in 2021, before moving onto smaller trees. Photographer: Patrick Mouzawak/Bloomberg

A Bloomberg article today talks about a new sawmill under construction near Lake Tahoe. Some of us may have a “back to the future” vibe about this. Others may wonder about whether communities without the substantial resources and economic/political clout.. think casinos, resorts, Billionaire’s Row, ski areas and so on, might also be assisted by having a sawmill in the community. Lake Tahoe is the place with its own CE, after all.

Under our legislation, active forest management of up to 10,000 acres at Tahoe now qualifies for a categorical exclusion from NEPA. Forest Service Region 5 Manager Randy Moore told me that this takes their environmental assessment from more than 800 pages to less than 40 pages, and Tahoe Basin Supervisor Jeff Marsolais reports that their first project under this new authority took just four months to permit.

Perhaps other philanthropic organizations could support traditional underserved rural communities? The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities is doing that in John Day, Oregon, but perhaps the larger philanthropic foundations?

Check out the Tahoe Fund’s website it looks like they have an enormous variety of projects, trails, sugar pine restoration, scholarships for forestry education (could forestry be cool again?), including a grant to a biomass plant:

The Tahoe Fund has made Forest Health our top priority, with a focus on increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration in the Tahoe Basin. A major issue our public land managers face is the lack of places to offload woody biomass. There is currently nowhere feasible to take the excess biomass, resulting in hundreds of thousands of burn piles sitting in the Basin.

The Tahoe Fund has been working with Sierra Valley Enterprises, the new owners of a biomass facility in Loyalton that was shut down in January of 2020, to help get it back up and running. To help facilitate the financing required to re-open this facility, the Tahoe Fund hired TSS Consultants to develop a Resource Study of available forest biomass and log supply within the economic transport distance of the Loyalton site.

Anyway, here are some excerpts from the story. I think you can read Bloomberg News for free if you register.

The Tahoe Fund helped convene the sawmill project leaders, which include Shinn and Kevin Leary, the CEO of a Reno-based private investment firm, Hallador Investment Advisors. In 2021, it commissioned a study that examined how much supply would be available for a sawmill operation in the region. It cited recent funding and planning by the state of California and the US Forest Service to increase fuel reduction treatments such as thinning as well as prescribed fire. That support should help keep the supply of logs for the sawmill flowing, with the oversight of environmental regulators, said Berry of the Tahoe Fund.

“Everyone has a role to play here,” she said.

The Carson City mill will be built on land owned by the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. Wendy Loomis, the executive director of the tribe’s business arm, said the project will aim to hire tribal members for jobs that will be available in the sawmill.

“When we look for projects, our first priority is to support the Tribe’s vision and mission statement to help Mother Earth,” Loomis said. “Number two is to create workforce development. So this accomplishes both of those things.”


Several environmental groups and restoration experts offered cautious support for the types of thinning projects that the new sawmill is supposed to help. A spokesperson for the Nature Conservancy, the largest environmental nonprofit in the US, said that while it did not specifically endorse the Carson City project, “we can envision a future where a small-diameter sawmill, properly sited and sized, could help scale forest restoration efforts.” The Sierra Nevada Alliance, an environmental nonprofit based in the Tahoe area, similarly advocates for healthy forest restoration.

relates to To Fight Wildfire, California Gets a Surprising Solution: a New Sawmill
The plans for the Tahoe Forest Products sawmill in Carson City.
Photographer: Patrick Mouzawak/Bloomberg

Last year’s Caldor fire provided some evidence that thinning and prescribed fire — which was developed and practiced by Indigenous people for millennia — are beneficial for forests. In areas that had been treated, flames dropped down enough to leave patches of forest still green and alive, officials said at the time.

Not everyone is in favor of the Carson City plan. Some residents have registered concerns with elected officials about noise impacts related to the mill. And there are some scientists and activists who oppose all forms of logging, arguing that forest thinning is a smokescreen for the economic interests of timber companies. A lawsuit impacting a restoration-focused logging plan in Yosemite National Park reflects that ongoing tension.

