Mass Timber Rising
Tall Wood – Low Carbon
Fuels to Frame
Rules and Regs
Mass timber construction is a growing trend in the U.S. and Europe. Seems like every day developers announce exciting new projects and more tall wood buildings rise into the skyline. The interest in mass timber is, in part, driven by the environmental benefits of building with wood, as opposed to concrete and steel. Wood is natural, renewable, recyclable and stores carbon. Wood comes from forests which are valued for a myriad of uses and benefits beyond wood products. The many benefits of forests prompts questions about rules and regulations governing forest management.
Management of privately owned forest in Oregon, Washington and California is highly regulated. It is not the wild wild west; it is a codified regulatory system that includes formalized education, monitoring, fines and civil penalties. The job of regulating private forestland falls to state forestry agencies (Oregon Dept. of Forestry, Washington Dept. of Natural Resources and California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection or CalFire).
Many of the rules relating to forest practices focus on protecting water quality and safeguarding the health of rivers and streams. This is important because forests supply almost 60 percent of the nation’s drinking water, providing clean water to more than 200 million people in 68,000 communities. In the West, forests are the main source of the region’s water supply, providing 75 percent of water supply.
The west coast states make up three of the eight states nationwide that follow a state-led regulatory approach that includes rigorous water quality monitoring. Five additional states use a regulatory approach that does not include annual water quality monitoring. In the three west coast states, compliance with the best management practices (BMPs) for water quality consistently exceeds more than 92 percent of sampled sites. Sampled monitoring shows compliance rates with forest practice rules in Oregon and Washington to be between 92 and 100 percent depending on the category of rules.
And how effective are these rules at protecting water quality?
The cool clear waters of the Metolius River flow through the Deschutes National Forest. A recent multidisciplinary academic study found that Oregon’s forest practices generally produce high quality water.
Trees to Tap, a recently-completed study by researchers at Oregon State University found that,1
“Oregon’s extensive and diverse forests generally produce very high quality water and supply most of the state’s community surface water systems. Forest practices designed to minimize impacts to water quality have improved significantly in recent decades.”
The report acknowledges that past best management practices were not as strong as the current system. Principal investigator, Prof. John Souder notes, “The report found that the highest quality source water comes from forested watersheds versus other land uses, and that forest practices that minimize impacts to water quality have improved significantly in recent decades.”
Oregon and Washington began regulating forest practices in the early 1970s and both systems have been modified dozens of times as science and public interests evolve. Most recently, in 2016 and 2017 the Oregon Forest Practices Act was updated to include 60-foot no-spray buffers for aerial herbicide use around homes and schools; a new salmon-steelhead-bull trout category of stream classification and wider riparian buffer strips for these streams.
Regulatory certainty is a priority for any industry but is particularly important for an industry that plants trees which won’t be harvested for decades. Some forest industry representatives look at the evolution of forest practices rules as encouraging long-term thinking and investment.
“Currently, we are building more permanent infrastructure that is long lasting and better for the environment. It is not only good for the fish, but it’s a good infrastructure investment,” said Mike Warjone, President of US Forestry, Port Blakley.
Oregon Forest Practices Regulations
Planting. Landowners must complete replanting of harvested ground within two years.
Ensuring success. Within six years of harvest, the young trees must be “free-to-grow.” That means they are vigorous and tall enough to out-compete grass and brush, and will grow into a new forest.
Trees per acre. Depending on the site, the rules require that at least 100 to 200 trees per acre survive during reforestation, but landowners typically plant about 400 seedlings per acre.
Differences in eastern Oregon. The law also requires successful reforestation in eastern Oregon; however, natural seeding reduces much of the need for hand planting.
Tree nurseries. Nurseries, many of which are in Oregon, produce millions of healthy, high-quality seedlings, grown from seeds harvested from native tree species that match the planting area’s latitude and elevation.
