Oregon’s senators have thrown their weight behind a bill that could change the industry in Oregon and beyond for years to come.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, attached their names to a letter urging the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry to include the Timber Innovation Act, which streamlines and incentivizes the development of mass timber products, in the upcoming farm bill. Merkley said Thursday the timber bill has bipartisan support, including from Republicans in Idaho, Montana and Mississippi, and said he’s optimistic it will be included in the farm bill.

“We’re working to bend the odds in our favor,” he said.

Supporters say the Timber Innovation Act would remove roadblocks for the mass timber industry, a relatively new type of construction that utilizes solid or engineered blocks of wood as a building’s primary load-bearing structure.

Proponents of mass timber claim the material reduces the carbon footprint of buildings when compared to steel and concrete, while being just as safe.

“I think it really could be a revolution in how we build our schools, build our buildings,” said Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry trade association based in Portland.

The mass timber industry — which includes cross-laminated timber, an increasingly popular building material in urban areas — is less established than it is in Canada and parts of Europe. However, Timm Locke, director of forest products for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, added that Oregon is an epicenter of the industry in America, with more than two dozen structures using mass timber built, in the works or approved across the state.

While much of the activity has been concentrated in the western part of the state, Locke said Central and Eastern Oregon could see more development in the future.

“Every area of the state that produces wood products stands to gain from this,” Locke said.

Central Oregon communities like Bend and Prineville owe a lot of their early growth to the wood-product industry, but the industry has waned in recent years. Statewide employment numbers from April show 23,100 Oregonians employed in wood-product manufacturing, which is up from the depths of the Great Recession, but is less than half of the number employed in the industry in 1990.

Locke added that the losses affected Central and Eastern Oregon in particular, as there’s less private forestland than on the western side of the Cascades.

“Wherever it’s predominately national forest land, those areas have been hit,” Locke said.

Crook County has been hit particularly hard. In July 2001, 1,300 people worked in wood-product manufacturing in Crook County, according to numbers from the Oregon Employment Department. By April 2018, just 390 remained employed in the sector, hastened by losses during the recession and layoffs at Woodgrain Millwork in 2014 and 2015.

Joseph added that the mass timber industry, if it takes off, could bring high-wage jobs into rural communities. He pointed to the D.R. Johnson Lumber Co., which produces cross-laminated timber in Riddle in Southern Oregon, as a potential model for other parts of rural Oregon.

In March, a portion of the flooring in Oregon State University’s new College of Forestry building, made from cross-laminated timber, gave way during construction. Still, advocates remain convinced the material is safe.

“You can build a building that’s just as safe (using mass timber) as you can with steel or concrete,” Locke said.

Merkley said the Timber Innovation Act, which was introduced in 2017, would establish performance goals and guide research for the mass timber industry, while also funding a grant program designed to advance the use of innovative wood products. The bill would also extend a competition for tall-wood building designs, which began under former President Barack Obama, for another five years.

Locke said the bill helps address two of the biggest roadblocks for the developing industry. He said building codes haven’t caught up to the new technology, and having a federal focus on product performance and market development could speed up the process. Locke added that the grant program and competition would help expose more people to the product.

“It checks a lot of really positive boxes,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com