Battles, the Berkeley scientist, said those voices are in the scientific minority. And the Carson City sawmill isn’t the only project of its kind. Further north, in Quincy, California, another sawmill is being built to tackle the acres of dead trees killed by last year’s Dixie fire.

“We need to do more forest management, whatever it is,” he said. “But we need the capacity for it, and one way to get that is to sell the wood and make sawmills that can handle it.”

For groups that “oppose all forms of logging, arguing that forest thinning is a smokescreen for the economic interests of timber companies”.  But what about all the timber industry-free places like Lake Tahoe or many other places that have the (identical bolded above) problem? Thinned trees in piles?

I’d really like to have that discussion with someone who represents that point of view, perhaps a TSW reader? Otherwise it sounds like a “bad industry, we can’t work with them” thing. And I think this “bad industry” attitude can actually work against environmental goals, be it decarbonization, keeping green forests on the landscape, helping fire suppression folks do their job, and so on.  There are plenty of ENGOs without that attitude, so I wonder what underlies it.  In fact, I was kind of surprised by the relatively lukewarm TNC quote.

In this case, it would have been helpful if the reporter had pushed back.  Should they (public and private) not thin? What else should they do with the piles?

‘Fuel for the next fire.’ Why California can’t unload the trees that worsen its wildfires: Sacramento Bee

IMHO, this is a really really good story.  Unfortunately, it’s for subscribers of the Sacramento Bee only.  Fortunately, they have a 99 cent day rate (yay, wish everyone had that). There are also excellent videos and photos.  I think it’s particularly interesting to contrast the kind of conversations in California with those of Oregon.

State and federal officials, as well as forestry experts, say California doesn’t have nearly enough lumber mills to process the trees — dead or alive — that need to come out of the state’s 33 million acres of forestland to reduce the risk of megafires. California suffers from a similar shortage of biomass plants, which make electricity out of trees and brush hauled out of the woods.

So the timber stays in the forests.

“It’s fuel for the next fire,” said Tim Robards, a staff chief at Cal Fire who oversees forest health and wood products issues.

Robards said the problem has worsened in the past two years, during which 6.7 million acres burned. The surge of dead and dying trees is clogging the state’s meager fleet of mills and biomass plants, he said.

The problem is intensifying at the very moment state and federal agencies are trying to reduce the density of California’s forests. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages 20 million acres of California land, says the shortage of mills and plants makes it hard to even plan the fuels-reduction projects it wants to undertake.

“We lack sufficient infrastructure to make as much progress as everyone would like us to do,” said Larry Swan, a wood utilization and biomass specialist with the Forest Service.

There’s no obvious quick fix for “this deficit of capacity,” as Robards called it. The facilities have been in decline for decades — lumber mills have been disappearing since the early 1990s, largely because of environmental restrictions, and the biomass industry has been battered by competition from cheaper energy sources.

“We had this robust infrastructure,” said Mike De Lasaux, a retired forester with UC Cooperative Extension. “Now we see these humongous piles of treetops and small trees that have no place to go.”

There’s a detailed discussion of biomass and the difficulties of getting biomass plants established.

