Growing Economic Opportunities in the Pacific Northwest

Victoria Christiansen, Forest Service Interim Chief
Pacific Northwest Economic Region
Spokane, WA
— July 24, 2018

It’s a pleasure to be here today. Thank you for inviting me!

Personal Background

In a way, I have come back home. I am originally from Washington State and worked as a forester and wildland firefighter for nearly 27 years for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, where I eventually served as State Forester for Washington. I also served as State Forester for Arizona before taking a position with the Forest Service in 2010.

So I have extensive firsthand experience with the challenges here in the Pacific Northwest, whether in terms of wildfire or in terms of forest management, jobs, and economic growth. I have seen the challenges from both a state and a federal perspective, and I have been a partner to the Forest Service and the entire natural resource community for my whole career.

The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands for the benefit of current and future generations. There are 760 million acres of forest lands in the United States. The Forest Service directly manages 193 million acres of National Forest System lands, and we also help forest landowners and land managers across the United States keep lands forested and sustainably managed by working with the states, with private landowners and industry, and with our own Research and Development to help make it happen.

We do that, in part, by developing new markets for forest products. So I am proud to be here today with Fritz Wolff from Katerra. Katerra brings cutting-edge building technologies to the market through the use of mass timber for tall buildings. Mass timber draws on longstanding knowledge about building from wood and revitalizes it for the 21st century to build in a new and innovative way using a renewable material: WOOD! 

So Katerra’s work dovetails with our commitment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and at the Forest Service to the use of wood as a green building material. Mass timber lets us connect sound forest stewardship to the sustainable use of wood for buildings.

But before I get into that, I want to touch on some of the other areas of economic opportunity associated with forests in this region, particularly outdoor recreation and water resources. Then I’ll talk about opportunities in forest management before ending with a few words about wildfire.

Outdoor Recreation

Forests across the United States are in a mix of landownerships. In the East, 81 percent of the forests are privately owned. In the West, it’s the other way around, with about 70 percent in public ownership.

In the Pacific Northwest, most large landscapes are in a mix of landownerships involving States, Tribes, local governments, private landowners, and federal land managers. The main federal forest managers are the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service.

The Forest Service manages the single largest block of forests in the five-state region of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. That includes 51 national forests covering almost 85 million acres. That’s an area larger than New Mexico.

By far the greatest use of the national forests is for outdoor recreation. Most Americans experience their national forests through recreational use, with proven benefits for human health and well-being. This region gives people lots of opportunities to enjoy the Great Outdoors. In Washington and Oregon alone, there are more than 24,000 miles of trail and more than 2,400 developed recreation sites, like campgrounds.

All this is a huge draw. In this five-state region, more than 26 million people visit the national forests every year. Visitors come from all over the world, and they spend money on lodging, food, gas, equipment, souvenirs, equipment, ski tickets, outfitters and guides … the list goes on.

That is great for the regional economy. In 2016, the visitors to national forests in Washington and Oregon alone spent about $813 million on their visits. That generated more than 13,000 jobs and contributed more than $600 million to the region’s GDP. That’s a lot of jobs and income, often in rural areas where other sources of jobs might be few.

Outdoor recreation offers opportunities for growth, so we have made improving recreational access and facilities one of five national priorities for the Forest Service. Our scientists are conducting research to understand who is—and who is not—using our public lands and how we can broaden participation. We use social media to help determine public interest and set priorities. How we can give people more of the experiences and settings in nature they want?

For example, we have discovered that more people will visit the national forests if we give them the means for a variety of experiences, ranging from whitewater rafting to guided pack trips. They need outfitters and guides with specialized knowledge, training, and equipment, so we are working to make special use permits for outdoor recreation easier to obtain. We are also working to repair our system of roads, trails, and bridges where needed, and we are finding more of the means.

Watershed Management

Another area of economic opportunity is a resource this region is justly proud of: water and all its uses—for drinking, for hydropower, for irrigation and agricultural production, for the famous salmon fisheries and other habitats, and for outdoor recreation and scenic beauty. Washington and Oregon alone have 51 wild and scenic rivers on the national forests.

The Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest is the region’s leading water company: for example, the national forests are the source of 44 percent of the surface runoff in Washington and 36 percent in Oregon. Waterflows from the National Forest System support millions of municipal, industrial, and agricultural users.

The Pacific Northwest is famous for its hydropower, and the Forest Service fully supports the energy sector here. Hydropower utilities on the national forests in Oregon and Washington produce nearly 25 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, enough to supply more than 2 million homes and contributing over $2.5 billion to the regional economy. As of 2017, the national forests in the region were managing 34 energy projects, including 9 new energy project proposals.

Again, that’s where special use permits come in. As of 2016, we were permitting 26 hydropower plants; 210 powerlines; and 949 water-related permits, including for irrigation ditches, water transmission lines, and dams or reservoirs. We are working to reform our processes to make it easier for users of all kinds to do business with the Forest Service.

We also support collaborative groups who are working in partnership with the Forest Service to improve forest conditions. Forested landscapes catch and filter rain and snow, yielding abundant flows of fresh, clean water. Sustaining healthy, resilient forests is the most cost-effective means of protecting water sources, saving costs from flood control, water purification, and more.

Improving forest conditions takes active management using every tool we have, whether it’s grazing, timber sales, stewardship contracts, mechanical fuels treatments, or the use of fire. Often, our treatments call for some combination of all these tools. In 2016, together with our partners and local communities, the Forest Service treated about 475,000 acres across Oregon and Washington.

