Sustainable forestry

How sustainable forestry relates to the woodworker and consumer demands. June 3, 2003

We are a custom architectural woodwork shop and come across the sustainable forestry issue every so often with architects. In their political correctness, they want to know they are not specifying wood from forests that are being clear cut. They often use the term "sustainable forests," but I'm not sure they know what they're asking.

As an end-user of the lumber, we don't have information on where the lumber is cut from. How can we address this issue with architects? As woodworkers, we're the last to want to destroy the natural resource that drives our passion for being in business.

Forum Responses
(Forestry Forum)
From contributor D:
Tell them to make a donation to the Arbor Day Foundation that will replenish the amount of lumber used for each job. They can get 10 trees per membership and they can donate them to a local 4-h or to the homeowner for landscaping. This will show you just how concerned they are and put the ball in their court. You can also donate a fair amount of memberships. This can be great marketing, also. When I build a custom kitchen, I include a membership. It is great, cheap marketing and the customer will think of you every time they look into their yard.

From contributor J:
While the donation to the Arbor Day is a very worthwhile idea that is important and valuable from a tree-growing point of view and as a marketing tool, it does little to advance the sustainability issue. Yard trees provide a very small amount of log supply. Fragmentation of forest land into smaller and smaller plots, ultimately for house lots, is one of the most serious threats to lumber supply. There are a number of certification routes that forest owners can take to establish chain of ownership and sustainability. Many states have implemented best management practices. There are at least two formal certification programs, though I can't specifically recall their names. I do recall that there is some cost to the land owner under these programs. I believe the issue you are raising is one that will continue to gain importance.

From contributor D:
I see selective harvesting and clear cutting all the time, and there are two sides to the issue.

If you harvest (x) amount of wood, it doesn't matter if it is clear cut or selective harvested, you still remove (x) amount of wood. To reduce this, reduce consumption. All else is aesthetic. Selective harvesting is more aesthetic, but the equipment still leaves tracks to and from the site and they need more tracks in more locations to get the wood.

The part about trees in yards not producing usable logs… If you cut down trees for a development, that land will never reforest, so you should plant all the trees you can to offset this. If you clear cut, the trees grow back all by themselves if the land is left undeveloped. Mother Nature takes care of this, although it takes a while.

Anyway, the fragmentation part, touched on above, is what really sucks. I don't know what the planners are thinking because the suburbs today are so inefficient it should be criminal. Subdivision here, job there, daycare here, school there, groceries here, shopping there. All this driving and they wonder why:
- there isn't enough family time
- we use so much fuel
- there aren't enough roads

From contributor J:
Two issues for trees: oxygen production and wood usage. Planting all the trees possible everywhere will help oxygen. Harvestable trees for wood usage needs to occur on plots that lend themselves to harvest. Yes, current trends tend to damage, but we are just beginning on the road toward understanding how to have continued use of the great renewable stock. Unlike metals and fossil fuels, we can and should learn to mange our renewable forest raw materials.

From contributor N:
It's better to clear cut than to only cut the best, and leave the junk to reproduce.

There is a Forest Resource Fact Book published by the National Hardwood Lumber Association that gives some facts on sustainable forest management.

There are groups who are trying to certify wood as coming from sustainable forests, but as yet they have only certified about 2% of our forests while most of the forests are probably managed properly. The problem is that some are trying to use this issue to slow or stop the harvesting altogether. Clearcutting is certainly an issue, but not the only issue.

The best solution for this problem is to allow the professional foresters to manage our forest resource and not allow politicians and environmental activists to make the decisions, but that is just a wild dream that will probably not happen.

From the original questioner:
I agree with the post above. I wish the politicians and environmentalists would keep out of the issue. I don't think either group has the facts straight. I have heard that we actually have more acreage of forest today than 100 years ago because we can better manage fires that used to wipe out areas. Can anyone confirm this?

Our problem is that architects (who are usually politically correct and like to act as if they're protecting the environment) are specifying using "certified" wood. They don't understand what they're asking, and if you try and explain, they think you're just a tree-killing wacko! Then they drive home to their loft in the middle of the concrete forest miles and miles away from any tree.

From contributor D:
One other point is forest fires - we lose hundreds of thousands of acres to fire a year that could be minimized by allowing strategic strips to be cleared, thus not giving the fire an uninterrupted run. Much better to use the wood to build houses than make smoke.

From contributor B:
First remove the crappy trees to allow the healthy and genetically superior trees to reproduce.

I'm going to make a sales pitch to a friend's grandfather on taking care of the bad pine in his plantation. I pay him, I get the wood and he gets the bad trees removed. By "bad," I mean a bad spot at ground level in the stump, or two trees growing from the same stump. This will allow more baby trees to grow on their own without human planting. Sad part is some loggers will take the high grade trees first and leave the low quality trees.

