Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of a presenter. Tom Gorman was the speaker at the timber summit.

LA GRANDE – Connecting wood fiber sources to the building sector was the focus of a one-day summit held at Eastern Oregon University Thursday.

Nils Christoffersen is the executive director of Wallowa Resources, an Enterprise-based organization supporting the local natural resource economy. He said at the bequest of Eastern Oregon University President Tom Insko who helped coordinate the summit, which brought builders, architects and land managers together for a morning of lectures and an afternoon in the woods.

The summit was held the day after an Oregon Board of Forestry meeting, also held at the Gilbert Event Center on Eastern Oregon’s campus. Christoffersen said that was key to attracting an audience for discussions surrounding finding markets for small diameter trees used in engineered wood products.

Timm Locke, of Oregon Forest Resources Institute, was hired to spearhead the summit and he enlisted the aid of Craig Rawlings of the Montana Forest Business Network.

Tom Gorman, professor of Renewable Materials, said there is a lot of pushback against building with wood as opposed to steel. However, over the course of the morning, several Oregon and Idaho buildings were used as examples of how engineered wood is not only strong enough to support tall buildings, but how they can be made to withstand an earthquake and re-center after the tremors have quelled.

In 1974 the University of Idaho built the Kibbie Dome to house its football games, indoor track meets and music events. The design, constructed of laminated veneer, won architectural awards.

“Using wood for an arena seemed natural to us,” Gorman said. “Forty percent of Idaho is forested and half of northern Idaho’s labor force is dependent on it. In Idaho, it’s a big deal to use wood.”

The university followed up with a recreation center built with engineered wood featuring exposed wood as part of the design and wood laminated handrails and benches. It won awards, as well, Gorman said.

A tree nursery built five years ago won awards for its use of entirely donated wood that showcases wood floors and veneers made of Idaho white pine.

Using wooden dowels in construction as opposed to steel reduces carbon, which in turn makes “greener” buildings, Gorman said.

Jonathan Heppner is a designer who spoke at the summit. He said working with engineered wood means spending a lot of time in the design phase.

“The buildings we are seeing designed go up very quickly and quietly,” Heppner said. “The crews putting the buildings together are efficient and rely on pre-planning to shepherd the way.”

Engineered wood or mass timber is resilient. Despite western Oregon’s rainfall, which can be upwards of 70 or more inches a year, a building designed with wood with lots of interior light creates an experience that connects people with nature and reduces carbon.

On the practical side, Portland’s rapid rate of growth is creating an increasing need for new construction. Heppner said this could create a boon for rural economies where most of the state’s wood fiber is growing.

A demonstration project using engineered wood is underway on a busy intersection in Portland. The Framework building has five floors of affordable housing, five floors of office space with retail space on the street level. The design shows off the beauty of wood while cross-laminated timber panels are used to build 150-foot tall walls connected at top and bottom with tension rods to withstand earthquakes.

“These spaces will last for a long time and our hope is to elevate everyone’s living space with natural light and materials,” Heppner said.

Portland isn’t the only Oregon city experimenting with wood buildings. Judith Sheine, professor of architecture at the University of Oregon, said the mayor of Springfield asked for help designing a mass timber constructed parking garage. Teams of her students wrestled with different designs and were asked to draft designs for covered seating at Hayward Field, the university’s track, and a new Lane County courthouse.

Jim Archuleta of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Regional Office in Portland explained his agency’s vision for small wood harvest and how it plays an ecological role in the national forest.

Archuleta said improving markets for small diameter trees reduces wildland biomass and the risk of large wildfires, improves habitat management and increases timber sale merchantability. Many of the timber sales on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest have been purchased by Wallowa’s Integrated Biomass Resources, a mill tooled specifically for handling wood under eight inches in diameter.

The issue is being handled in the U.S. Congress under what is called the Timber Innovation Act, part of the 2018 Farm Bill, that Archuleta said is currently attempting to include structurally certified cross-laminated timber.

The Timber Innovation Act would establish a new research and development program under the USDA for mass timber. U.S. building codes currently do not recognize mass timber as official construction materials, leaving the products without a standard rating system for fire and earthquake resistance, quality and other safety standards.

La Grande District Ranger Bill Gamble led a group of 30 summit attendees on a short field trip 12 miles outside of Union on a ridge above Catherine Creek.

Within a short walk from a paved road the group visited three different ecotypes — one dominated by western larch, one by ponderosa and another with signs of disease in white fir. While each thinning unit had different prescriptions appropriate for the tree species, soils, aspect and slope, they were all skewed to small wood removal. Some of the slash was chipped while other areas will have prescribed fire used to clean up some of the dead fuels on the forest floor.

“When we walked up here there was a deer, you can hear the birds and woodpeckers and that’s always a good sign to me that we still maintained the forest,” Gamble said.