Is Forest Thinning & Mass Timber Key to Reduce Fire Threats?

The US is the leading the global push to better utilise small-diameter logs in engineered wood products.

Tue 14 Nov 23


The US is looking to selectively harvest smaller trees and turn them into higher-value wood products to protect vulnerable forests from fire.

That is according to Hilary Franz, Washington’s public lands commissioner — and Democratic candidate for governor — who has described the elevated forest fire risk as “an environmental crisis.” 

In 2017, Ms Franz introduced a 20-year forestry plan, which restored 1.25 million acres of forest “by removing dead, dying and diseased trees,” with the material providing a steady supply of mass timber.

For Ms Franz, it’s a win-win-win: fire suppression, more sustainable construction and a new industry that can employ people in depressed areas.

“We’re addressing the economic crisis where we have high unemployment and underemployment in our rural areas, and we’re marrying that all up with one wonderful solution,” she told Bloomberg in an interview overnight.

And that solution is mass timber, which, according to US forester Russ Vaagen, will supply the North American market with a steady flow of high-value wood products and address the flammable undergrowth that has overloaded American forests.

“The result has been a radical rise in the size and intensity of fires, such as the lethal Maui fire in August and the Canadian wildfires that blanketed the East Coast in smoke in June,” he said.

Last month, Wood Central revealed that the Biden Administration backed the development of a mass timber hub in Washington.

Known as the Pacific Northwest Mass Timber Tech Hub, it will use “advanced material science to develop low-carbon housing solutions.”

An initiative of the TallWood Design Insitute follows a US $41 million commitment from the Biden Administration last year to expand the use of mass timber in housing as part of the Oregon Mass Timber Coalition.

That saw the Port of Portland explore turning Terminal 2 at the PDX Airport under construction into a manufacturing hub for mass timber construction.

“We will be able to put more supply of manufactured housing — up to 2,000 houses per year — into the market,” said Keith Leavitt, the Chief Trade and Equitable Development Officer for the Port of Portland.

Under The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden Administration has allocated up to $1.5 billion for forest restoration, which, at least in Washington, will support logging small-diameter trees in overgrown forests.

It also has up to $350 million to help reduce embodied carbon in the building sector, which could boost demand for mass timber – essential as supply outweighs demand across the North American market.

A rendering of the Port of Portland’s Terminal 2 will be redeveloped into a manufacturing hub for mass timber. The Oregon Mass Timber Coalition will receive more than $41 million to support the expansion of the industry. (Photo Credit: Port of Portland)

However, according to Mr Vaagen, the value of mass-timber construction goes beyond just low-carbon construction.

He claims that one of the challenges with small-diameter harvesting is that “it does not inherently require sustainable forestry.”

“Many operations buy their raw supply from the same privately owned timber farms where the rest of the construction industry gets its two-by-fours,” he said. 

To get that additional value “requires selective pruning to spread to national forests.” 

This was recently tested in a 54,000-acre A to Z Forest Restoration Project involving Northeast Coalition, federal forest managers and a biochar company, which Mr Vaagen said “developed 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 suppliers.”

As reported by Bloomberg, his journey with mass timber began in 2002, and despite a decade of restrictions on logging on federal land, it was clear public forests were sick. 

To address forest health, he joined a group of environmentalists in starting the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition to develop a new forestry plan.

From the start, Vaagen thought his role might be finding a market for dying smaller trees – then he heard about mass timber.

Introducing Vaagen Bros and their “small log story” – footage courtesy of @vaagenbrotherslumber5471.

Intrigued, in 2016, he went to Austria to visit Hasslacher Norica Timber, a family forest products company that’s become a world leader in mass timber.

He immediately saw the potential.

Soon after, he sold his stake in his fourth-generation stick lumber business and used the money to buy expensive equipment to start his mass timber operation, known as

Its low-slung, light-filled offices connect to a 70,000-square-foot factory and employs 100 people. 

The factory churns out glued laminated beams and cross-laminated timber panels for floors and walls.

The Vageen Bros lumber mill in Washington. (Photo Credit: Supplied)

Tom Baun, Vaagen’s senior business development manager, said he needed to explain everything when he started selling the products.

“I felt like a door-to-door dictionary salesman,” he said.

“Now people just get it,” Mr Vaagen said, with sales steadily rising fast – according to Bloomberg, sales grew from $10 million in 2021 to $27 million in 2022 and should reach $40 million this year!”

My goal is to prove this out on scale,” Vaagen said. “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.”


  • Wood Central

    Wood Central is Australia’s first and only dedicated platform covering wood-based media across all digital platforms. Our vision is to develop an integrated platform for media, events, education, and products that connect, inform, and inspire the people and organisations who work in and promote forestry, timber, and fibre.


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