From Choose Washington 2023-2024

What’s Old is New

Washington’s forestry industry keeps evolving and leading.

Forestry Products
Glued laminated timber produced in Washington.
Photo: GettyImages/audreygonchar

by Gary Daughters

s the country’s second largest producer of softwood lumber, Washington has long set the standard for balancing production and conservation within its 21 million acres of forestland. 

“We produce some of the best wood in the world, we produce a lot of it, and we do it sustainably,” says Indroneil Ganguly, associate professor in the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Services. “Washington has been at this,” he says, “for a very long time.”

Washington’s annual harvest of trees is about 2.7 billion board feet, second only to its neighbor, Oregon. More than 1,700 forest-related businesses employ some 42,000 Washingtonians and pay nearly $3 billion in annual wages while pumping out products including flooring, tiles, shingles, furniture, fencing, sawdust and trim.

But it’s lumber that leads the way, and that’s where Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is king. A little less than half of Washington’s lumber production, says Ganguly, comes from Douglas fir.

“It’s premium wood,” he says, “way better than any of the softwood species that grow in the southeastern part of the country, and it sells at a premium.”

How so?

“It’s very stable with superior structural properties,” he explains. “It’s very straight and strong. The Japanese, in particular, will pay top dollar to get the best quality Douglas fir from Washington state.”

New products are emerging, as well, with cross-laminated timber (CLT, also “mass timber”) gaining popularity as an ecologically-friendly building tool. Engineered from multiple layers of lumber and adhesive, CLT possesses sufficient strength to be used in place of concrete, even in multi-story construction. 

Mercer Mass Timber’s new state-of-the art facility in Spokane Valley is home to one of the world’s largest CLT presses and has the capacity to produce 13 million sq. ft. of five-ply panels annually. The facility also produces glued laminated timber (glulam), another emerging eco-friendly product with the strength to bear substantial loads.

Sustainability Is Not Something New

As sustainability holds increasing sway over decisions ranging from billion-dollar investments to personal lifestyle choices, it’s worth noting that the concept has governed forest management going back decades. 

“It’s the mentality that when you’re in the forest, you’re a farmer,” says industry veteran Kent Wheiler, now director of the University of Washington’s Center for International Trade in Forest Products. “Timber,” he says, “is not a biannual crop. Your crop is every 40 years, so it changes the way you manage. Sustainability is really ingrained in the forest products industry.”

Timberlands in western Washington are managed under the groundbreaking Washington Trust Lands Habitat Conservation Plan. The HCP, a multi-year plan adopted by the state Department of Natural Resources, working closely with regional stakeholder, protects 51 fish and wildlife species across millions of acres of DNR-managed forestlands to meet the needs of endangered species — such as the northern spotted owl — while ensuring long-term revenue from timber production. 

Today, 90% of Washington lumber is third-party certified as being sustainably sourced throughout the supply chain, according to Ganguly. Washington was the first state to recognize trees as an agricultural crop — not a finite natural resource — and the only state to recognize the wood products industry as a net carbon mitigator. 

“When it’s done properly,” says Ganguly, “you are storing carbon in the forest and it becomes a net negative. People have come to recognize that [commercial] forestry can help to actually reverse global warming. You can talk all you want about driving electric cars, but that’s just slowing it down. Forestry is one of the available large-scale projects that could play a massive global role in reversing it altogether.”

Blazing New Trails

Beneath the radar in Washingon flies a growing legion of forest products ventures unrelated to timber, mostly small-scale operations that flow from a long history of ecological knowledge and local use in the Pacific Northwest. In Washington, non-timber forest products include wild and cultivated mushrooms, fruits, berries and nuts and increasing volumes of floral greenery, medicinal plants and essential oils. Chaffin & Whitney Scott of Carnation operate Wag & Wood, a producer of handcrafted home and pet goods.

And then there’s maple syrup, which Wheiler has assessed as having “multi-million-dollar potential” in western Washington.

“Maple syrup is not synonymous with the Pacific Northwest by any means,” says Patrick Shults, extension forester at Washington State University. “We’re only at the ground floor, but we have a lot of maple, which historically would be considered basically valueless because it doesn’t have a lot of timber value. Now we can add value to that land,” he says, which makes it more likely to be preserved.

Former fisherman, logger and beekeeper Neil McLeod is one of the pioneers of Washington’s burgeoning syrup industry.

“It started out as an experiment 12 years ago.” McLeod explains. “I started drilling every tree in sight and couldn’t get any sap and was about to give up. Then I drilled one and sap came pouring out, and that was the start of it. No one believed I could do it, but I did.”

Today’s Neil’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup, “the Best Darn Syrup in the World,” sells for up to $47 for a 12-oz bottle. 

“It’s not the same stuff you’d get at Costco,” he says.

The University of Washington’s Wheiler and Washington State’s Shults both are working with small-scale landowners interested in commercializing their property. Through a grant, Wheiler is launching a project to better understand the largely inscrutable non-forest timber industry in Washington state.

“We’re pretty sure most of the producers are small family operations where they have another full-time job,” he says.  

Gary Daughters
Senior Editor

Gary Daughters

Gary Daughters is a Peabody Award winning journalist who began with Site Selection in 2016. Gary has worked as a writer and producer for CNN covering US politics and international affairs. His work has included lengthy stints in Washington, DC and western Europe. Gary is a 1981 graduate of the University of Georgia, where he majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. He lives in Atlanta with his teenage daughter, and in his spare time plays guitar, teaches golf and mentors young people.


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