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Jobs, science and Montana wood: UM College of Forestry planning new home

An artist’s rendering of the future College of Forestry building erected from cross-laminated timber, sourced and milled in Montana. The design remains preliminary. (University of Montana)

When Bill Franke and his family pledged $24 million to the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana in 2016, the gift came with the understanding that the school would begin fundraising for a new facility.

The College of Forestry, one of the oldest academic programs in the West, has resided in its current building since 1923, though it outgrew the space years ago. It’s professors, researchers and students are scattered across campus, and the facility itself reflects a bygone era.

But now there’s a movement taking place to change that with a new home for the College of Forestry, built from cross laminated timber sourced and milled in Montana. If realized, the facility could revolutionize the science of forestry and help launch a new industry with jobs and sustainable building practices.

“The ability to use timber – a Montana resource and a renewable resource – to build buildings over 10 stories tall is pretty exciting,” said UM President Seth Bodnar. “We want this to be a demonstration project of a sustainable building, but also a Montana industry that should be a building wave of the future.”

The university has included the new forestry building in its long-range building plans, and it will take its funding request to the state Legislature next year.

But the ask goes beyond the need for a new facility to house one of the university’s marquise programs. The building, fabricated from cross laminated timber, could help boost the state’s economy by showcasing an industry capable of bringing jobs to rural communities, sequestering carbon and restoring the health of regional forests.

“We have this really significant fire problem on the landscape that’s a product of past management, fire suppression and climate change,” said Tom DeLuca. “Being able to harvest trees with a five inch top adds value to what’s relatively a low-value material that would just go into studs. It does have the potential to play a role in the restoration economy.”

DeLuca, dean of the College of Forestry at UM and director of the Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station, began working on the university’s plans for a new forestry building when he arrived on campus.

With a goal in mind, DeLuca turned to his connections in Washington and his experience in the mass timber movement, where cross-laminated timber gained attention. Historically, wood as a construction material was primarily limited to low-rise and light-frame buildings, but that’s beginning to change.

Nationally, 240 mass timber buildings have been constructed through 2019, though 460 are currently in design. DeLuca and other proponents believe Montana could help grow that industry using Montana resources. Along the way, it would add value to the low-grade timber scattered across the state’s overgrown forests and play a new role in forest conservation.

“I put together a proposed building design based on cross laminated timber, where the timber the building would be built from would be resourced here in the state of Montana, milled in the state and pressed into cross laminated timber in the state,” DeLuca said. “We’re demonstrating a mass timber building on campus and a super green design that goes into training the workforce.”

While the new building would resolve the college’s spacial needs, it would also serve as a demonstration project. According to the university, the proposed building would use around 3,400 meters of Montana and Canadian wood products and capture around 3,100 metric tons of carbon dioxide – far more than steel and concrete.

The cross laminated timber used in the building would be milled locally and serve as the gold standard for new timber construction. DeLuca said it would also place UM at the center of a growing industry, one that could bring jobs to rural communities.

“We want to mark this new era in forestry where we’re not looked upon as part of the extraction industry but as part of the solution – the climate solution and restoring the health of rural communities with a skilled labor force,” DeLuca said. “The idea behind the building is to have a facility that embraces our past and our future.”

Craig Rawlings of the Forest Business Network in Missoula and organizer of the annual Mass Timber Conference on the West Coast, said wood has been used as a building material for millennia.

But low-grade timber that’s engineered into laminated panels provides more strength than standard studs. It also creates less waste and is poised to supersede the use of steel and concrete in new construction. The material is strong enough to support buildings 18 stories tall, or around 270 feet.

A high rise building is constructed using cross laminated timber and prefabricated panels. (Forest Business Network)

“We’re trying to find markets for these small diameter trees,” said Rawlings. “It doesn’t take a really big board to laminate. You take a bunch of small pieces to make engineered big pieces.”

While the UM building would serve as a showpiece in new construction, it could also help restore the state’s wood products industry. CrossLam Timber Solutions in Kalispell was the first in Montana to recognize the growing trend when it opened, and it has since invested to expand its operations.

DeLuca believes the industry will continue to grow and new businesses will emerge alongside it. He also believes the new UM forestry building could lead the way.

“This facility is going to perpetuate that notion of training people for that new workforce, but also create a vision for the future and following through on that with innovation,” he said. “It will be appealing to a broad array of people and will set the standard in Montana for how large buildings will be designed in the future.”

If realized, the new facility would house the College of Forestry and its underlying programs, including wildlife biology, restoration ecology and recreation management. While the proposal doesn’t yet have a cost, DeLuca believes its economic benefits and the underlying science it will foster will have broad appeal.

That includes members of the Legislature who must approved the project.

“Once our legislators start looking at this project and how it showcases Montana resources and Montana’s labor force, and generates a Montana created sustainable product, the Legislature will get behind it,” DeLuca said. “The forestry is done right in Montana where we have all these overstocked forests from 100 years of fire suppression overlaid with past management. This building would be a showcase of our wood products. It’s sustainable and the only renewable building material available.”