It’s a tragedy,” said Brett Storey, the recently retired biomass manager for Placer County. “All of that material would be utilized instead of going up in smoke every summer.”
Storey spent years trying to get a biomass plant built near Lake Tahoe. A proposed site near Kings Beach faltered when residents and local officials objected to an industrial facility opening in the Tahoe basin. County officials then chose a spot near Truckee, but that fell apart four years ago when they couldn’t make a deal with the area’s electric company, Liberty Utilities, to buy the plant’s energy.
Now the county is trying again. After the Caldor Fire nearly burned down South Lake Tahoe this summer, county officials are taking a fresh look at the biomass project.
“There’s just a great sense of urgency,” said Kerri Timmer, the county’s regional forest health coordinator.
The state has tried to revive the industry, with some success. An auction-based program called BioRAM, which requires utilities to purchase biomass power, has enabled some plants to garner higher prices for their electricity than they can negotiate on their own. The program has saved at least one plant that was about to shut down, Burney Forest Power in Shasta County.
But not everyone’s eligible.
In the Sierra County town of Loyalton, the American Renewable Power biomass plant was consuming 100,000 tons of wood annually until it closed last year. One reason was price: Because of issues around its connection to the power grid, the Loyalton plant wasn’t eligible for the BioRAM program and couldn’t negotiate a decent rate for its energy.
Jeff Holland, who runs a logging company near Placerville, purchased the Loyalton site for $825,000 and is trying to resume operations. But startup costs are higher than expected, and he isn’t sure when it will reopen. He thinks the state must do more to support biomass.
“Logical thinking people who are tired of breathing smoke and tired of losing our national treasures believe biomass should be in the picture,” Holland said

Biomass plants are so limited in number, it often doesn’t pay to haul the wood out of forests that have been thinned. Instead, it gets stacked up and burned in the open, polluting the air. “For a lot of that biomass that’s being produced, particularly in the forested areas, there isn’t a market for it,” said Steve Eubanks, a retired Forest Service official who’s trying to build a biomass plant near Grass Valley. “They’re either leaving it on the ground or piling it or burning it.”
Often, the piles sit a long while. The regional air district has to issue a burn permit. The weather has to cooperate — if it’s too windy, the fire could blow out of control, as when the Caples Fire burned part of the Eldorado National Forest in 2019.
“It’s a struggle to burn our piles, and, yes, we have a backlog,” said Swan of the Forest Service.

I recommend a read of the whole piece. What seems to be missing for me is that our energy policies don’t reflect the risk reduction benefits of biomass removal. Biomass can only win by being cheaper than wind and solar. But nuclear folks will tell us that intermittent energy sources need backup. Then wind and solar folks will point to batteries or pumped hyro or homes as batteries, all unproven technologies at scale, plus issues around mining and trade in minerals needed for batteries. The old decarbonizing technology horserace. But today we could be running forest biomass plants with the technology we have And do risk reduction for wildfires, and contribute to air quality (instead of burning in piles). Perhaps the difficulty is ultimately policy siloing. And California’s working to tackle it.

California wildfire fallout: Timber industry confronted by too many dead trees, warns of damaged forests- San Francisco Chronicle

Sawdust pours out of the Collins Pine lumber mill in Chester.
Max Whittaker/Special to The Chronicle

This is a really interesting article. I like the fact that the reporter spoke to a researcher at Oregon State University, and then circled back to the California FS employees working directly with the problem.


At ground level, three family-held timber companies say the increasingly ferocious wildfires are transforming their businesses.

California’s first million-acre wildfire, the August Complex in 2020, burned through about 40,000 acres of Crane Mills holdings in the Mendocino National Forest. About 42% of those burned acres experienced total losses among young and old trees alike, meaning they will have to be wholly reforested or risk being overtaken by shrubs, Chief Financial Officer Drew Crane said.

The 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fires burned about two-thirds of Big Creek Lumber’s 8,000 acres of mixed redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Company President Janet McCrary Webb — whose family members lost 16 homes — said though redwood trees have thick bark built to withstand wildfires, she remains unsure how many will succumb to fire damage and die.

The Dixie Fire burned through about half of Collins Pine’s 95,300 acres around Lake Almanor in Plumas and Tehama counties. The company has found signs the fire was beneficial to some areas, but “about 30,000 acres is gone, black,” said Niel Fischer, Collins Pine western resources manager. More than 64,000 old-growth trees, the kind expected to survive wildfires, are probably dead, he said.

“I don’t want to use the word catastrophic, but it was catastrophic in terms of what it means to the business and what we have to do to recover,” Fischer said. “It shook us as foresters to our core.”