From contributor J:
Remove the crappy trees, but how to get paid for that is the biggest question. That is what I am trying to do, yet I don't think I can afford to get certified by the current possible routes. One of the foresters I took into my forest said "Look up. Some of the bigger trees won't last, yet some of the smaller will." He also said not to pick the trees to remove with your chainsaw in your hand. The plot next door is larger than mine, but has been "managed" by a high grader for years. It is kind of scrubby right now and without intervention will probably stay that way. I take out trees, but I leave the best. I hope they get bigger, and I hope they seed the newly exposed sections where I take out some crappy trees.

From contributor B:
I forgot to mention one thing. When a tree reaches the end of its normal life expectancy for that species, it starts to die. Maybe rot, maybe something else. Dying from rot is a slow process. Sometimes a good healthy tree has to be removed to make room for an even better tree.

Crappy logs would be good for pallet lumber or firewood. The pines that I'm after that have the defect at ground level seem perfectly fine for now the rest of the way to the tip of the tree. Always contact a reputable forester on how to best manage your forest.

As a general rule, depending on species, 1/2 - 1 1/2 cords of wood product per acre per year can be removed from a woods without detrimental effects to the growth of the woodlot. A 3-4ft diameter tree alone can yield 3 cords of firewood. Follow the 1/2 - 1 1/2 cords per acre rule when harvesting.

From contributor N:
You might also point out that a properly managed select cut forest will mostly have the knotty trees cut. Point him to your #2 lumber. Who knows - maybe this "green" wood is worth more than your FAS.

Of course, since most forest land is reset or developed, you would not be lying if you told him that it comes from managed land or land cleared for construction.

From contributor A:
We must be very critical and respond to what is becoming a big dollar business - environmental lobbying, including groups such as WWF and Greenpeace. These groups developed from basic and respectful environment protectors to multinational-like businesses, chewing any fund and false assumption that everything we do is wrong and they carry the only truth. They have ruined seal hunting in maritime Canada and now we are stuck with an overpopulation of seals, who in turn ruined our and your cod fishing industry. What they are in fact trying to establish is some kind of worldwide stamping of lumber that is okay to buy because the suppliers have paid them big fees or contribution to access politically correct markets.

Now, as for architects, to be the soul supporters of environment-friendly products, they should kick their own butt and take a close look at the list of harmful products and techniques they use to flatter their ego-oriented design.

From contributor R:
Any way we look at it, we better prepare ourselves for this "certified lumber" thing. Let's acknowledge the fact that forests, as a whole, have to be protected; that is, used and harvested with care. Maybe we should do a bit of lobbying ourselves to make sure that this certification won't be at a cost that small owners can't afford.

As for the sustainable forest concept, let's just have a look at the way rural folks used to manage their woodlot in Canada and probably the US as well. Get to know your forest; take your time to choose what will be cut; cut only what you need; slowly remove the ancestors; give way to strong youngsters; help and nurture the babies; make sure that in your lifespan the forest will grow as many valuable trees as what you took from it. Outdated way of thinking? I don't think so, with all the small size machinery we now can use, small-scale tree farming is indeed the way to go.

From contributor D:
That is a great idea, but the way the US works is to get bigger and be more profitable. The only problem is that the big operations are getting bigger, and the people are being replaced who respect the forest and think it should still be there for generations to come. This is similar to family farmers and family hardware stores and family cabinet makers. The only way to make them responsible is to make it too expensive not to be.

As for the gentleman on his WWF comments, I don't agree with all their tactics and policies, but they are like unions; industries have them because they deserve them, for better or worse.

As far as forest growth and harvest statistics, consider the following: U.S. Forest Service statistics show 33% of the U.S. forested in 1997 compared with 30% in 1920, despite a 165% increase in population. Forest growth has continually exceeded harvest in the U.S. since the 1940s. Today, growth exceeds harvest by 47%.

Professional forestry is responsible in large part for these 'amazing' statistics.

Steve Bratkovich, forum technical advisor

From contributor R:
As far as the stats go, it seems accurate to say that the US has more forest today than in the 20's, but please let's not forget that the US private sector during that period was the main actor responsible for the industrial deforestation that took place in quite a few places all over the world. It's probably safe to say that one of the major consumer markets that used all that lumber was indeed the American population. So I'm not sure that we should congratulate so much the professional forestry for the achievement. I think it's great that the US has been able to increase its wooded land, but lots of other countries had to pay the bill.

What other countries are/were footing the bill for us?

