Vilsack, Iowa, announces grants for mass timber projects that can help reduce wildfire risk

The US Forest Service hopes to reduce the threat of wildfires across the country by removing the trees that fuel these dangerous fires on millions of acres.

The federal agency, which reports to the US Department of Agriculture, plans to tackle some 50 million acres of federal, state and private land over the next decade. But the question, US Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said during a visit to Iowa on Friday, is how to use all that wood from these small-diameter trees.

“Well, people have found ways to compress that wood to create structures like this,” Vilsack said, speaking of Junction Development Catalyst, a mixed-use development in West Des Moines that will have affordable housing and commercial spaces.

The project uses a durable material called solid wood, which is made from layers of wood compressed together. According to the architect and developers, this is only the second hardwood project in Iowa and the first in the state to include affordable housing.

“The goal is to take this diseased wood, the burnt wood, get it out of our forest areas, reduce the risk of fire,” Vilsack said, “create jobs in rural areas across the country, convert it into these materials which then allow people to build facilities like this.

The project, developed by Cutler Development, received a Wood Innovation Scholarship 2021 nearly $250,000 from the Forest Service to help build it. The objective of these subsidies is to strengthen the use of wood products and the market for wood energy.

“It’s amazing technology,” Vilsack said of the solid wood. “But it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work unless there’s an incentive to make it work.”

“It’s amazing technology,” Secretary Tom Vilsack said of the solid wood. “But it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work unless there’s an incentive to make it work.”

Vilsack said these grants help motivate communities to undertake these projects. He announced the latest round of grants, over $32 million. A project from Iowa State University in Ames and a project from Cutler Development in Des Moines received funding under this round of grants.

Daniel Willrich, the architect for the Junction Development Catalyst project, said the building’s structure is made of about three-quarters solid wood. The material, which is lighter than steel, he said, saves costs.

Solid wood is used for the columns and beams on the first floor. The floor, the roof terrace and the beams of the second and third floors are also made of solid wood. Willrich touted the building’s sustainable component, but said he hadn’t calculated its carbon footprint.

“But that’s kind of the message behind the mass timber, it’s this ability to reduce the carbon footprint,” Willrich said. “It actually sequesters carbon versus outgassing and emitting carbon into the atmosphere.”

Construction is expected to be completed in September or October.

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