Forest products scientists met on the shores of sky blue Lake Tahoe, its natural beauty in danger because of what can happen in the mountain basin surrounding it. Discussions proceeded far beyond the Tahoe Basin’s need for hazard removal, however, to that of bringing federal timber harvests back up to scientific levels.

Attendance came from North America mainly, but Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ghana, Hungary, Japan, New Zealand and Turkey were represented.

Programme chairman Dr Frank C Beall, director of the Forest Products Laboratory at the University of California, Richmond, led off on the Tahoe Basin’s problems by saying: “Lake Tahoe is a sensitive area. We must have a proper combination of extraction and [controlled] burning.”

Nearly the entire basin was clearcut in the 1880s, but regrowth has been good. The problem has been drought that killed trees and weakened them for insect attack. The public has been reluctant to approve logging to alleviate the hazard, although some helicopter extraction has been performed. Experts say the basin is ‘wildfire waiting to happen’.

Dr Frank Shelly, also from the Richmond laboratory, recalled “peak lumber production in the Sierra was in the 1880s, along with destructive logging practices”.

He outlined current fire risk problems: 60 of the Sierra’s 300 biological species are at risk and there is a large population base with a high concentration of structures in the forest; 160 structures per square mile in the Tahoe Basin.

Dr Charles R Goldman is probably the leading expert on Lake Tahoe. He is a professor at the University of California at Davis. He told the group: “Politics pays an important part in environmental decisions, both correct and incorrect. There is a tremendous need to depolarise the production part of the forest industry from the conservation enthusiasts.”

He said that a six-year drought has left up to 40% of the trees dead or dying in some of the Tahoe basin stands and fire dangers are extraordinary. “We could have a very serious fire,” he warned.

Keynote speaker Dr Patrick Moore, Vancouver, BC, is a founder of Greenpeace, Canada and was a director of Greenpeace, International.

Greenpeace is not known for encouraging forestry, but Dr Moore now thinks otherwise and is active in encouraging sensible forestry.

He said that the World Wildlife Fund announced that 50,000 species are becoming extinct each year due to human activity with the main cause being commercial logging. He challenged them to name one such species and “not one example has been offered as evidence”, he declared, adding: “To the best of our scientific knowledge, no species has become extinct due to forestry in North America.”

“Forestry, even though it is not perfect and does have environmental impacts, is definitely the most sustainable of all the primary industries used to gain the materials and energy that we need for our civilisation,” he said.

“Wood is the most renewable of all the materials used to build and maintain human civilisation.”

University of California Professor William McKillop outlined the various US federal actions that have reduced available timber harvest. “Their tactics seems to be to come up with studies that de-emphasise the trees,” he said. “It’s subjugation of science by politics and professional zeal to try to prove that roadless areas and recreation have more value.”

He said that the actions reduce regional and national income and employment, decrease tax revenues, and diminish consumer welfare through price increases for wood products and substitute materials. Internationally, he said, they harm the US trade balance by decreasing forest product exports and increasing imports.

Such imports cause other countries to log their forests more heavily. “Such changes in production, consumption and trade patterns will have significant adverse environmental effects,” he said.

From the federal standpoint, Douglas MacCleery, assistant director, forest management, US Forest Service, stated: “Setting aside forest for nature may well not turn it into what it used to be.

“Americans want it all. We want our forests to look like forests with lots of big trees. We want our forests not to be vulnerable to insect epidemics or burn up in wildfires. And we want our woods to have a rich complement of native plants and animals,” he declared.

At the same time the US has the world’s highest per capita consumption of forest products. He said that US timber growth has exceeded removal for the past 50 years.

On the energy resource side, Mr MacCleery declared that wood products manufacture uses about 10% of the energy required for manufacturing substitute materials.

And on the present situation, he said: “We have management by gridlock.”

Several area mill managers outlined problems caused by strangled federal timber supplies and what they are doing about it. Kent Duysen, president Sierra Forest Products, Terra Bella, California: The Forest Service timber sale programme has been reduced 90%. How are they going to protect from catastrophic fire? We are selling white fir blocks to Japan where they are finger-jointed and laid up into panels.

