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New Technology Could Revive Pacific Northwest's Ailing Timber Industry


Let's hear about a technology now that could revive the Pacific Northwest's ailing timber industry. it's a process of using regular wood to make a building material that is as strong as steel. It's been used in Europe for years, but as Rachael McDonald from member station KLCC reports, an Oregon mill is the first in the United States to produce it.


RACHAEL MCDONALD, BYLINE: A crane lifts huge wooden panels from a truck in north Portland. It sets them in place on an office building under construction.


MCDONALD: This is Albina Yard. It's going to be a four-story office building with retail on the first floor. Thomas Robinson is one of the architects.

THOMAS ROBINSON: It's the first building using domestically produced cross-laminated timber made in Oregon built in the United States.

MCDONALD: Cross-laminated timber, or CLT, consists of typical wood components, like two-by-fours, glued together and pressed to make large panels. Here at Albina Yard, they are four inches thick, 10 feet wide and 25 feet long.

ROBINSON: It's a solid wood panel, similar to, say, a big precast concrete panel, but it's made out of wood.

MCDONALD: This building represents hope for an important industry. Timber used to be a huge driver of the Northwest economy. But over the past 30 years, it's shrunk due to stricter environmental laws and changes in the housing market. Other CLT projects in the works contribute to that sense of hope. For instance, 100 miles south of Portland in Springfield, Ore., Mayor Christine Lundberg is in the early stages of building a city parking garage using CLT.

CHRISTINE LUNDBERG: it's an entirely different looking structure than a typical parking garage. So it's a signature piece.

MCDONALD: Instead of a heavy gray concrete block, Lundberg shows off sketches of a blonde wooden ramp. It's actually an attractive building. Lundberg says CLT can bring the rural and urban parts of Oregon together and stimulate the timber industry here.

LUNDBERG: We could actively manage the forests in a way that we save money. We save our forests. We do something that is renewable and sustainable and provide jobs in the state.

DOUG HEIKEN: But it really matters where the wood comes from.

MCDONALD: Doug Heiken with the conservation group Oregon Wild says cross-laminated timber isn't the fix-all people are suggesting it is.

HEIKEN: If we're obtaining the wood to make these cross-laminated timbers from clearcutting old-growth forests, then it's not a green building product.

MCDONALD: There is no perfect solution. In the 1980s, more than 70,000 Oregonians worked in the timber industry. Now it's about 20,000. That was devastating for small timber communities. But in the town of Riddle, D.R. Johnson Mill is having a bit of a renaissance.

TODD BLACK: This right here is the CLT production area.

MCDONALD: Todd Black is marketing director for the mill. He says they source their wood locally - Douglas-fir, mainly from private tree farms in southwest Oregon. Black says they are now safety testing CLT.

BLACK: You know, people want to know, how is it going to react in an earthquake? What's going to happen in a fire? But what we're seeing with the test results are that this wood performs very well.

MCDONALD: Block says his mill is getting lots of orders for custom panels, so it's expanding operations. The mill employs about 100 people. He expects they'll have to hire a couple dozen more workers to keep up with demand. For NPR News, I'm Rachael McDonald in Riddle, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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