USFS chief hoping for higher timber cut numbers

U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Thomas Tidwell may be the only head of a government agency hoping for more cuts.

Timber harvests from the National Forest System have hovered between approximately 2 and 2.5 billion board feet for a little more than decade, but Tidwell believes that number needs to increase in the name of restoration.

While those numbers may seem massive, they are a low plateau when compared to historical numbers. Prior to a decline in the 1990s, timber harvests regularly reached 10 billion to 12 billion board feet from the 1960s on and, until 1999, had not dipped below three billion board feet since 1946.

“The last decade, we’ve had a pretty steady supply of timber coming off the national forests,” Tidwell said during recent interview with the Times Observer. “Today we recognize that there’s a need to restore more lands and a lot of that restoration has to come through mechanical harvest timber sales. For us to be able to restore these forests and restore the resiliency so they can deal with stresses, we need to treat more acres.”

According to Tidwell, the Forest Service rolled out an acceleratingrestoration strategy last year that partly hinges timber harvesting.

“One of the key parts of it (the strategy) is that we acknowledge that out of the 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, there’s somewhere between 65 and 82 million acres that need some form of restoration,” Tidwell said. “At a minimum there’s over 12 million acres that need timber sales, timber harvests, to be able to restore those lands. That’s a significant increase from the amount of work we’ve been doing in the past.”

Returning to those levels depends on the timber market, however.

“The challenge that we have is we need to find ways to do it, especially with these markets that we’ve had where the housing market in this country dropped to some of the lowest levels we’ve seen in a long time,” Tidwell added. “We need to be able to expand markets for wood.”

Therefore, Tidwell said, the Forest Service is thinking outside the box about timber usage.

“Those are some of the things we spend our research time on,” Tidwell said, “to be able to look at how we can develop different products.”

Some of those product ideas include expanding usage of wood products for biofuel, building products and new materials technology uses.

One of those emerging technologies is nanocellulose materials.

Nanocellulose materials are composed of nanosized fibrils from measuring just a few billionths of a meter. They are considered a pseudo-plastic and are most often derived from wood pulp through a high-pressure homogenizing process meant to break down fiber cell walls.

“They’re six times stronger than steel and they weigh like a tenth,” Tidwell pointed out.

He also said the Forest Service is working with pilot projects to build taller wooden buildings.

“In Europe, they build eight- and ten-story buildings out of wood,” Tidwell said. “For the most part, we’ve stayed four stories and below (in the U.S.). We now have the products to show it.”

He also touted the environmental benefits of wood materials, noting it takes less energy to build with wood than steel and concrete and sequesters carbon.

“It’s the greenest building material,” Tidwell said. “It also helps deal with our air quality.”

Tidwell said he hopes to see efforts to encourage conservation of private forests as well, something he feels increasing timber value can aid.

“We have to change the trends,” he said. “Each year we lose thousands and thousands of acres of private forests to development. We understand that. That’s the private landowners’ choice to develop them. But we need to find ways to make it more economically viably for the private landowner to keep the private forested lands forested.

“We also need to increase management, especially on our national forests to increase resiliency. (We) need to reforest areas following disturbance events, like hurricanes and fires quickly,” he said. “All of that together lays out a course where we need to get more work done.”