Michael T. Rains: Resilient Forests Through Effective Biomass Uses Such As Tall Wood Buildings

Today, we grow about twice as much wood in America as we use.  Our forests are getting over-crowded and stressed.  Hazardous fuels are increasing.  Hazardous fuels lead to catastrophic fires or the new term, MegafiresWe have seen the devastating impacts of these fires with lives lost, homes destroyed, and millions of acres blackened.  Federal government expenditures this year in fire suppression will be about $3 billion (an average of about $1 million per hour) and projected costs to be even higher in the years ahead. There are about a billion “burnable” acres across America and an estimated 120 million people in over 46 million homes at risk due to wildfire.  United States taxpayers are losing $20 to $100 billion a year in wildfire related damages to infrastructure, public health and natural resources.

USDA Forest Service leaders have consistently concluded that we must, “help create healthy, sustainable forests that are more resilient to disturbances so the linkage between environmental health and community stability can be more fully realized.”  We can do this through a suite of restorative actions to our trees, forests and forest ecosystems along a complex rural to urban land gradient.

Biomass uses are the outcomes of restorative actions.  Wood-based nanotechnology, Green Building Construction (tall wood buildings), and wood for energy offer pragmatic examples of market-based solutions to help our forests become more resilient to disturbances such as wildfires.    

It is estimated that a strong, well-established program in cost-effective biomass uses could create high-value markets from low-value wood (for example, hazardous fuels) to reasonably help restore 13-19 million forested-acres[1] annually.  About one-half of the nation’s 885 million acres of forestland currently requires some type of restorative action.  This pace and scale of restoration could reduce future fire suppression costs in the range of 12-15 percent -- up to about $240 to $400 million annually. 

Also, as forests become less susceptible to large, angry fires and fire is again used as a tool for improved forest health, suppression costs are reduced even further.  Simply put, it makes good economic sense to aggressively invest in biomass uses to help improve the condition of our forests.

Recently, tall buildings made of wood have become an important focus of biomass uses.  Within about 5 years it is projected that demand for wood to construct commercial buildings could increase by 7 billion board feet, helping restore about 2 million acres of America’s forests annually.  With innovative technologies in advanced composites, lower value wood can cost-effectively and safely be used for commerical construction.  Shown to the right is a picture of the Wood Innovation and Design Center (and one of its floors) Price George, British Columbia.  The wood building is over 100 feet tall.

On September 17, 2015, the Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, in partnership with the Softwood Lumber Board and the Binational Softwood Lumber Council, announced the winners of the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition. The two winning teams are developing tall wood demonstration projects in New York City and Portland, Oregon.

One of these buildings (rendering is shown to the right), will be located at 475 W. 18th Street in downtown Manhattan, New York City. This tall wood building will be a 10-story condominium building.  Construction is expected to begin soon. 

The second building being constructed of wood is a 12-story combined office and apartment building in Portland, Oregon (rendering below).  Vilsack stated in his press release announcing these two buildings, “next-generation lumber and mass timber products are becoming the latest innovation in building construction.  Innovative new technologies and building systems have enabled longer wood spans, taller walls, and higher buildings, and continue to expand the possibilities for wood use in construction.”  Vilsack concluded, “timber wood products are flexible, strong, and fire resistant, and can be used as a safe and sustainable alternative to concrete, masonry, and steel.  Using wood helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon and simultaneously offsetting emissions from conventional building materials.”

Michael T. Rains is retired from the Forest Service.  He is the author of the “Managing the Impacts of Wildfires On Communities and the Environment” -- the National Fire Plan – in 2001.  As past Director of the Forest Products Laboratory (Madison, WI), he became very involved in biomass uses as a way to help create “…healthy, sustainable forests that are more resilient to disturbances (i.e., wildland fires).”



[1] All lands, all ownerships.


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