North Carolina has a housing and sawmill problem. The number of local sawmills in North Carolina has been declining, while the population of North Carolina, and the subsequent demand for housing, continues to rise exponentially. North Carolina’s Department of Housing has found that the state will be short a little under a million houses by 2030.
Last Tuesday (June 27, 2023) the North Carolina Senate Agriculture Committee passed the Support Local Sawmills Act onto the Rules and Operations Committee. The bill, which passed the state House last year but was stalled in the Senate, aims to empower local sawyers, landowners, and builders by addressing the regulatory processes that hinder the use and sale of local lumber.
The act would clear two major barriers that impede the utilization of local lumber. First, it expands the ability of landowners and small sawmill owners to sell their unstamped (also referred to as ungraded) lumber to others for residential construction purposes, promoting a vibrant marketplace for local wood products.
Second, the bill eliminates the discretion given to building inspectors, ensuring a standardized process for approving the use of local lumber. This change will provide landowners with the confidence to utilize ungraded lumber from local sawmills or their own lumber while reducing unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles.
Advocate of the bill, and owner of the Efland-based Fireside Farm and Sawmill, Randall Williams, explained the current state of regulations on local sawmills as “A classic example of excessive regulation getting in the way of entrepreneurship and civic goals.”
It is difficult for local sawmills to get inspectors out to begin with, and, when they do, it can be costly. According to Williams, having a state-certified lumber inspector come out can cost around $1,000 a day. One of the costs included is having to pay an employee to flip the lumber over on all sides for the grader to inspect.
Fears of quality of wood sold may be a concern. However, allowing for the selling of ungraded local lumber would actually increase quality. The current state of the U.S. lumber commodity chain is both destructive and inefficient. Large mills, often monopolizing the market, compromise quality standards due to limited competition. As a result, the lumber available in big-box stores has witnessed a decline in quality.
“What used to be rejected Grade-3 lumber is now approved for construction.” explained Williams.
This compromised quality not only affects the integrity of structures but also contributes to a culture of price-gouging. The recent surge in demand for housing, coupled with low interest rates and tariffs on imported lumber, has further exacerbated the problem, with lumber prices sometimes skyrocketing up to four times their previous levels over the last few years.
New Hampshire and Wisconsin have already implemented successful programs to support local sawmills without compromising safety. These programs include training sawyers in lumber grading, periodic certification, and the authorization to sell their lumber. North Carolina, the state which founded American forestry, could be next.
By passing the Support Local Sawmills Act, North Carolina has an opportunity to empower local communities and address the challenges facing homebuilders, young aspiring homeowners, and farmers. Enabling small sawyers to certify and sell their local, high-quality lumber will provide affordable alternatives for construction while reducing the burden of imported lumber, which is already heavily tariffed. Moreover, this initiative can reinvigorate rural economies, support local businesses, and create job opportunities within the community.
Supporting the local lumber industry not only bolsters the economy but also contributes to environmental sustainability. As mentioned previously, an abundance of local, high-quality logs goes unused and ends up in landfills due to low log prices. By promoting the use of local lumber, we can reduce waste, discourage excessive clearcutting, and preserve valuable habitats.
There is far too much reliance on imported big-box lumber in the United States, while local lumber markets struggle and sometimes must shut down. By addressing the barriers hindering the use and sale of local lumber, we can foster a sustainable, resilient, and prosperous wood-based economy while making homebuilding more affordable.