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Building tall with wood supports rural America

If cities are serious about tackling climate change, then the solution may be found in building the city of tomorrow to look more like the city of yesterday.  As glass and steel towers continue to rise, wood skyscrapers are likely to start sprouting alongside.  Multi-story and high-rise wood buildings are already planned or rising in Europe and Canada.  They are architecturally distinct, and they are made of the original green building material. 

When the President signed the 2014 Farm Bill in February, he directed his Administration, working through the White House Rural Council, to lead a new “Made in Rural America” export and investment initiative.  This initiative is charged with uniting federal resources to aid rural businesses and leaders to take advantage of new investment opportunities and access new customers and markets both at home and abroad.

As a response, U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsak, recently took the first step by announcing a partnership with Wood Works – an organization that provides support to the wood building industry – to educate architects and engineers on the potential of using wood as a commercial structural building material.

In addition, the White House Rural Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently hosted a workshop in Washington, D.C. as part of the Council’s work to enhance economic opportunity in rural America, entitled “Building with Wood:  Jobs and the Environment.”

As a participant, I was invited to discuss the environmental benefits of building with wood and opportunities to advance the use of wood in high-rise construction.  At this workshop, Secretary Vilsak said, “Wood may be one of the world’s oldest building materials, but it is now also one of the most advanced.”  The Secretary went on to say, “Building stronger markets for innovative new wood products supports sustainable forestry, helps to counteract green house gas emissions, and puts rural America in the forefront of an emerging industry.”

At the launch of the International Year of the Forest last week, Secretary Vilsak announced a three-part plan addressing the Forest Service and USDA’s current green building practices.  The strategy directs the Forest Service to preferentially select wood in new building construction while maintaining a commitment to certified green building materials.  The Secretary asked the Forest Service to examine ways to increase its commitment to green building by reporting on ways to enhance the research and development being done around these materials and to actively look for opportunities to demonstrate the innovative use of wood for all new structures of 10,000 square feet or more.

In carrying out this plan, Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell, issued a directive to all districts calling for increased use of locally milled timber in all new agency buildings and facilities.  Secretary Vilsak also directed other USDA agencies to incorporate this policy of using domestic wood products as the preferred green building material for all future USDA buildings.

By making the case for more wood in construction, the USDA is calling attention to the value of sustainably grown and managed forests and the products they produce in storing carbon throughout the building’s lifecycle.

Emerging engineered wood technologies, and other wood products, can be used in industrial building projects such as high-rise construction.  A 3-5 story building, made from wood, has the same emission control as taking up to 550 cars off the road for one year.  Wood-based designs have also been demonstrated to improve energy efficiency, thereby reducing energy consumption for heating and cooling.

Increasing the demand for domestic sustainably harvested timber products will directly impact rural America. Presently, the market for wood and other related forest products supports over one million jobs, mostly in rural areas.  In addition, the 22 million family forest owners (who actually own more timberland than the federal government) also rely on new economic opportunities as markets expand.

Even though the momentum around building tall with wood is exciting, what is even more encouraging is the recognition by our state and national leaders that forest health is directly tied to a sustainable forest products industry. To decouple is to lose both.

On behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association, I am Julia Altemus, thanks for listening.  

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