Wildfires are expected disturbances for California’s timber industry and are natural and restorative to these ecosystems. But the severity of fires in 2020 and 2021 is expected to result in significant destruction.

And they have to move fast to harvest the charred trees. Dead and dying trees can be milled for lumber, but it has to be done within about two years before they rot or become infested with insects.

Crane Mills, based in Corning on the western side of Tehama County, is running its mill at full tilt. But the company lost a key buyer of Ponderosa pine in March — there is simply too much wood.

“There aren’t enough loggers, there aren’t enough trucks, there aren’t enough foresters,” Crane said. “A lot of it will go to waste.”

Fischer said it’s not like losing one year’s tomato crop — rather Collins Pine has 10 or 15 years worth of resources “dead on the stump.”

“Dead trees do have value in the forest as long as you don’t have too many,” Fischer said. “We are careful to conserve trees that have died so they’re naturally incorporated into soil and become habitat … but there has to be balance.”

George Gentry, senior vice president of the California Forestry Association, said salvage logging operations can offer an economic boost in the immediate aftermath of a wildfire, but not enough to compensate for the long-term impact he expects will dampen timber harvests “for decades to come.” Gentry estimated 1.6 billion board feet burned this year — more than the 1.5 billion board feet produced each year across the state.

“They’ll do some initial salvage, they’ll do some initial rehabilitation, then they’ll have to pull back,” Gentry said. “If they reduce mill employment, if they reduce purchases, if they reduce anything they’d buy locally, that impact is really significant in rural economies.”

McCrary Webb with Big Creek Lumber said the volume of dead, dying and drying trees throughout Northern California forests should be a concern for all — and she hopes to see more solutions, like an increase in demand for wood biomass energy production.

“That’s one of the issues we see that really the whole state has to grapple with: How can you effectively deal with all this wood?” McCrary Webb said. “A lot of this wood, there’s no place to take it. Some were taking it to landfills. There’s no place for it to go.”

Collins Pine has been a pioneer in uneven-age harvesting, a way to manage commercial forests so they have a diversity of tree species and ages, as in natural ecosystems, Fischer said.

He said that while some portions of the land will rebound, they expect a lot of it will have to be wholly replanted. That “zeroes out the clock” for a forest meant to have both old and young trees, he said. Decades later, portions with same-age trees would be harvested at once — essentially clear-cut, a major shift away from their efforts to steward timber to more closely resemble natural forest ecosystems.

Crane said the August Complex fires were a “seminal event” for his family’s company, forcing it to rewrite its 100-year business plan. It too is facing a shift from uneven age reforestation practices to tree plantations, he said.

“You’re planting an even-aged forest — and I’m not sure how fire-resilient that is,” Crane said.

In 2020 alone, about 1 million acres changed from living forest to dead forest because of wildfires, said Joe Sherlock, regional silviculturist for the U.S. Forest Service in California. The Forest Service manages 8 million acres in California, roughly one-quarter of the state’s forestland.

Salvage timber sales are critical to funding reforestation and preventing dangerous fuel loads from building up and providing tinder for the next fire, Sherlock said. But the sheer scale of severe, tree-killing fires is adding pressure to an already overburdened system. There simply aren’t enough mills to process the trees or buyers to take the lumber.

“I worry about that a tremendous amount,” Sherlock said. “It will be expensive to gather that material up and create a hospitable environment for seedlings. I don’t know whose checkbook we can use.”

Brad Seaberg, who manages timber sales in California for the Forest Service, said this year’s fires are “testing the market” for whether the agency can find enough purchasers for the amount of lumber available on federal land. And a significant number of smaller-scale landowners affected by wildfires have also entered the timber market, he said.

“The scope of what’s going on is overwhelming,” Seaberg said.

But not everyone sees salvage logging as a boon to forest health or the best defense against the next fire.

