Love of the Forest Comes Full Circle

By: Vanessa Beeson

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Posted: 11/8/2021

Love of the Forest Comes Full Circle Photo By: Submitted

It's easier to understand trees when you're surrounded by forests. At least, that's the case for Dr. Brian Brashaw, 2014 sustainable bioproducts alumnus.

The Laona, Wisconsin native said the link between forests and the forest products industry became evident early on.

"I grew up in the Nicolet National Forest. My dad worked for Connor Forest Products and many family friends worked for the U.S. Forest Service," he recalled.

Nicolet merged with another forest in 1993 to become the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, which covers around 1.5 million acres of Wisconsin's Northwoods. Brashaw—now stationed in Duluth, Minnesota at the Superior National Forest—has dual roles as assistant director of the U.S. Forest Service's Wood Innovations Program and program manager for the Forest Products Marketing Unit, the market development arm of the agency's Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in Madison, Wisconsin.

Focused on near-term market opportunities for wood products, he said his job deepens his appreciation for the forest.

"Working for the Forest Service has allowed me to come full circle and think about how to support forests in all I do. Successful markets support forest management. A real-life connection is created as I'm thinking about markets and research while stationed with people managing the land," he said.

The Wood Innovations Program's market development approach supports forest management and is managed by state and private forestry staff.

"If landowners have markets for their products, they're more likely to keep their forests as forests. Consider forest restoration, if we're thinning and improving the land and we have a market for the products, we reduce waste while creating revenue to offset the treatment's cost," he said.

The team focuses on development and economic opportunities of mass timber, including cross-laminated timber, or CLT. They also invest in wood energy, biochar, cellulose nanomaterials, and other innovative wood products.

Brashaw works with the group's Washington, D.C.-based team and technical and market development leadership within the Forest Service's nine regions, while also leading the FPL's marketing unit.

He said the Forest Service is invested in innovative wood products from discovery to market, noting the team's mass timber strategy as an example of this all-encompassing approach.

"Wood Innovations supports education and technical assistance to help the building industry embrace mass timber use in commercial or multifamily structures. FPL conducts performance-based product research to inform and demonstrate performance, which ultimately led to national building code changes that allow for taller wood-based buildings. We are also investing in catalytic projects to create more markets for mass timber," he said.

Brashaw noted one special initiative the USDA and Softwood Lumber board kicked off in 2014—the U.S. Tall Wood Building Competition, which set the stage for CLT in a commercial setting.

"Since then, the U.S. has seen over 1,000 CLT buildings built, under construction or in planning and design. Ten manufacturing plants are now producing products, and Walmart has chosen to build their new headquarters from CLT produced in Arkansas," he pointed out.

The Forest Service's grants program is another special initiative Brashaw discussed. Its Wood Innovations Grants Program, launched in 2015, awarded $7.62 million to 35 recipients in 2020, 27 of which focused on expanding wood products markets including CLT. The Community Wood Grants Program, established in 2020, will award approximately $2 million to its first recipients in 2021.

2020 Wood Innovations Grants Program recipients include MSU, to study the development of preservative-treated southern pine cross-laminated timber, and the Mississippi Forestry Foundation, which plans to build a Forestry Educational and Utilization Center to showcase the benefits of CLT and other innovative wood building materials.

"The CLT building we;re supporting with the Mississippi Forestry Foundation is an example of a catalytic investment aimed to educate the public about CLT. Another example is the Ascent building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, currently under construction, which will be the tallest mass timber building in the world," Brashaw said.

He explained how CLT diminishes a building's carbon footprint exponentially.

"CLT replaces other fossil fuel intensive building materials. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and convert it to wood, which is 50 percent carbon. When we build with wood, that carbon continues to be stored for the life of the building, which might be a hundred years or more," he explained.

Brashaw said the Forest Products Lab's marketing unit is an interface between industry, research, and the Forest Service lands, supporting market development and outreach that helps bring innovative products to market.

"We connect what's happening in research, in the marketplace, and at the local level. Most states have their own wood utilization specialist who is most familiar with the industry in the state, so we partner with them to support wood utilization and market development," he explained.

Growing up, Brashaw wanted to be a forester. But after a forestry bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, he delved into wood products with a master's in the subject from Washington State and then went on to the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute as a researcher and wood industry specialist.

While at the Natural Resources Research Institute, Brashaw worked on everything from baseball bats to kitchen cabinets as an engineer, researcher, and manager for the university's non-teaching research and development group that supported wood products economic development in Minnesota.

There he met Dr. Rubin Shmulsky, now MSU's sustainable bioproducts department head. Years later, he reached out to Shmulsky to explore the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D.

"I'll forever appreciate that MSU gave me a great opportunity to earn a Ph.D. while working full-time. It has been of tremendous value to me," he said.

Having already spent 20 years as a published researcher, his time at MSU further shaped him as a scientific leader.

His time in the Magnolia State also opened his eyes to the challenges and opportunities of southern forestry. These days, however, his national focus has led him to an unlikely place—helping tell the story of America's forests and forest products industry with a rock and roll legend.

While Chuck Leavell is best known for his piano and keyboard work with the likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, off tour, he's more likely to be found revving up a chainsaw on his Georgia tree farm. Leavell hosts the PBS television series, "America's Forests," to communicate how forests and the forest products industry benefit Americans. The Forest Service supported the pilot episode, which featured CLT in Oregon in 2017. Brashaw became a champion for the series, and most recently, he helped tell the story of Wisconsin's forests, across two episodes showcasing both the Forest Products Lab and the forest where Brashaw grew up.

"The show is so effective in communicating. My goal was to elevate awareness of the Forest Service and the Forest Products Lab but upon doing so, we highlighted so many other stories related to Wisconsin's forests," he said.

Whether it's working with Leavell to tell the story of the Northwoods Brashaw once called home or educating Forest Service regional leadership on new markets for wood products, it's clear Brashaw is at the forefront of a thrilling time in the industry.

"As mass timber markets become stronger and progress is made in wood energy, biochar, cellulose nanomaterials, and other wood products, we'll continue to work collaboratively and have an impact. Our goal is to keep forests as forests and create markets that help them remain healthy and resilient," he said.

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