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A group of U.S. senators is backing the Timber Innovation Act, which will provide research and development for mass timber products such as cross-laminated timber.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is including provisions in its latest release of the 2018 Farm Bill to support research and development of mass timber products used in building construction.

A bipartisan group of senators recently wrote to committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., urging them to adopt the Timber Innovation Act, which would create 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.

The bill also calls for studying the environmental footprint of wood building construction, from timber harvest through manufacturing, while analyzing potential impacts on wildlife.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, co-wrote the letter with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. Merkley said he is working to establish Oregon as an industry hub for mass timber products to boost the rural economy, using locally sourced wood.

“This bill supports innovative manufacturing that creates jobs in the rural part of the state, and encourages more sustainable tall wood building construction in urban parts of the state,” Merkley said in a statement.

Other senators who signed the letter include Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; James Risch, R-Idaho; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; Gary Peters, D-Mich.; and Angus King, I-Maine.

Supporters of the bill say it will not only create jobs, but establish a new market for small-diameter trees and branches, encouraging more active forest management at a time of increasingly large and destructive wildfires.

“There’s a lot of forests throughout the West that are in need of restoration,” said Timm Locke, director of forest products for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. “If we don’t remove the timber, those forests are going to go up in flames.”

Mass timber construction is relatively new in the U.S., though it has been popular since the mid-’90s in Europe. In Oregon, the first commercial-size building to use cross-laminated timber came in 2015 at the Oregon Zoo’s Elephant Lands habitat.

Cross-laminated timber, or CLT, is made from planks of wood layered perpendicular to one another in large sheets. Mass timber also includes nail laminated timber, glue laminated beams and laminated veneer lumber.

“It’s a new way to build commercial buildings, which harkens back to the old days, when almost all buildings were made out of wood,” Locke said. “The bill would put money toward product research and development and product performance work, so we can meet the need of code officials to show this stuff actually works.”

Locke pointed to a 2017 study by Oregon BEST, an economic development nonprofit for clean technology startups, measuring the economic impacts of cross-laminated timber. According to the study, the market potential for mass timber nationwide could result in an additional demand of up to 6.1 billion board-feet of lumber.

About 15 percent of wood consumed in the U.S. comes from Oregon, Locke said. With another 6.1 billion board-feet, at 15 percent market share, he estimated that would result in 17,000 new jobs, including 6,000 direct jobs.

“It’s all very interesting where this is headed,” he said. “The Timber Innovation Act is only going to help that.”

Arran Robertson, a spokesman for the Portland-based environmental group Oregon Wild, said he is encouraged the bill will take environmental and wildlife impacts into account, offering the chance to source wood differently from the forests, rather than industrial clear-cuts.

“This is an opportunity to create a marketplace to reward the people who are doing things a little bit different,” Robertson said.

Thomas Maness, dean of the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, said there are “significant new market opportunities” for mass timber. Product testing, research and professional training will be key moving forward, Maness said, as the wood products and construction industries transition to using mass timber in taller and more complex structures.

Rob Freres, executive vice president of Freres Lumber in Lyons, Ore., said his business has already staked its future in mass timber.

“New product development provides the means to compete worldwide and gives rural communities the opportunity to prosper,” Freres said.

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