Dennis Scott, president Eel River Sawmills, Fortuna, California: We bought 40,000 acres of forest land. The Forest Service green timber sale programme is basically shut down. The offshore log market is critical to us. We buy logs from New Zealand, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington.

Paul Harlan, vice president, The Collins Companies, Lakeview, Oregon: Certification is differentiating us from the competition. It has brought us to Home Depot and smaller retail lumber yards.

John Campbell, president, The Pacific Lumber Company, Scotia, California: We have embarked on a new era of operation with a rigorous set of environmental guidelines.

Looking ahead to the wood products of this century, Dr A William Boehner, research chief at TrusJoist MacMillan, Boise, Idaho, said engineered wood products have been developed to satisfy particular construction practices and have then been adapted to other uses.

Dr Robert Tichy of Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, addressed the subject of composite products.

“We must aggressively search for new methods. He described wood-metal combinations along with wood-plastic, and wood-metal-plastic. He said Chicago’s Sears Tower is just “a big tree built out of steel”.

“Whoever manages change the best wins, but it is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory,” he concluded.

CanFibre’s MDF plant in Riverside, California is using 10% of the Los Angeles area’s available wood waste, according to Steve Sage, marketing director of parent company Kafus Industries Ltd. He said: “With the world population and demand for wood fibre dramatically increasing over the next 50 years, the use of recycled and alternative fibres has become essential to building a sustainable civilisation.”

His company has tentative plans for an Amsterdam, Holland, urban wood waste MDF plant.

Dr Frank Shelly, Richmond, California, Forest Products Laboratory, warned that much of the US West has seen excessive accumulations of vegetative matter in forested and urban-wildland areas because of fire suppression and limitations on timber harvesting.

He suggested using the raw material for manufacturing composite panels and other wood-based products along with energy and chemicals. He said that California, alone, has 36 million bone dry tons of the material.

Qinglin Wu, assistant professor, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, commented on panel use in southern US furniture and cabinet manufacture.

He said that the plants he surveyed planned 62% increased particleboard use, 70% MDF increase, and 90% more plywood. He said that 75% of them are actively promoting MDF and particleboard to their customers.

He advised that there is a need to lower panel density and weight.

Kenaf is a buzzword these days in the biocomposite field. Dilprees S Bajwa, University of Illinois, Urbana, said the kenaf can produce six to 10 tons of dry fibre per acre with a stem diameter of 25mm to 35mm. It will grow 12ft to 14ft in height in four to five months.

He has experimented with kenaf-aspen board combinations, finding that internal bond is better with a higher concentration of aspen in the panel.

Salim S Hiziroglu, assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, told listeners that the share of wood composites in Malaysia’s forest products industry has increased “remarkably”.

He reported that particleboard manufacture rose from 110,000m³/year in 1986 to today’s 630,000m³. MDF was introduced early in the last decade.

Today, peninsular Malaysia has 10 MDF mills with a total capacity of 900,000m³. Two mills in East Malaysia produce another 210,000m³. About half the MDF is exported. He said that palm oil fibre is being considered for wood composites.

Thomas J Williamson, APA technical director, outlined a rather steady growth for panels since 1960, except for a few spikes. He expected OSB to continue its steady growth for the next few years.

Mr Williamson said industrial use is becoming the primary market for structural plywood while OSB has captured about 75% of the residential market.

Plywood still has nearly all of the residential floor market while OSB has replaced plywood in roofs. He predicted that OSB siding would be a growth market.

On the truss side, he said: “When the timber industry hit its crisis in the early ’90s and the prices went out of sight, the steel industry stepped right in. They replaced glulam with big open-web steel trusses.” An answer to steel has been fibre reinforced plastic glulam to reduce glulam sizes and replace steel.

New developments are occurring in all-wood ‘safe rooms’ in main living areas for storm protection.

He said I-joists, most using OSB webs are “a huge growth industry”, doubling every four years.