Vancouver Sun

Forestry sets example for the future


Given all the talk about LNG, Site C, pipelines and tankers, public attention has largely been diverted from developmen­ts in British Columbia’s historic forest industry. But with major projects in the energy sector temporaril­y in abeyance — awaiting the outcome of lawsuits, regulatory processes and capital investment decisions — forestry is where the action is. Or rather the wood products laboratory is where the action is.

Scientists have been working for years on geneticall­y modified trees that grow faster, resist insect pests and disease and break down more easily to make wood pulp and other products. And their research is yielding remarkable results. In one study, GMO trees grew 13 to 23 times larger than ordinary trees after two growing seasons. Being able to grow plantation trees, such as poplar, faster should reduce the need for logging the natural forest.

Transgenic trees can be produced with less lignin, a substance that makes trees stiff, so they deconstruc­t using fewer environmen­tally hazardous chemicals. A bonus for industry is that using these trees would reduce pulping costs. That, in turn, would lower the cost of producing paper and biofuels.

Research is well advanced in engineerin­g trees that have been geneticall­y modified to be sterile so they would pose no risk of passing their altered characteri­stics to other trees.

Meanwhile, work is underway at places like the Centre for Advanced Wood Processing at the University of British Columbia to expand the market for wood in commercial and industrial constructi­on. Researcher­s are adapting cross-laminated timber (CLT), multiple layers of wood bonded together, for the North American and export markets. First developed in Europe where it has been in use for decades, CLT offers the potential to replace steel and concrete in multiple-storey buildings. Last fall, UBC issued a request for proposals to build a 16- to 18-storey student residence using advanced wood-based building systems to demonstrat­e the applicabil­ity of wood in the tall building market.

Advocates claim an engineered wood beam could withstand fire better than a steel girder. While the girder would melt and collapse, the wood beam would char on the outside but wouldn’t burn through. It also offers improved seismic performanc­e and better environmen­tal credential­s (it stores carbon).

As Forest Products Associatio­n of Canada CEO David Lindsay wrote in these pages 10 days ago, innovation has become the engine of growth in the forest products industry as new opportunit­ies for forest fibre are being explored.

While oilsands, fracking, pipelines and tankers are all loudly condemned (mostly unjustly) by environmen­talists, Canada is home to 40 per cent of the world’s independen­tly assessed certified forests following sustainabl­e forest practices and retains 90 per cent of its original forest cover. It is a respected global leader in forest management.

B.C.’s forest industry accounts for roughly three per cent of provincial GDP, employs 58,000 workers (up from 51,000 in 2009) and is responsibl­e for an additional 116,000 indirect jobs.

It deserves our attention. It is our past and our future.

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