From contributor R:
As for "domestic" hardwood and softwood, I'll have to mention Canada as the first one; probably quite a bit of Central America, too.

Mind you, as a Canadian, I admire the USA for giving itself sort of a global forest conservation strategy early in the last century, and I even quite understand that the industry started looking around for lumber, preserving their US forests in the process.

I'm actually more annoyed with the way our Canadian governments (federal and provincial) handled and still handle the demand for the resource; they practically gave away the trees, thinking that there's so many we'll never see the end of it. Well, we are seeing the end in many places.

And going back to the stats Steve mentioned above, I'm sure *we* have a lot less forested land than we had in 1920.

All this brings me back to the main issue of this forum; the concept of sustainable forests will have to be approached globally - at the international level. If a country loses a forested land somewhere on the globe, we all lose that forested land, so I think that a well managed international certification program would indeed be a step in the right direction (though I too fear bureaucrats and the like).

From contributor D:
Does anyone imagine that South America has more trees today than in the 20's?

From the original questioner:
We certainly haven't seen a significant price increase in Honduras Mahogany the last 5-6 years! If the supply has dwindled, why hasn't the price increased (demand has remained about the same for us)?

It seems architects are most concerned about certification when specifying African and South American species. However, my understanding is that less than 2% of these logs are used for veneer, which is usually what we're dealing with. On top of that, veneers are getting much greater use out of a log than lumber. I would think they would welcome this as being resourceful, not wasteful.

Here are a few more thoughts to ponder. As I noted above, the US is growing more wood volume than it is harvesting, and the total acreage of forestland in the US has increased slightly during the past 80 years. Currently, US consumption of wood (per capita basis) is *twice* the average for other developed countries and roughly *three times* that of the world as a whole. The US is a net importer of wood products. But electing to get more wood from other countries puts increased environmental pressure on their environment. Many of these countries do not practice science-driven forest management as adopted here in the US. So we have a dilemma - the US has the forests and the professional forestry expertise to be self-sufficient, but the nation chooses to be a net importer of wood products (and at the same time having consumption patterns that are unequaled anywhere in the world).

Steve Bratkovich, forum technical advisor

From contributor R:
Because the US is a net importer of outside products, it seems to me that in fact it hasn't been able so far to be self-sufficient. So we can't say up to date that your country, with all the forestry knowledge and so on, could in fact be self-sufficient.

From contributor A:
You can be self-sufficient in a sector and still choose to buy cheap, with a strong dollar, resources available around the world if you can forecast greater end line profit. It is being done all the time by strong countries. Look at strategic oil and gas reserve in the U.S - they are self-sufficient but would rather buy outside.

From contributor R:
What I meant was that it hasn't been proven up to now that the US could in fact be self-sufficient (in wood) and still preserve their forested acreage, taking into account major factors like their consuming levels, their actual forested acreage and their current forestry management.

The thing that is most evident in this argument is that many people don't consider the increase in population in the world that the forests are sustaining. Most cutting of the Latin America and South America rainforest is done to make available more land for food crops. In addition, there is a constant wood smoke haze hanging over those areas from cooking fires (too many people).

Less than ten percent of the wood cut is going into lumber products. Any shortage of wood is not due to a shortage of knowledge of silviculture, but a lack of knowledge in human ecology.

From contributor R:
The above comment points out the fact that there's no easy answer to any given environmental issue. In South America, those people who are burning down the wooded land are former (poor) farmers whose land has been taken away in one way or another (big money, government policies, etc.). Those without land feel they just don't have any other choice than burning government-owned forests, to earn themselves food on the table.

Any way we look at it, it's a global issue. All in all, to most of us who are handling the resource to earn a living, the motto of some realistic environmentalists could make sense: Think globally, act locally.

Coming from a logging background, I have bought over 150,000 cords from private land owners and small amounts of state, county and federal. I have clear cut, select cut and thinned plantations. I like to think I know a little. Most of what I buy is aspen pulp. It regenerates by itself, and is great for the wildlife. Thus, I believe clear cutting is perfect for these stands of timber. Hardwood, on the other hand, must be select cut; the problem here is money. Loggers do not make enough money on small tracts to select cut. And how do sawmills deal with small amounts of mixed logs that can and will stain? Then there is not enough for kiln charges or even to ship to a decent market. Softwoods are being planted faster than harvested in most places. I basically think this: we're here, the trees are here. There is a balance there. Development is the problem - not hunting trails and boat accesses, but homes, yards, sewers, power lines. Once they are there, the forests are gone.

