Washington state has long been known for its tall, dense forests and timber production. Over the years, the timber industry has experienced significant change, but it still remains essential to the regional economy, including in the South Sound.

The lumber industry’s roots run deep here. In Pierce County, for example, there was a time when nearly every community had at least one lumber mill. The invention of steam-powered engines and the arrival of the railroads fueled the county’s commercial logging industry. And by the early 1900s, mills lined the shore of Commencement Bay. Industry players became “the lifeblood of Tacoma’s economy,” according to HistoryLink.org. People came from all over to work the forests and seek opportunity.

In Lewis County, the arrival of the railroad and the dredging of the Chehalis River in the 1880s fueled the timber industry. Meanwhile, in Thurston County, lumber was the most important industry in 1900, and it continued to dominate in the 1920s. And when the Port of Olympia formed in 1922, it shipped forest products from the lumber mills lining Budd Inlet to ports worldwide. The following years, however, would give rise to great change, including government reforms meant to help preserve some forested areas, and a focus on environmentally and climate-friendly forest products emerged.

“There’s much more focus in the last couple of decades on both sustainability and protecting the resources or the environment,” said Scott Sargent, South Puget Sound region manager at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

According to the Washington Forest Protection Association’s (WFPA) most recent data, the forest industry is now the third-largest manufacturing employer in the state, and working forests — which are sustainably managed to produce renewable wood products — play an important role in the Evergreen State’s economy.

In taking a closer look at the South Sound, more than half (52 percent) of the forestland acres in Pierce and Lewis counties are working forests. In Thurston County, that number climbs to 82 percent, according to WFPA. In these three counties alone, the industry provides about 20,500 direct, indirect, and induced jobs.

In recent decades, forest-practice regulations have been strengthened and brought into compliance with the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts. Among the most notable: the Forests & Fish Law signed in 1999. This historic set of forest practices regulations protects 60,000 miles of streams running through roughly 9 million acres of state and private forestland.

That law set in motion the statewide Habitat Conservation Plan, which, as noted by the WFPA, “is one of a kind because of its scope and collaborative development. It is a 50-year agreement with the federal government to increase protection of Washington’s streams and forests. Local, state, federal government, tribes, and forest landowners worked together to develop this plan.”

Meanwhile, attention also has remained on the importance of “providing for an economically viable timber industry,” noted Sargent. “In the area … Pierce, Thurston, and Mason County, there’s like 6,500 direct jobs that the timber industry provides for.”

Today, sustainable forestry is proving that it not only creates jobs but also provides a natural solution for reducing carbon.

In fact, Gov. Jay Inslee recently signed into law legislation acknowledging the essential role Washington state’s forestry industry and working forests play in removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The law formally establishes a state policy recognizing the complete forest products sector as a climate solution, which includes landowners, mills, and harvesting and transportation infrastructure.

As noted by the WFPA, Washington’s private forests and wood products sector sequesters 12 percent of the state’s carbon emissions, and working forests play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gases.

“This legislation was important in linking the connection that lumber and forestry is a renewable resource, and it does provide benefits from a carbon-sequestering standpoint. I don’t know that that’s always recognized,” Sargent said. “(And) it ties into that demand that is developing out there for products that are sustainable and renewable from a consumer standpoint.”

It also is important to note the rise of mass timber innovation. Mass timber is a category of large-scale, prefabricated engineered wood products, the best-known of which is Cross Laminated Timber (CLT).

Not only is CLT a durable building material — with favorable fire, seismic and thermal performance — but it also provides environmental and economic benefits.

In 2018, the Washington State Building Code Council approved code changes to allow for the structural use of mass timber in buildings as tall as 18 stories — paving the way for greater use of mass timber in the state and making Washington the first state in the nation to allow tall mass timber buildings into its building code, without pursuing an alternate method.

Courtesy of Georg Eiermann via Unsplash

A growing number of structures in the area are being built with CLT, including Tacoma’s Eastside Community Center and the Auburn Youth and Community Center.

As the demand for mass timber increases, it is likely that the South Sound area will see a rise in the manufacturing and use of this next generation of wooden building material.

“As the demand for the (mass timber) product increases, then we’ll see more use of that potentially coming in. … We have a good supply of timber in the (South Sound) area you’re talking about both on the private and state forests, and so as that demand increases, then I think that’s where that will come into play and we’d see that increase,” Sargent said.