Ernie Niemi, an Oregon forest economist who has studied timber practices for decades, said salvage logging on Forest Service land comes with steep costs, both financial and environmental. Niemi said dead trees hold greater benefit in the environment as crucial storage for climate-warming carbon dioxide and habitat for woodpeckers, insects and other species.

“Those dead and dying trees out on the landscape are not suddenly worthless from an ecological perspective,” Niemi said. “That big trunk still holds an awful lot of carbon.”

Sherlock said that is true for areas with a smattering of dead trees amid a rebounding forest. But he said large areas of mostly dead forests are less likely to naturally reseed and risk conversion from forest to shrubland. Harvesting dead or dying trees is necessary work, he said.

“You can imagine what it would be like to ignore all of those standing (dead) trees,” Sherlock said. “As the years go by, more and more of those trees will snap off or tip over, all on the ground. Can you imagine a forest with tons of tons of dry wood ready to burn in the next fire?”

An earlier version of this story misstated the volume of timber burned this year and produced annually on average in California. It is in billions of board feet.

New CLT Mill in Durango for Trees From Fuel Mitigation Projects

Cross-laminated timber can speed up building projects by as much as 40%, Timber Age Systems Inc. co-founder Andrew Hawk said. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Jerry McBride

It’s interesting to see how workers and companies who provide forest products are considered to be bad in some places, but considered environmentally helpful where people are doing fuel treatments. Is it memory of the timber wars, or current practices, or ?? There’s also the local production/use angle, as I’ve written before.. if it’s good for food, why not wood?

Check out this story about a new mill in Durango was interesting.. especially where they got the grant to build a facility.   I wonder whether Arizona has such a program (to help out with 4FRI)?. You’d think if these folks could make a go of it in Durango..

Timber Age Systems Inc., a Durango company that specializes in making cross-laminated timber for sustainable building projects, plans to expand its manufacturing capacity and develop a new facility after receiving a grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity Program.

The approximately $440,000 grant will cover the creation of a new 2,500- to 3,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in La Plata County that will triple Timber Age’s capacity, said co-founder Andrew Hawk. It will also help the company add more employees and grow its use of locally harvested ponderosa pines.


Timber Age Systems aims to create usable wood products from fire mitigation efforts across the Southwest. The company sources all of the wood it uses from fire mitigation projects, turning to public and private lands for the ponderosa pines it needs.

Doing so diverts trees that would usually be wasted while creating economic opportunity and a product local builders can use. It’s all a part of Timber Age Systems’ efforts to use sustainable building to create healthy forests.

“If ponderosa pine is going to be removed from the forest from a forest health and fire mitigation standpoint, we as a community need to figure out what to do with it. And we need some sort of market for it,” Hawk said. “So it was as much about figuring out how to utilize the wood and divert it from landfill or burning as it was figuring out how to put it in buildings”

Science Friday: Turning Wood Into Plastic

Our discussion about the Bootleg Fire reminded me of the mountain pine beetle outbreak in the 80’s and the desire to use some of that material. The idea then was a waferboard plant in Chiloquin, Oregon.  But the FS couldn’t guarantee supply and it was a large investment and no one stepped up.  Forty years later, people in various parts of the West still don’t have markets for what I call FRR (forest restoration residuals).  4FRI has a guaranteed supply, and still has trouble finding purchasers.  Finding products that will use this material and businesses that will pencil out has been a bit of a Holy Grail.

Here’s another possible use for fuel treatment and forest residuals..

To create the slurry mixture, the researchers used a wood powder — a processing residue usually discarded as waste in lumber mills — and deconstructed the loose, porous structure of the powder with a biodegradable and recyclable deep eutectic solvent (DES). The resulting mixture, which features nanoscale entanglement and hydrogen bonding between the regenerated lignin and cellulose micro/nanofibrils, has a high solid content and high viscosity, which can be casted and rolled without breaking.