From contributor N:
I agree with the above post completely. The mountain bordering me was being logged a few years back. The logging was stopped by the EPA (I think). Last I heard, a realtor had bought it with plans to develop. How long will it take trees to grow back after houses and yards are planted? The good news for now is that they built one house, but couldn't drill deep enough to hit water.

From contributor S:
This is a very real and urgent matter that we need to rectify ASAP. As everyone knows, statistics don't paint a true picture 9 times out of 10 - true, there may be more land that is considered 'forest' in the U.S. now than there was 20 years ago, but if this forest only contains low quality scrub trees, then it doesn't really matter if there is more acreage now. If this wasn't really a problem, there wouldn't be companies spending tons of money reclaiming logs from the bottom of lakes, or reclaiming timbers from old buildings.

The reason that Honduras mahogany hasn't had an increase in price is because this wood isn't regulated in third world countries, so supply has remained constant (Brazil's rainforest is 1.7% of it's original size - due to clearcutting for timber, agriculture, development, etc.). Once the supply runs out, trust me, the price will sky rocket. The politicians will not make the difference - they are driven too much by industry to make a difference. The change will occur in each person's shop by making wise choices.

From the original questioner:
I guess the statistics you are quoting are the 1 of 10 that are correct?

My understanding is that the main reason there are more forests today than in the past is that we are saving forests from fires (not totally, but much improved over what we could have done 100 years ago). If this is the case, we are not saving only scrubs, but all types of trees.

It seems we lose more trees to large cities, suburbs, and people more than anything. Trees will never be planted where a house or large building sits.

From contributor S:
Touché. I agree with you on the need to reduce development into wild areas by cities and suburbs. The statistic that I am quoting relates to Brazil, where the rainforests have indeed been depleted to a severely reduced size of what they once were (this information was obtained from the MSNBC website). I agree with you that the statistics on deforestation they provide may not be the exact amount (I don't think that exact amounts can ever be obtained, but an approximation can occur), but unarguably, deforestation in Brazil is happening at a faster rate then reforestation. Regardless of what people think, if we don't take care of our hardwood forests, our ways of life will be affected. I don't think that it is worth the risk.

By the way, you are correct about the amount of land burned each year in the United States by wildfires (26,004,567 acres per year average in 1919 - 1929, and 3,647,597 per year in 1990 - 1999 according to the National Interagency Fire Center website). I think that this is partly from intelligent management, but also from an increased suppression effort - the average suppression cost between 1994 and 2000 was $581,596,433.

From the original questioner:
You sure quote a lot of statistics for not thinking many of them are true.

I checked out the link, and found it interesting that the majority of the depletion occurred between 1500 to 1950. What caused that? It would be interesting to see a more specific timeline of the depletion. It seems a great deal could have been caused before lumber was being exported to the US and other countries.

My point here is that there are two very extreme sides to this issue. There's the tree hugging environmentalists who don't want anything cut, then there's *some* industry folks who clear cut the rainforest (usually in 3rd world countries that can't be controlled anyway).

It's difficult to really get to the truth, because many people jump to conclusions based on bad facts.

As an architectural woodworking company, we see exotics used in veneer all of the time. But it seems architects are becoming afraid to use them because they're worried it's anti-environment. Actually, isn't it better to use the logs for veneer (which make up a small portion of the log use anyway)?

What I find hypocritical are environmentalists who seem to be concentrated in concrete and asphalt urban areas constantly critical of anything to do with cutting down a tree. From my experience, the groups that truly care more about the environment are those whose livelihood depends on the forest.

From contributor T:
Our family forests (120,000 acres of trees in northeastern California) have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as "Green Timber." The process took a year, with brisk discussions between our forest managers and the certifiers, with learning on both sides. We were hoping to develop a market niche product, but so far, the certification has not resulted in increased sales. I am, however, heartened to hear that architects are asking for Green Timber.

From the original questioner:
You may be heartened for many reasons, probably one being more interest in your product.

As an architectural woodworker, there is no system in place for us to purchase Green Timber. We purchase from local or regional suppliers, and they buy lumber from a variety of sources (kiln-dried).

This issue seems to be similar to those who complain about big SUVs on the street as an environmental threat, and never consider the number of planes flying each day and the fuel they are burning.

It's going to take a top to bottom overhaul of the system to ensure forests are managed correctly. Environmentalists are the last group I would want doing that.

As an architectural woodworker, it's rather obvious where your biases lie. I am a carpenter/woodworker and an environmentalist. I certainly don't see what progress is to be made on this issue by vilifying all environmentalists as "tree hugging" and inept at helping in the task of moving toward sustainability. This attitude only fuels the idea that we can't work together - that we're all just vying for power. I'd say that it is just as correct (or incorrect) to say that the timber industry is only interested in making profits and cares not at all about sustainability. You cannot say all environmentalists are unrealistic tree huggers and then say that the only industry folk who promote the clearcutting of the rainforests are "some... in 3rd world countries who can't be controlled anyway." That is patently untrue.

