Oregonian Editorial Board – Oregon’s timber industry will never be what it once was. The state’s annual timber harvest is about half what it was 30 years ago, and employment in the wood products industry has fallen by a similar amount. With dozens of mills closed, many of those jobs wouldn’t come back even if harvests increased dramatically. But is there a chance that what remains of the industry that once defined Oregon can reinvent itself in a way that would bring back at least a portion of the more than 30,000 jobs that have been lost since the mid-1980s?
The past two weeks brought evidence that such hope exists in the form of a product called cross-laminated timber (CLT). DR Johnson Lumber of Riddle became the first U.S. company to be certified to produce cross-laminated timber. Also, a Pearl District project involving local real estate developerProject^ (the symbol is part of the company’s name) and architecture firm Lever was named one of two winners in the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition. The planned 12-story building, which was entered into the contest by The Framework Project LLC, will be constructed primarily from cross-laminated timber.
So what is cross-laminated timber, why is it a big deal and how much potential does it have to help revive Oregon’s wood products industry? Cross-laminated timber is actually a large panel that is assembled from multiple layers of wood. The middle is made from lower-value wood with higher-value wood on the outside, said Thomas Maness, dean of the Oregon State University College of Forestry. Once assembled, the panels are customized with openings for windows and doors and slots for wiring, and then shipped as a package. “You can almost think of this technology as a massive Ikea cabinet,” Maness said.
In short, the engineered panels are a piece of the move toward more sustainable buildings, and Oregon is ideally located to become the U.S. leader in the technology. So, just how big could this emerging industry become, and how many jobs could it produce?
DR Johnson currently has about 100 workers at DR Johnson Lumber and Riddle Laminators. Chief Operating Officer John Redfield said the company has hired five to eight workers because of the expansion into CLT, which included using company employees to build and adjust equipment needed to produce the new product. Workers already with the company were trained and promoted for the new jobs, with new workers hired to perform their former tasks. He said the plan is to “start slow and grow with the market.”
In Europe, CLT plants generally employ 200 to 400 workers, Maness said. He projected that Oregon could support as many as a half-dozen plants. A projected gain of 1,200 to 2,400 jobs is a pretty small number for an industry that has lost so many. But the hope is that cross-laminated timber will be just the first of several new wood products to flow out of Oregon factories.
Construction is scheduled to begin in March on a building at OSU for the National Center for Advanced Wood Products Manufacturing and Design. The joint effort of the Oregon State forestry school and the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Artswill focus on development of innovative wood products that can be made in Oregon, with emphasis on those that can be used in multi-story, multi-use buildings.
Maness said researchers could explore topics such as wood densification, which could lead to harder and more durable floor surfaces, and improved acoustics. The general goal: Add more value to wood products. Even if the resulting products are exported, high-paying jobs will have been created here. It’s a much better economic play than exporting raw logs. And many of those jobs will be at plants in struggling rural communities, such as Riddle.
Much work remains before the state reaps a big payoff from these efforts. Competition surely will arise elsewhere. But Oregon is off to a good start and has some competitive advantages. Maness is well aware of the stakes. “We’ve got to figure out how to do this right or we’re not going to have any rural communities,” he said.