According to a new report, the American timber industry is not investing in R&D

Freshly cut planks going through a sorting line where optical and mechanical scanners separate boards with different sizes and quality, a process that was originally done manually. Image credit: Tommy Martino/Missoulian

According to the Missoulian, a group of analysts from the timber industry have released a report stating that the forest products industry in the United States (U.S.) has fallen far behind in terms of producing new things from wood.

The authors of the report are John Williams from Domtar; Larry Selzer from the Conservation Fund; Robin Jolley of American Forest Management Inc.; Richard Ringeisen from the University of Illinois; and Tim Punke, formerly from Weyerhaeuser Co.

“Many traditional forest product markets have matured or declined,” The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities report showed. “Yet the sector’s research and development funding – essential to innovation – has fallen and its research and development (R&D) capacity has withered.”

The report also found that the wood products sector invests a meagre 0.6 per cent of its sales revenue in R&D. In comparison, the manufacturing sector invests an average of 3.6 per cent, and specialised industries such as biomedicine invest 12 per cent or more.

“I think it accurately calls out that there’s a significant decline in public and private dollars going in,” University of Idaho Policy Analysis Group Director, Dennis Becker, said. “What’s happened in the last decade or two is that the responsibility for R&D funding has fallen back on the public sector. The private sector has really pulled back in that area.”

Simultaneously, technology research was put on the back burner, with the authors counting barely a quarter of the researchers in forest products technology, chemistry, and general engineering as compared to 30 years ago. For example, the number of employees in the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Product Laboratory has decreased from 725 after 1945 to 141 in the present day, with only 50 researchers.

According to Todd Morgan from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, the issue only grew as the timber industry evolved and moved away from its “vertically integrated” corporate structure.

“When you had mills that also owned the land and had logging crews and the value chain was all in one place, they were recovering the most value from the product,” Morgan explained. “When you split that into the part that owns the land and the part that does the milling, that’s changed who the players are and who wants to get involved in the R&D. And what the companies do indeed so, they’re using for their own competitive advantage. It’s not something to lift all boats.”

John Barnwell, Director of Government Affairs from the Society of American Foresters also revealed his agreement in the industry needing more collaboration and clearer strategic focus.

“But we don’t want basic research overlooked,” Barnwell said. “It’s important to experiment with new technology. But don’t lose sight of changing climate conditions, best management practives and work that’s actually going on in the forest.”

While the report also notes that thinning efforts in the forest are essential for the growth of large trees in the long term, they also need multiple management approaches for things such as recreation, water supply, and wildlife. In addition, the report also observed that society has not yet found a way to “price” ecosystem services.

“If we do want to manage our lands, do restoration treatment, hazardous fuel reduction, and help reduce incidents of catastrophic forest fires, then we need to have an industry and capacity to do work on the ground,” Morgan concluded. “There’s got to be a profit there. You have to be able to make money doing it. Congress isn’t willing to write a check to subsidise all forest management activity.”


Source: The Missoulian