Spokane Journal of Business

Guest commentary: Innovative mills help economy, environment at same time

Supporting rural jobs …

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Business, government, and residents share the same values. We place the highest premium on vibrant communities, healthy lands, and clean water.

With the right leadership and bold vision, we can create jobs and economic opportunity and preserve a healthy and clean environment. This clearly is apparent with the emergence of cross-laminated timber, which will play a key role in creating jobs in rural communities, providing building supplies to cities and towns, and reducing wildfire danger.

This month, leaders from around the state are visiting Spokane Valley to celebrate the grand opening of Katerra’s CLT manufacturing facility. At 270,000 square feet, this is the largest CLT facility in North America. Construction of the facility supported more than 150 jobs, and the mill will employ 125 people in its day-to-day operations.

Katerra’s mill will be an integral part of the forest health work the state Department of Natural Resources is undertaking over the next two decades to tackle our wildfire crisis. There are more than 2 million acres of unhealthy forestland in Central and Eastern Washington. All it takes is a spark, and these weakened, unhealthy forests go up in flames, leading to the increasingly severe wildfires we have seen.

In 2017, DNR launched its 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan. This plan – unprecedented in both pace and scale – will restore the health of more than 1.2 million acres of unhealthy forest by removing dead, dying, and diseased trees. But what do you do with diseased or dying timber that’s too small for milling into traditional lumber?

Katerra’s innovative process uses those trees to make CLT, which is an environmentally-friendly, sturdy building material. The material meets or exceeds structural load requirements for earthquakes and high-temperature fires.

While forest health improvement is great on its own, a commitment from the state to manage more than 1.2 million acres is also a signal to the marketplace that there will be a reliable source of timber for CLT. This dependability helps companies like Katerra open new facilities, which create jobs in rural, timber-dependent communities.

Employers often don’t get credit for their abilities to see opportunities and harness them through innovation. And government doesn’t always get credit for finding ways to do its work in a way that supports the private sector.

This is one example of how business innovation and government policy converge in a way that improves lives and strengthens communities, particularly those in rural areas.

It’s not just Katerra. The Vaagen Timbers LLC mill in Colville also will produce CLT that will use wood from DNR’s forest health work.

In a time when families struggle to afford a home, this cost-effective, easy-to-transport, and quick-to-build product is a game-changer for affordable housing. Combined with other low-cost materials, including concrete, more families may finally realize the dream of homeownership.

It’s not an either-or proposition – we can have the healthy landscapes we want for our children and the economic opportunities that allow them to thrive.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, elected in 2016, oversees the state Department of Natural Resources.

Kris Johnson is the president of the Association of Washington Business, the oldest and largest business association in the state.

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