Yao then led a comprehensive life cycle assessment to test the environmental impacts of the bioplastic against commons plastics. Sheets of the bioplastic were buried in soil, fracturing after two weeks and completely degrading after three months; additionally, researchers say the bioplastic can be broken back down into the slurry by mechanical stirring, which also allows for the DES to be recovered and reused.

“That, to me, is what really makes this plastic good: It can all be recycled or biodegraded,” says Yao. “We’ve minimized all of the materials and the waste going into nature.”

The bioplastic has numerous applications, says Liangbing Hu, a professor at the Center for Materials Innovation at the University of Maryland and co-author of the paper. It can be molded into a film that can be used in plastic bags and packaging — one of the major uses of plastic and causes of waste production. Hu also says that because the bioplastic can be molded into different shapes, it has potential for use in automobile manufacturing, as well.

One area the research team continues to investigate is the potential impact on forests if the manufacturing of this bioplastic is scaled up. While the process currently uses wood byproducts in manufacturing, the researchers say they are keenly aware that large-scale production could require usage of massive amounts of wood, which could have far-reaching implications on forests, land management, ecosystems and climate change, to name a few.

Yao says the research team has already begun working with a forest ecologist to create forest simulation models, linking the growth cycle of forests with the manufacturing process. She also sees an opportunity to collaborate with people who work in forest-related fields at YSE — an uncommon convenience.

Perhaps this could be simplified by establishing a third-party certification system for residuals; then you wouldn’t have to speculate as to “far-reaching implications.”

As to automobile manufacturing, there’s a 2016 paper on wood in car manufacturing. And history wise , during WWII there’s wood gas for cars. In 1924, Upson and Eriksen of the FS Forest Products Laboratory wrote an article in SAE Transactions on wood for automobile bodies.

Substituting for Fossil Fuels: The Bio-Chemical Side of Wood Products

From the Forest2Market Article

As far as I have been able to ascertain, N-95 masks are made from propylene, which is a currently a byproduct of oil or gas. I’m not a psychologist, but it must be difficult to feel as angry at the “fossil fuel industry” as many are (or claim to be), and yet be dependent on so many of their products. It’s interesting that people can blame workers involved in production (often with blue-collar jobs) for the bad parts (environmental negatives), and enjoy the good parts (the products) seemingly without moral qualms.

Oil and gas folks are probably just as befuddled by this as forest industry folks were during the Timber Wars by folks against logging. Of course, I’m not saying that people don’t have a right to question practices and regulations of any industry, but, at least the rhetoric, sometimes goes beyond that to something that may feel like “industry hate.”

Anyway, if we want to keep fossil fuels in the ground, as some do, we would have to come up with substitutes for uses in addition to electricity and liquid or gas fuels. These folks in British Columbia are apparently doing that with western red cedar, and folks in Nova Scotia are doing research on spruce-fir pulp.

In early December, reporter Doris de Guzman of Forest Industry News did a nice roundup of EU efforts in using lignin products.

Lignin is expected to play a significant role as a new chemical feedstock particularly in the formation of supramolecular materials and aromatic chemicals. Lignin is a complex plant-derived macromolecule found in the cell walls of almost all dry plants. It makes up 20-30% of the composition of wood.

According to a European Commission (EC) report “Top emerging bio-based Products, their properties and industrial applications” published by Germany-based Ecologic Institute on June 2018, lignin – among the most relevant large-volume biomass components – was found to generate the highest number of innovative products together with terpenes and urban wastes. Its natural abundance and global availability represent the main drivers for the persistent attempts at its exploitation beyond its actual relevant role as a bioenergy source, although its chemical versatility and uniqueness as a source of aromatic building blocks also play a role.

Innovative products derived from lignin range from fundamental chemical building blocks such as BTX aromatics to material for advanced applications in technical fields like construction engineering, where for instance both carbon fibres and thermoset resins play a major role but are currently not available from renewable sources.

As with our chart yesterday, we would need to consider all the environmental impacts of substitutions, such as these..

