Could Building Cities Using More Wood-Based Products Help Prevent Wildfires?

Bloomberg discusses (10-25-23) forest health and mass timber in a segment on the global rise of mass timber as a low carbon building material. The article includes a profile of Russ Vaagen, who has spent most of his life in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. He is also the fourth generation of a local sawmill family in eastern Washington.

Vaagen believes America’s sawmills and lumberjacks are in a position to help head off the forest conflagrations that becoming ever more common, and at the same time provide raw material for the emerging mass timber industry. A few years ago, he sold his stake in the family sawmill and started a new business, Vaagen Timbers, that specializes in mass timber. The engineered wood product can be made from smaller diameter trees, and yet so strong they’re being used to build towers in cities from Tokyo to Stockholm.

Vaagen’s personal journey to mass timber began in 2002. Despite a decade of restrictions on logging on federal land, it was clear public forests were sick. So he joined his father and a group of environmentalists in starting the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition to see if some of the deep fissures could be repaired and a new kind of forestry plan could be put in place.

To get that additional value would require selective pruning to spread to the national forests, which was tested in the A toZ Forest Restoration Project—a collaboration among the Northeast Coalition, federal forest managers, and a biochar company meant as a model for holistic forestry. What made the project unique was that the government outsourced almost everything, including the painfully time-consuming National Environmental Policy Act work of selecting which trees were to be harvested, to Vaagen Brothers Lumber. (The NEPA work happened when Russ was still with his father’s company.)

“My goal is to prove this out on scale,” Vaagen told Bloomberg. “The goal is to reintroduce the forest infrastructure to the places where it’s gone in the Intermountain West, like Wyoming, Utah and southern Idaho, and put sawmills, biomass-to-energy, and mass timber facilities all integrated to thin out the forests.”

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