Reforestation takes careful planning. Reforestation is an essential part of active forest management. Before harvest, foresters determine the best plan of action to ensure the regrowth of a healthy forest. Sometimes this means immediate replanting, while other times it means leaving trees as seed sources. Where appropriate, seedlings of several different tree species are planted to maintain diversity in a working forest.
Winter is tree planting season. Seedlings are planted while they are dormant, to take advantage of cool, wet weather conditions that promote good root development. This means seedlings are typically planted from winter into early spring by crews of reforestation workers who plant each new tree by hand.
Stream buffers. Oregon state law requires leaving buffers of trees and vegetation around streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands that are sources of drinking water or where fish live. Within these buffers, timber harvesting is either limited or restricted. These buffers, left on both sides of a stream, are between 50 and 100 feet wide, depending on the width of the stream. The use of forest herbicides is also restricted near water supplies.
Low impact logging systems. Over the past few decades, logging practices have been revolutionized in ways that prevent disrupting, exposing or compacting forest soil. Skyline logging systems, for instance, suspend logs above the ground when they’re moved from where they’re cut to where they’ll be loaded on trucks.
High-quality forest roads. Forest roads can be a major source of muddy water in a forest. A properly designed, built and maintained forest road diverts rainwater from the road onto the forest floor, where it can be absorbed and filtered before flowing into a stream. Well-engineered and properly located forest roads and stream crossings reduce effects on water quality. Roads that do not meet current standards may not be used during heavy rain.
Chemical use near streams is restricted. It is illegal to spray herbicides in or near streams, where they might impact vegetation or insects, which are food sources for fish. Aircraft must not spray within 60 feet of fish and domestic-use streams. Ground spraying requires staying at least 10 feet away. It is illegal to apply herbicides when weather conditions would cause the product to drift off-target.
Source: Oregon Department of Forestry, 2021.
Common Best Management Practices (BMPs) to Protect Water Quality
Logging Roads — Where permanent access does not exist, tree harvesting may require construction of a temporary road. Good road design minimizes long, steep slopes and allows enough space for equipment to turn without damaging non-harvested (or “residual”) trees. Any drainage should be diverted away from surface water and into forested areas to be absorbed into the forest floor. To eliminate sediment loss and to reduce soil compaction and runoff, often these roads are replanted with trees and/or seeded with a cover crop beneficial to wildlife.
Skid Trails — BMPs typically include specifications for skid trails used to transport logs out of the woods and into loading areas. A good skid trail reduces soil erosion and helps prevent any sediment displaced by logs or logging equipment from ending up in a stream. To this end, loggers will avoid skidding directly up or down hills, in or directly adjacent to streams, and over unnecessary distances. In mountainous terrain, helicopter logging or systems that use high overhead lines to keep logs off the ground until they reach the log deck may be necessary.
Log Landings — Landings are areas where logs are stacked and loaded onto trucks for transport. To reduce soil erosion and sediment loss, landings should be as flat as possible and occupy as small a footprint as feasible. BMPs for restoring landings after use include replanting trees and/or seeding a cover crop, such as clover.
Stream Crossings — Having logging equipment enter a stream bed can initiate long-term stream bank erosion problems and should always be avoided. When a stream crossing is absolutely necessary, selecting the right location and installing a spanning structure is crucial to protecting water quality. The need for fish passage should also be taken into account and any temporary structures impeding flow should be removed as soon as possible.
Streamside Management Zones — A protective vegetative buffer along a stream or other water body is the most commonly prescribed and important water quality protection practice. Buffer widths vary depending on stream size, topography, and underlying geological conditions. Some buffers may call for no tree removal whatsoever. Others may allow for some tree removal within the buffer, as long as there is little to no ground disturbance.
Wetlands — The best management practices associated with wetlands are complex. Areas that are designated as “jurisdictional” wetlands by the federal government must take into account federal requirements. In general, BMPs recommend using specialized equipment to minimize compaction and rutting, prevent impediments to water flow, protect wildlife habitat, and eliminate introduction of harmful chemicals.
Source: National Association of State Foresters, 2019.