That’s a lot, but we have opportunities to do much more—many landscapes and watersheds in need of treatment. To build our capacity to improve forest conditions, the Forest Service is reforming our processes. We have six major change efforts underway to increase the amount of work we can get done on the ground. Our work will stay grounded in sound science, using good data and keeping our commitments while also raising the scale of our work.

Forest Products

One promising area of reform is to align our practices, policies, and guidance with changing market needs in the Pacific Northwest. We call it Forest Products Modernization. By modernizing our processes, we can use new opportunities for forest products delivery to help us improve forest conditions while also creating jobs and sustaining rural economies.

We can implement these new practices by working together and by being good neighbors. For us, being a good neighbor means working with others across jurisdictions to meet shared needs and goals. It means recognizing the rights, values, and needs of stakeholders across the board, including states, tribes, counties, communities, and private landowners.

The gold standard is a broad, diverse coalition for conservation working across boundaries and using all authorities available to us, like our Good Neighbor Authority for expanding partnerships with states to work across boundaries. As of today, we have GNA with all five states in the region.

We have promising new opportunities for growth in the forest products industry, and that brings me back to mass timber. Mass timber is based on a technology called cross-laminated timber. The technology joins pieces of wood in ways that make for a building material that is exceptionally strong, unusually fire-resistant, and both affordable and renewable. With mass timber, companies like Katerra can produce cost-effective building materials used to construct truly beautiful buildings that are 12 stories high or more.

The raw materials for mass timber can come from the small-diameter trees we need to remove to improve forest conditions. I see no downside here because wood is a green building material, far better for the environment than cement or steel. A thriving mass timber market can help us reduce hazardous fuels, protect homes and communities from fire risk, and boost rural jobs and economies. The outcome is communities that are safer, greener, and more prosperous.

Several parts of the Forest Service are working together on mass timber: our Research and Development arm through our Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin; our Wood Innovations team, which works on marketing and technology transfer; and all the people on the national forests who are planning and administering timber sales and hazardous fuels treatments.

In the last several years, we have also developed a partnership with Woodworks, which lets us help architects, engineers, and developers to better understand and use modern wood technologies. Our researchers, technical experts, and forest managers are all working together to advance mass timber production and construction, and we have created some outstanding synergies together with partners like Woodworks and Katerra.

To give one example, the Colville National Forest here in Washington is slated to become the top timber producer for the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest. In 2018, the Colville is expected to raise its timber outputs by 70 percent from the previous year and by over 140 percent from 2015. Almost all this material will come from treatments like forest thinning and removing fire-killed trees. Conceivably, there will be synergies with new markets like mass timber.

Wildland Fire Management

Ironically, part of what is driving synergies like this, including opportunities for jobs and economic growth, is the growing size and severity of wildfires. Last year, we had one of the costliest fire seasons on record, with dozens of lives lost and more than 8,000 residences burned. In Oregon and Washington, the area burned was 50 percent higher than the 10-year average; in northern Idaho and Montana, the area burned was a whopping 350 percent of the 10-year average! Also, fire seasons have been getting longer. Nationally, we now talk about the fire year, not the fire season, and every year seems to bring more record-breaking fires.

The primary driver is fuel buildups due to a history of fire exclusion and the effects of a changing climate, such as regional drought and extreme fire weather. We can meet the challenges, but only if we improve our wildland fire system.

In the wildland fire system we have today, a suite of environmental, social, political, financial, and cultural factors all drive outcomes in the wildland fire environment. With pieces connected to civil society, responders, communities, and landscapes, our wildland fire system is extremely complex. The system can work at cross-purposes, constraining effective land management; or it can operate smoothly through synergies that allow stakeholders to work together to achieve common goals across broad landscapes.

In 2010, the entire wildland fire community came together to create a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Our Cohesive Strategy has three central goals:

  • improving forest conditions to sustain and restore healthy fire-adapted landscapes;
  • building fire-adapted human communities in fire-prone landscapes; and
  • responding safely and effectively to wildfires based on sound risk assessment.

The Cohesive Strategy was an important step toward improving our wildland fire system. Congress took another step this year by passing the omnibus spending bill for 2018. The bill will help the Forest Service finally stabilize our operating environment. Beginning in fiscal year 2020, the bill will keep rising fire suppression costs from draining resources away from our nonsuppression programs. It will also reduce the need for transferring funds from our nonfire mission areas to cover firefighting costs. The bill also expanded our authorities for using forest management tools to get more work done on the ground.


It will be up to the Forest Service to take advantage of the opportunities Congress has given us to improve our wildland fire system and improve forest conditions. It is not business as usual! We are doing so by looking for ways to make our spending on firefighting more cost-effective. We are doing so by making our processes more effective so we can get more work done on the ground. We are doing so by looking for ways to use new authorities to work with the states and other partners to get more work done.

We are also taking advantage of new breakthroughs in our science and technology. Building on synergies, we are creating visionary new approaches to working with stakeholders across shared landscapes to plan at larger scales than ever before. We anticipate reducing fire risk to communities and improving forest conditions more effectively than ever before.

All this, in turn, will help us further improve our wildland fire system. As a result, we will be able to dedicate more resources to outdoor recreation, including improved access and infrastructure. We will be able to dedicate more resources to streamlining our special use permitting processes … to conducting landscape and watershed restoration projects with collaborative groups … to pursuing win-win opportunities to market green building materials through mass timber and other technologies.

All this will create business opportunities associated with the national forests in the Pacific Northwest, including more jobs and economic activity, for the benefit of the people we serve.

Thank you.