Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Timber is big business in the Gem State

| October 27, 2021 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — Idaho broke in Forbes' Best States top 10 in 2019, with the magazine predicting the state's $81 billion economy to continue to grow.

Food processing, chemicals, paper, mining and tourism are integral parts of Idaho's economy. Another a key player in the economy? Timber.

Consider these numbers:

• 21 million acres of forest lands cover more than 40 percent of Idaho’s 53,487,360 acres.

• In 2019, the state’s forest sector contributed $2.2 billion to the state’s gross state product, and generating more than $793 in lumber sales.

• There are an estimated 31,258 jobs connected to the forest products industry, either directly or indirectly. In 2019, labor income in the forest products industry totaled $1.247 billion.

• Each million board feet of timber harvested in Idaho provides 24 jobs, 13 in the forest products industry and another 11 in support jobs.

• In 2019, an estimated 1.3 billion board feet of timber was harvested in the state.

• Almost all of the wood harvested in Idaho is processed in the state.

Despite the Great Recession and the global novel coronavirus pandemic, Idaho Forest Product Commission officials said that Idaho's forest products industry is more efficient, focused and determined to succeed than it ever has been.

Many forest businesses invested millions into infrastructure improvements and workforce development, and now that markets are stronger, the future looks bright for the timber sector despite the challenges over the past few decades, from the Great Recession to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In the past, Idaho timber could be found throughout the nation and sales were strictly a matter of price since lumber is a commodity.When the economy plummeted, forest owners were forced to rethink their products, develop new markets and look for new opportunities.

As a result, the industry become more agile and responsive to market changes than it had been. The sawmills that survived the recession are more efficient and adaptable than they were before the economic downturn.

Like all industries, there are challenges which face timber- and lumber-based businesses. Like other manufacturing business, workforce needs also are on the timber industry’s radar. However, IFPC officials said the progressive nature of the industry means that new technology is quickly integrated by mills, companies and workers. In fact, many might be surprised about how high-tech the timber industry has become — a case in point, the increased use of robotic technology.

With a shortage in skills-based employees, timber companies have turned to adopting robots to fill higher risk jobs that can be hard to fill. Employees are trained to manage multiple robots, allowing them to cover more than one role, industry officials said.

To address workforce challenges, there are a number of development projects at the state level and through local education institutions. Idaho’s ‘wood basket’ comes from a mix of private, state and federal lands and, while the federal government owns 79 percent of the state’s productive timberlands, those lands account for only 10 percent of the timber harvest.

A growing concern in the state are ongoing forest health issues on national forests and what it means to neighboring landowners and taxpayers who foot the bill for wildfires. U.S. Forest Service officials have noted that about 15 million acres of national forest system lands are in need of restoration, commission officials said. To address those concerns, collaborative groups in the state are working to restore national forests and provide on-the-ground management.

Another thing that might surprise many is how important the forests are to the state’s schools. Timber harvested from these state “endowment” forests earns money which is invested to provide income which relieves everyone’s tax burden.

With a vast majority of the state’s timberlands under federal ownership — about 80 percent — timber availability will continue to be a challenge. That said, thanks to a climate that produces strong, highly desirable wood and a variety of commercial tree species, commission officials noted the state is blessed with a tremendous resource in its forests and timber. From paper products to tissue to packaging, timber and lumber products are a part how people going about their daily lives, they said.

The nation will need housing and, on the building side, architects, city planners and others are realizing the environmental and social value and benefits of using wood in design. Technology is constantly changing the way people live and how the state’s resources such as timber and lumber are used, they said, pointing to new products such as cross laminated timber and nanotechnology as well as the use of robotics in mills.