As I write this, I am just coming off three days of building tours, plenaries and breakout sessions at the third annual International Mass Timber Conference. I joined more than 1,200 others as mass timber construction enthusiasts from 21 countries gathered to share the latest information about a building technology that is slowly but surely changing skylines across the world.
I was most struck by the closing panel discussion led by North American Forest Partnership Executive Director Will Novy-Hildesey. Referring rather opaquely to the forest product industry’s tendency to ignore resource extraction issues when touting mass timber’s many benefits, panelist Nicole Miller, managing director of the environmental consulting firm Biomimicry 3.8, beseeched us to be more transparent.
And so I will be: Clearcuts happen.
Strip mines also happen. Limestone quarries happen. Climate change happens. As do population growth, affordable housing shortages and homelessness.
Clearcuts happen for a variety of reasons and in a variety of places. Clearcuts happen in tropical rain forests and in forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. And clearcuts happen in Oregon.
Clearcuts happen because it’s a more economical way to harvest some types of timber, and clearcuts happen because certain tree species need openings with direct sunlight to reproduce. This is particularly true for Douglas-fir, Oregon’s most prominent and most valuable native species, used primarily in building construction.
Reforestation also happens, to the tune of some 40 million seedlings planted every year on harvested lands in Oregon.
Granted, when clearcuts happen and they are replanted with native tree species, as is the law in Oregon, what grows back is not the exact same ecosystem as what was removed. But it is a forested landscape that provides habitat, recreation opportunities and carbon sequestration benefits, among other values.
When strip mines and limestone quarries happen, those resources are not, and cannot be, replenished. When forests such as those that once occupied the island of Manhattan are clearcut and replaced by massive cities, no amount of biomimicry can replace what was lost.
Let’s face it: Human population continues to grow. We need to, and will continue to, construct buildings. We have choices in what materials we build with. Every choice we make has implications.
As was made abundantly clear during the three days I spent at the Mass Timber Conference, mass timber technology is often vastly superior to the dated building technologies it is replacing. Conference speakers praised its affordability, efficiency, and fire and seismic safety, and even noted how exposure to wood in buildings can improve our health. Many, including Ms. Miller, spoke passionately about how using wood in more of our largest buildings gives us a real chance to not only reduce carbon emissions but actually to combat climate change, thanks to its tremendous carbon storage potential.
One building material is derived in part from clearcutting, is 100 percent renewable and stores carbon. Given the options, I choose that one. We all should.
Director of Forest Products