Rockin’ the gospel of sustainability: Chuck Leavell launches ‘America’s Forests’

Posted: April 27, 2017


Keyboardist Chuck Leavell’s new documentary television series, “America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell,” debuted on Oregon Public Broadcasting earlier this month. Photo:

Keyboardist Chuck Leavell’s new documentary television series, “America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell,” debuted on Oregon Public Broadcasting earlier this month.

Most of us know Chuck Leavell from what he calls his “night job,” as the longtime keyboardist for the Rolling Stones.

But Leavell has another gig, and he attacks it with equal fervor: forestry.

Whether managing his 3,000-acre pine and oak plantation in southern Georgia or touring the country preaching the need for widespread forest restoration, Leavell is a passionate advocate for the use and perpetuation of America’s forests.

Now he’s taking that advocacy another step with the production of a documentary television series, “America’s Forests with Chuck Leavell,” which aired its premiere episode earlier this month on Oregon Public Broadcasting and at the International Mass Timber Conference in Portland. (You can watch it online here.)

“This is a transformational time in our industry,” Leavell told the nearly 800 engineers, architects, manufacturers, foresters, conservationists and builders gathered for the second annual conference. “Our trees and forests can become the rock stars of the 21st century.”

The cause for optimism comes from the increasing number of “tall wood” construction projects worldwide, utilizing cross-laminated timber (CLT), glue-laminated (glulam) timber framing, and various wood-concrete and wood-steel building systems.

Already, Portland is home to several tall wood office buildings, as well as the under-construction, eight-story Carbon 12 condominiums and a nearing-approval, 12-story, CLT and glulam office, retail and residential high-rise known as “Framework.”

Worldwide, tall wood structures are making headlines in Amsterdam; at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver; in Australia, Norway and the U.K. In Vaxjo, Sweden, the Limnologen development features four residential buildings, each with seven stories of CLT atop one story of concrete.


For his first episode of “America’s Forests,” Leavell visited Valerie Johnson, whose DR Johnson Lumber mill was the nation’s first certified manufacturer of architectural-grade CLT building panels.

“Have you ever imagined a skyscraper being built out of wood instead of steel and concrete?” Leavell asks his television audience. “That seems impossible, doesn’t it? But guess what: Out in Oregon, the impossible is becoming possible. New innovations in lumber technology are making the dream of truly green buildings come true.”

Johnson’s CLT plant is where “the new magic happens,” she said. First comes a layer of boards placed longitudinally, then a coating of glue followed by a horizontal layer of shorter boards and another coat of glue, then a final longitudinal layer of long boards.

DR Johnson can produce CLT that is three, five and seven layers deep, depending on the needs of a project. The resulting building panels fit together on-site like building blocks, making for greatly shortened construction times and smaller workforces.

“You’ve got all the strength of the wood fiber running both directions,” Johnson said. CLT is as strong as steel, and has passed all fire and earthquake safety tests required to date.

The largest CLT panels currently produced, worldwide, are about 65 feet long and 20 feet wide. Typically, the panels range in thickness from 5 to 16 inches; they’re used to build walls, floors and roofs. Individual panels can be cut at the mill to make room for windows, plumbing, electric and ventilation, further reducing the construction timeline.

Leavell believes CLT and other mass timber building products will revolutionize not only the wood products industry, but will get America back to work in its forests, thinning the fire-prone thickets created by pine beetle epidemics and a century of aggressive fire suppression.


But all that optimism, he said, relies upon teamwork by “all of us who love our nation’s forests.”

In his keynote address at the 2017 Mass Timber Conference, Leavell cautioned attendees that “we cannot let this moment go by. We cannot be here in five years still waiting for something to happen.”

To succeed, he suggested the need for leadership, legislation and the tying of loose ends.

Bringing a number in the audience to their feet, Leavell said foresters and manufacturers, with their friends in the construction and conservation communities, must “provide the leadership to end the destructive practices of the 20th century and to lead the world to a new, sustainable model of forestry.”

CLT is a “green” building product, he said, but it must come from forests that are managed in a truly sustainable manner.

At the same time, legislation is needed to overcome what Leavell called “the unintended consequences of well-intended environmental policies that led to uncontrolled wildfires, erosion and disease in our forests.”

“We need to convince our policy makers and the public that the best method of managing our nation’s forests would be to go out in those forests and actually manage them,” Leavell said.

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Which brings him to those loose ends: “Our attempts at public education and information have not been coordinated,” he said. “They haven’t included enough voices. We need groups like The Nature Conservancy, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and so many more, people who value our forests and all their uses. We need all these voices moving in the same direction. We’ve all got to sing from the same songbook.”

Leavell believes his series on “America’s Forests” is part of that public education, as does his business partner and the show’s producer, Bruce Ward.

“Chuck is like this gladiator out there, promoting sustainable forestry,” said Ward, whose work in forestry dates to the pine beetle epidemic in Colorado. “What Chuck brings to all of us is a way to carry this message about the utilization of wood and the revitalization of rural economies to a much larger audience.”

His long history in the music business provides the connection to an audience of millions. On his most recent tour with the Rolling Stones, Leavell played to sold-out audiences that totaled a million people in South America, then was nearly surpassed in a single, free concert in Havana, Cuba, that drew 750,000.

His Charlane Plantation in Georgia, which he owns with wife Rose Lane, provides his credentials in the forestry business. In addition to longleaf and loblolly pine, Charlane has red oaks, white oaks, laurel oaks and water oaks, as well as elm and poplar.

Leavell is actively involved in the forestry, planting new trees, helping with prescribed burns and the like. His wife’s family has been tending land in southern Georgia since the late 1700s.

“You can find me in the woods every single day when I’m there,” he said. “I also enjoy advocacy for forests and forestry, and I do so with all my might as a conservationist and a forester.”

Leavell and Ward were able to secure sponsorships for their initial episode of “America’s Forests” from the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Forest Resources Institute and the Forest Business Network (which also is the founder and sponsor of the Mass Timber Conference).

In addition to the visit to  DR Johnson Lumber’s CLT plant, the episode includes a visit with firefighters in Bend, Oregon, about the catastrophic nature of 21st century wildfires and the tale of a restoration project on the Siuslaw National Forest that brought together once warring groups of loggers and environmentalists.

Next up is production of a second 30-minute episode, this time based in Colorado. Ward is courting additional sponsors and agreements with public broadcasting stations and other networks nationwide, and with a variety of nonprofit and industry groups and individual businesses.


“We have the best shot if we are a formidable team,” Leavell emphasized. “If we coordinate all our efforts, just think what a bigger, better legacy we can all leave.”

“We all know that we live in a digital age,” he said. “But we also have an opportunity to live in the age of wood. Don’t we all see the need for new answers? Too many humans are disconnected from something in our souls. As Ralph Waldo Emerson taught us, ‘In the woods, we return to reason and faith.’ ”

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The reemergence of wood as America’s prime building material is possible because of its “infinite adaptability” and because it is truly renewable, Leavell said.

There is momentum for new construction as the nation leaves behind a decade of depressed housing markets and the subprime mortgage crisis, he said.

And then comes mass timber, CLT and glulam, and Leavell is preaching the gospel as a “true believer.”

“The speed, control, scale, affordability and sustainability offered by mass timber can help save this planet while we rebuild it,” he said. “We have a product here that is stronger than steel. We have a product that sequesters carbon in the woods and in our buildings. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Our industry is, finally, maturing and coming of age,” Leavell said. “And frankly, it’s just in the nick of time.”