Working forests are managed to provide a continuous supply of renewable, sustainable wood products for building materials, and at the same time protect fish, water and wildlife while growing trees. While trees generate oxygen, stabilize soils and provide homes to wildlife, they also sequester carbon and store that carbon in harvested wood products.  Forest landowners who manage these tree farms are continuously improving their operations by using science, technology and innovation to advance their knowledge, reduce waste and make the milling process safer.

Here are four ways technology and innovation in forest management and wood production can help curb climate change, support sustainability, and help ensure the safety of those working in the mills.

Getting important information, faster

Unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, can support healthy forests through data collection. UAS can help determine the inventory of healthy trees in a forest as well as do disease and insect surveys. These hard-working drones can be used in some locations as an alternative to time-consuming manual assessments done by people.

“Unmanned aerial systems, when coupled with other new technologies, may make working forest management processes more cost-effective,” says Steve McLaughlin, a member of a development team consisting of three companies called Overwatch Aerial Monitoring Systems, Teknologic, and Geosound Northwest (based in Lynnwood, Edmonds and Seattle, respectively).

“The UAS system may speed the assessments of working forests at various stages of the forest management cycle and provide information to foresters that is often costly and difficult to obtain on the ground,” says McLaughlin.

According to Overwatch data, it can cost $20,000 to survey 400 acres using current methods. In contrast, using a UAS system can potentially cost $4,000 to survey the same 400 acres.

Innovating with engineered wood

Innovation with engineered wood allows manufacturers to effectively utilize wood from smaller trees to create strong, eco-friendly building materials, such as mass timber or cross-laminated timber.  Engineers have discovered that gluing smaller wood together, and turning it into big beams and walls, can improve the health of our forests by providing markets for lower-value timber.

“Mass timber provides us the unique opportunity to create products that are of the highest quality, beautiful and great for our environment,” says Russ Vaagen, founder of Vaagen Timbers. “It’s simple, but can have a big positive impact.”

Mass timber, also known as engineered wood, is the process of cutting small-diameter trees and making them into dimensional lumber such as 2x4s, 2×6 and 2x8s using eco-friendly adhesives. The eco-friendly building materials that come from this include cross-laminated timber, glulam beams and other products that are less expensive, lighter and lower cost than building materials such as steel and concrete, both of which are more energy-intensive to produce than engineered wood. Wood materials also sequester carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere.

“We’re not talking about utilizing big trees,” Vaagen says. “We’re talking about utilizing the small trees, that most likely would’ve been burned off in the past …  “[This] can help us combat climate change and carbon pollution.”

Cross-laminated timber, also known as engineered wood, is made at Vaagen Timbers.
Cross-laminated timber, also known as engineered wood, is made at Vaagen Timbers.

Reducing waste

Sierra Pacific Industries is one of the largest lumber producers in the United States, with a state-of-the-art stud mill in Shelton, Washington. There, 2x4s, 2x6s and 4x4s are produced through the use of environment-lasers, computer sensors, scanners, optimizers, saw technology, and other innovations, which allow SPI to maximize the yield and quality of its boards and use every bit of wood fiber produced from the milling process.

This is notable because just 40 to 50 years ago, up to half of “wood waste” — wood fiber left over from milling — would have been discarded.

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“Now, we use every flake or fiber for something,” says SPI spokeswoman Lisa Perry.

Perry says that shavings, chips and sawdust are sent off to paper, cardboard, livestock bedding, and pellet manufacturers for use. Additionally, sawdust also partly fuels the boiler that creates steam for the computer-controlled dry kiln onsite in Shelton. Many other SPI locations also use these products to create “green” power using biomass co-generation.

“People that work in [the forest products] industry, almost by definition, live in some of the most beautiful natural environments in the world and understand the importance of sustainable use of these resources,” says Perry. “They gain expert knowledge in these arenas through experience and education, so that they can be part of the solution when it comes to providing sustainably produced forest products that we all use every day.”

Increasing safety

Not only does innovation and technology increase efficiency in manufacturing that results in cost-savings — it also results in reduced injuries.

Perry says that computerized modern mills are built to ensure worker safety — removing human interaction with machinery in the forms of heavy lifting, repetitive motions and hazards that historically were very dangerous.

Furthermore, unmanned aerial systems were developed to assist in fire management. “Our products enhance firefighter safety, improve communications and aid in situational awareness,” says McLaughlin.

He says that his team’s current objective is developing a means for persistent monitoring of wildfires using an aerial monitoring system that employs a variety of sensors and communications systems to provide firefighters and incident management teams with the information they need to manage wildfires in remote locations, which are often hard for humans to access due to terrain.

The mass timber movement also increases safety, as it uses smaller logs. This benefits inland forests. Vaagen says that through thinning the small trees in the dense understory of forests and leaving the biggest and best trees, forests are more fire resistant.

The Washington Forest Protection Association is a trade association representing private forest landowners in Washington state. Members are large and small companies, individuals and families who grow, harvest and regrow trees on about 4 million acres.