LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
States that rely on the timber industry, such as Oregon, haven't had much to cheer in the last 30 years. Modernization of mills, economic changes and huge declines in logging led to a long downturn in the industry. During the presidential campaign, then candidate Donald Trump promised to bring back timber in Oregon, but a lot of people aren't waiting for help. They're finding new ways to make timber relevant today. As part of our Kitchen Table series, NPR's Tom Goldman has the story.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: There's a street corner in downtown Portland where you can stand today and envision a dramatically different scene next year.
THOMAS ROBINSON: What you'll be seeing is a revolutionary 12-story mass timber structure, really a timber high-rise building.
GOLDMAN: Portland architect Thomas Robinson says when completed, the 148-foot structure will be the tallest timber building in North America. Now, you may be thinking that's a 148-foot match waiting to light, but Robinson and his designers studied how wood burns for four years. That knowledge helped them design a mass timber structure that meets the same fire standards as concrete and steel buildings. It's designed to outperform its rivals in withstanding an earthquake. And there's this bonus, says Robinson, collaboration in a divided state.
ROBINSON: That's been a great way to connect urban Portland to rural Oregon.
GOLDMAN: The D.R. Johnson Lumber Company is 200 miles south of Portland in the small town of Riddle, Ore. This is where they make the key material for the Portland high-rise, cross-laminated timber or CLT. On this day, workers are making CLT by first dropping into place 32-foot boards.
JOHN REDFIELD: Once we get a full layer of boards down...
GOLDMAN: John Redfield is D.R. Johnson's chief operating officer.
REDFIELD: We actually pass it through a glue extruder to bond that panel together. We then apply the cross pieces and so on and so forth.
GOLDMAN: These criss-crossing layers glued together create a CLT panel Redfield says is both strong and flexible. The panels are used for easy-to-assemble construction. CLT has been made outside the U.S. and used around the world, including for refugee housing in Europe. When D.R. Johnson started producing panels three years ago, it was the first to do so in the U.S. Valerie Johnson co-owns the company.
VALERIE JOHNSON: We did, I think - all of us feel kind of a surge of excitement about the potential upside to it.
GOLDMAN: In 2013, Johnson went to a wood innovations meeting in Oregon. She says in such a tenuous industry, it's important to keep looking for ways to grow. At the meeting, she heard a presentation on CLT. The talk was compelling. The product was similar to some of the others her company made. So Johnson decided to give it a go carefully.
D.R. Johnson started in 1951, and like many lumber companies in the state, it was hit by the timber downturn in the 1980s and '90s. The company shut three of its saw mills. Its workforce shrank by more than 350 people statewide from 1980 to 2010. Three hundred mills closed putting 30,000 people out of work. So D.R. Johnson is going step by step first making a small CLT panel for testing and then finally making panels to sell. Valerie Johnson says within the next six to 12 months, CLT production at her company should create 20 new jobs.
JOHNSON: I think the CLT market stands a really strong chance of being very successful here. I think - I hope I keep very healthy for a long time because I want to see these beautiful tall buildings built with wood.
GOLDMAN: Another company in Oregon is making big, plywood panels for buildings, and there's more innovation to come, says Geoff Huntington. He's from the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.
GEOFF HUNTINGTON: I am comfortable that there are other manufacturers in Oregon that are looking closely at this, and I'm sure that you'll see others following soon.
GOLDMAN: The market for wood products is changing. Huntington calls it a new frontier.
HUNTINGTON: We've got a building industry - both architects and developers - that are looking at wood in a new way and in different ways than they have before.
GOLDMAN: Architects like Thomas Robinson, who we met earlier, liked the look of wood. The rural-urban connection Robinson mentioned with the Portland high-rise - that's also part of the new allure. Huntington says it's the same idea as the farm-to-table concept of embracing locally produced ingredients for food. With wood, call it forest to framing. For all that's positive, Huntington knows the growing markets for these new products aren't going to cure all that ails timber in Oregon. Trade issues and decades-long battles over logging still exist, even for Valerie Johnson whose company is an emerging success story.
JOHNSON: We scrape for the logs for this old mill here every month, and our guys have to hustle to find them.
GOLDMAN: Some environmental groups say that's how it should be. Environmental lawsuits continue to block timber sales mostly on federal land. Recent Congressional bills aiming for a balance between increased timber harvest and conservation have largely been stalled. The quest for innovation continues. Groundbreaking is expected this summer in Portland on the nation's tallest timber high-rise. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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