doosanRussian Invasion Should Renew Effort to Increase Western Lumber Production

By Nick Smith

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis, with thousands of casualties and millions of refugees. It has also generated economic shockwaves that are disrupting the global economy and contributing to inflation. In the weeks after the invasion, prices for a wide range of commodities spiked, including wood products.

The forest sector is one of many industries that have chosen to end business relationships with Russia. International human rights and environmental groups have also called for a complete boycott of timber and wood products from Russia and its accomplice Belarus. While the United States will not directly engage in this conflict, the invasion should encourage Americans to consider where their consumer products come from—in this case, wood products.

Americans consume up to 179 billion board feet per year and use about 1.75 pounds of wood every day. While Canada will continue to be an important partner in meeting America’s needs, the public would be surprised to learn how many of our wood products are imported from faraway places.

American consumers may not know that in recent years, more of the finished wood products they have been buying come from Russia. According to U.S. Census Bureau Trade Data, the U.S. imported approximately 400 MMBF of forest products from Russia in 2021—an increase of 104% over 2020 imports.

By decreasing global supply, the invasion is already resulting in higher lumber prices, at least in the short term. Simultaneously there is immense political pressure to address rising inflation that is squeezing American pocketbooks and reducing our ability to provide affordable housing and rebuild our infrastructure. To provide relief, perhaps it is time for policymakers to support increasing domestic production.

As lumber demand and costs continue to grow, the western United States is well positioned to provide more wood products to meet America’s needs. When it comes to softwood lumber, domestic producers have only been capable of meeting roughly 70% of U.S. demand over the past 30 years. At the same time, many western wood manufacturers are running below capacity due to a lack of reliable timber supplies. In the Pacific Northwest, the situation will worsen because log supplies are expected to decrease in the coming years.

According to the Beck Group’s Steve Courtney, policy changes will reduce the annual harvest in Western Oregon and Washington by more than 575 million board feet, or about nine percent of the combined harvest in both states. Many of these log supply reductions will occur on private timberlands in Oregon, due to the historic 2020 Labor Day Fires that alone will reduce harvest by more than seven billion board feet in the next forty years.

Log supply will be further reduced as a result of the Private Forest Accord, a negotiated agreement by environmental groups and some of the state’s largest forest products companies to increase regulations under the Forest Practices Act. When harvest reductions from state-managed lands are included, Courtney estimates that annual harvest in Oregon will likely fall by more than 490 million board feet—per year—over the next forty years, costing 5,390 jobs associated with seven mills.

To summarize, as America imports more lumber from places like Russia, domestic production continues to lag especially as western wood products manufacturers struggle to secure raw material. To encourage domestic production and provide relief from rising lumber costs, it is more important than ever for federally managed lands to contribute to the western wood basket.

For much of the 20th Century, federal forests—especially national forests—served as the nation’s wood basket to support the nation’s economy, provided affordable lumber to meet domestic housing needs, and provided a robust network of forest roads for logging, firefighting, and recreation. These forests also provided a source of incredible wealth and prosperity for many of our communities. However, due to more than 30 years of non-management, federal timber harvests have declined while the number of acres burned by catastrophic wildfire has increased.

Federal policymakers from both parties recognize the need to actively manage our western federal lands to reduce wildfire risks. The Biden Administration is preparing to spend billions of dollars on a new strategy to thin millions of acres of National Forest System lands. Increasing forest management treatments and timber harvests on overstocked and fire-prone federal forests would help the U.S. Forest Service achieve its mission and better enable domestic wood manufacturers and rural workers to meet the needs of Americans for essential wood products.

Thinning federal forests and providing more timber would not only support our economy, it would also provide climate benefits. Improving forest health through active management can help reduce carbon emissions from severe wildfires and maximize the ability of our forests to sequester and store carbon.

By purchasing wood products that are made here at home, rather than Russia, we are also decreasing our carbon and environmental footprint because we are not importing wood products from faraway places that don’t share our environmental standards and modern forest practices.

While certain niche wood products would be harder to substitute with domestic species, these markets could be developed in the U.S. with new investments in technology. These investments would occur if manufacturers can secure a reliable supply of raw material.

Producing more wood products for domestic use is also consistent with President Biden’s “Buy American” initiative to support American manufacturing and workers. As the administration and members of Congress seek to tighten Russian sanctions, but mitigate the pain on American consumers, there is an opportunity to reduce wildfire risks on western federal lands while providing affordable lumber, supporting our forest sector workers, and addressing climate change.

Nick Smith is Executive Director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities and provides public affairs services to the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Oregon.

TimberWest November/December 2013
March/April 2022

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Guest Column
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