Environmental impacts depend on the energy demand for cracking the lignin as well as on the catalysts and solvents needed in the production process. Bio-derived methoxylated alkylphenols are promising alternatives to traditional alkylphenols as their toxicity is significantly lower. Furthermore, methoxylated alkylphenols from lignin can possess unsaturated alkyl chain (i.e. eugenol). The unsaturation is also proposed to benefit the biodegradability of the alkylphenol, as unsaturated compounds often degrade faster in various environments than their saturated counterparts.

There’s a great deal of chemistry in the article that for me required frequent side-trips to look up words. I’d guess we don’t hear much about these new uses as they tend to be using products from pulp and paper plants, and we don’t have many of those in the Western US.

North Versus Hanson

Experts Frustrated by Stalled Efforts to Counter Megafires

“Use every damn tool you’ve got,” he said. “If we could have beavers on crack out there I’d be donating to that process — anything that will speed up the pace and scale of this thing.”

Dr. Malcolm North

Samo-Samo for CASPO

No Threatened Status for the California Spotted Owl. Current protections remain. The article is a good read, with some of the “usual suspects”.

Ancient Wood Art

Who knows what kind of history this former tree has seen? What caused the wood to grow like that? I love finding art in nature.




@larryharrellfotoware on Instagram

Our Wooden Future- Cool New Technologies: New Scientist

Toyota’s Setsuma roadster (not planned for production)

I thought this article was interesting because it rounded up a variety of new technologies using wood in one place, and also it focuses on European research. There is also a video of a wood laser.

Here are some of the technologies discussed:

CLT (cross laminated timber):

Shah says the skyscrapers are raising awareness, but the real action is in mid-rise buildings. An eight-storey wooden building can be prefabricated off-site and put together in a few days. The material can be grown in sustainably managed forests and, given how many of those there are, it is as if the wood for a single apartment takes just 7 seconds to grow. And while CLT costs a bit more than steel and concrete, it makes construction quicker. Rather than spewing carbon dioxide, it locks carbon away for the lifetime of the building, typically 60 to 70 years. This carbon storage can be a small but useful brake on climate change. According to a 2017 report on greenhouse gas removal by the Royal Society and the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, switching to timber in construction could instantly wipe a billion tonnes off the world’s annual carbon emissions. That is 2.3 per cent of the total – not a huge amount, but in a world where we have to do everything, immediately, it isn’t to be sniffed at. 

To replace petrochemicals:

Wood is also being developed as a source of raw materials to replace the oil-based compounds that dominate today’s chemicals market. This is where wood as we know it starts to disappear, and its integral components come to the fore.

Wood is a complex mixture of organic chemicals. About 40 per cent of it is nanocellulose, bundles of long, strong fibres that are like a natural version of Kevlar, the synthetic material used in bulletproof vests. “It’s a very strong fibre with excellent mechanical properties,” says Lars Berglund, director of the Wallenberg Wood Science Center. A further 30 per cent is lignin, a rich mix of organic compounds not dissimilar to crude oil. The rest is a starch-like substance called hemicellulose. These three components work together to create wood’s material properties, and they can all be extracted and processed into useful – and valuable – compounds.

Of course, the question remains with all these new chemical uses, and as wood is substituted for other building materials, will there be enough trees to go around?

But according to Himlal Baral, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia, there is plenty of land to go around. “Certainly, there is competing demand for land,” he says. “On the other hand, there is a huge amount of degraded and underutilised land available globally, between 1 and 6 billion hectares.” We could use such land, he says, to grow trees to make chemicals, structural materials and biofuels without competing with land needed for food or nature conservation. “Use of degraded and underutilised land for these products and services provides win-win solutions to mitigate climate change, and support rural livelihood and land restoration.”

Berglund also sees little to worry about. “In the Nordic countries, this is absolutely not a problem. If you look at annual growth and how much is harvested, we are not using all our sustainable forests.”