Forests should be utilized to manage their growth and build the economy, said Congress’ only forester, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs.
Speaking to the Innovate Arkansas Timber and Wood Design, Construction, and Production Conference at the University of Arkansas System Administration Conference Center on Aug. 19, Westerman said the lack of forest management is making forests vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires. Ten million acres of timberland burned last year, releasing 100 million tons of carbon, said Westerman, who represents Arkansas; 4th Congressional District that includes much of the state’s forested land.
“We’re in a situation right now where the forests need industry more than industry needs the forests is one way you can think of that,” he said. “There’s so much volume that needs to come off of our forests just to keep the forests healthy that we really need to grow industry to be able to utilize that wood.”
The Fountain Lake School District is an example of how to do that, he said. When he was serving on the school board, the district passed a bond measure to build a new middle school building and renovate a high school building, but the bids were a million dollars over budget. Instead of cutting scope, Westerman challenged the architects and engineers to redesign with wood, which was possible because a previous rule banning the use of wood in school buildings had been changed. The idea at first was resisted because the design professionals had been trained to use steel and concrete and because changing the specs would slow the schedule. But by using wood, the cost dropped from $148 per square foot to $102.
“So we went from being a million dollars over budget to about $2 million under budget, and we made up the schedule because the construction time went so much faster and we’re also able to use local resources,” he said. Those resources included local carpenters employed by the Hot Springs Village housing market who were looking for work during an economic downturn.
The Arkansas Forestry Association says the forestry industry employs 28,057 Arkansans and has an economic impact of $3.2 billion. Nineteen million acres, or 56% percent of the state’s land area, is forested. Westerman, who has a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University, said the 4th District is 87% forested. Westerman’s office says the state has at least 40 wood products manufacturing facilities and 62 paper-related manufacturing facilities.
Westerman said Arkansas has well-managed forests compared to other places in the country.
“I’ve been able to go to committee meetings and put up pictures of our forests in Arkansas and say, ‘This is what a well-managed forest looks like. This is what we need to be doing in other parts of the country,’” he said.
Westerman listed the benefits of healthy forests: “clean air, clean water, better wildlife habitat, more biodiversity, more sports and recreation opportunities, a better economy. Everybody wins with … a healthy forest, and that’s what we should strive for.” He said healthy forests pull carbon from the atmosphere, prevent soil erosion and purify streams.
“We’ve got a good message to tell, and we’re on the right side of science, and we’re on the right side of the issue, and it gives us tremendous potential here in Arkansas to do great things,” he said.
He said he and other members of Congress have begun a Working Forests Caucus – which required some translation for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. After listening intently to Westerman’s description, Ryan said, “What kind of workforce?” When Westerman clarified, “Working forest, like trees,” Ryan replied, “Oh. Forests. In Wisconsin, it has two syllables.”