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Can Creating a Bigger Market for Timber Help Preserve Connecticut Woodlands?

Lars Plougmann
Creative Commons

A new wood product used in construction could help create greater demand for materials from local forests. Some tree buffs say more desire for New England timber could actually be a good thing for preserving Connecticut woodlands. 

It's called cross-laminated timber, or CLT. It's layered wood, glued together, that's used in construction and is really strong.

It's so strong, in fact, that one engineer said CLT is poised to compete with steel support beams and concrete. "What CLT is doing is getting wood into applications one would never associate with wood, like high rises," said PeggiClouston, an engineer and associate professor at UMass Amherst. "We're talking about envisioning buildings up to 42 stories, made out of CLT."

Clouston just won a nearly $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to prove that wood harvested here in New England can be used in the CLT process, which could mean more money coming out of New England forests.

There is a market today for Connecticut timber, but it's limited, said Thomas Worthley, an associate professor at UCONN. To make money, what you need is "the right quality log," he said. "And that's the key."

For example, wood free from things like knots or cracks. Worthley said that means only high-quality timbers fetch a lot of money on the open market. But, he thinks cross-laminated timber could change that -- creating a new market that would discourage landowners from selling off forest plots in New England and encouraging them to grow less-valuable, but still robust trees like pine.

"My own personal bias is for growing the best trees we can. That's, to me, how those sort of low-grade markets will help the process," Worthley said.

PeggiClouston said she'll be using her grant money to develop computer models that will simulate the CLT process with different Northeast trees and lumber grades. Work she hopes will one day create a bigger market for locally-grown forest products.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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