Do you really want to address the serious and important issues you started discussing when you began this thread or do you just want a platform to chastise urban, SUV-driving architects who feel guilty about the wood they specify and all environmentalists as wacky obstructionists?

From the original questioner:
Thanks for putting me in my place as a biased architectural woodworker.

I find it frustrating because this issue is politicized, and in our politically correct society, we seldom get to the truth (i.e. this thread)… similar to gun owners, smokers, and the like being vilified for their beliefs.

My original goal in posting here was to try and get some useful information on the issue. Architects have good intentions, but usually don't have the research to back up their decisions. It's no secret most architects tend to lean to the left.

I do not have all of the facts available to me but would like to learn more. However, I've found in most of the responses that I've gotten opinions either from the far left or far right, not facts.

Since I can't get useful factual data, I tend to lean toward a more conservative approach. In my experiences, I don't see many environmentalists who want to consider all the facts before acting radically.

From contributor T:
My family's California timberlands have been producing timber sustainably for 50 years, by which I mean that we now have twice as much volume on the lands as we did in 1972, and we have logged an amount equal to the 1972 standing volume in that time. We use uneven aged selection when we harvest, and after a fire we immediately replant.

We were one of the first California ownerships certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as a "well managed forest," which qualifies us as a supplier of sustainably grown timber. The process was thorough, and we did make some minor changes in our management objectives, mostly in the wildlife management policies, and in writing down informal policies that we were already following. We were pleased to find that most of what we were already doing was judged to be as environmentally sound as we had intended it to be.

Some of us owners are quite committed environmentalists, the rest not, but we agreed amicably to the certification process. Overall, we feel we have collectively done very well by doing good, with an asset which has consistently increased in value as a result of treating it with a light hand.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor O:
I have been hearing the argument "we have more trees now than we did in the 1920's or 30's." Problem is, how you define trees? We don't have as much old growth as any timber buyer will tell you. Even in the early fifties, veneer companies routinely cut walnut logs in the 30" diameter category. You would be hard pressed to find logs like that today. The old growth has been heavily harvested in both hardwood and softwood.

Comment from contributor Y:
I think the best way to understand this forestry issue is to actually own land. Sierra Club, Greenpeace, etc. should buy vast tracts and then keep everyone out as they propose to legislate others. Then find a way to pay the mortgage. Then find a way to protect their tree museums from pests, fire, weather (nature in general)!

As a timber farmer in Washington state (yes, certified and in the stewardship program), I have to get a permit to cut my own downed trees for my own firewood, otherwise I am a criminal. I cannot use a hammer outside if an eagle nest is within 1/4 mile between December and June (it disturbs the young) and wetlands are determined by the weed species growing, not the presence of water. Tree farmers may not clear cut to a stream. The setbacks (no activity zone) can be up to 300 feet on each side of the stream - measured as the crow flies, not ground measurement. If a beaver builds a dam and floods my land, I may not shoot the beaver or blow up the dam!

Washingtonians have the most stringent logging practices in the world. We have lost over 100 mills since 1990 and Weyerhauser is slowly consolidating, selling and moving out of our state (kinda like Boeing) due to the increased legislation, legal challenges and costs, and diminishing return from imported lumber (Canada loses one acre of forest every 11 seconds). We Americans are losing our ability to be self-sustaning or self-sufficient because of the eco groups and the burden of unbridled attorneys. We have painted ourselves into a corner and I feel like a fool for having invested in timberland. I have 4 acres that I pay a mortgage on yet by law I cannot walk on. If I cut 1 tree in the wrong place I face a $1500 per stump fine.

Newspapers rarely give out these facts or give the side of the tree farmer. Give all this some thought the next time you are in a voting booth.

Comment from contributor H:
To say you can’t get certified sustainable lumber only means you haven’t tried very hard. Try,, or to find suppliers. Unit quantities of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified lumber and plywoods are a phone call a way. Reasonably-priced, sub-unit quantities might be three or four phone calls away. If a client has bothered to ask for sustainable products, my experience tells me that chances are very good they’re willing to pay the premium, including freight.

As for architects, some states and municipalities require the application of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System when constructing or remodeling public buildings. One way to help satisfy this requirement is using a certain percentage of materials that is FSC-certified. So it may be that your architects don’t just want sustainable wood to salve their consciences — they might need these materials to develop a bid or satisfy a contract. And if you can’t supply a product they need, they’ll turn to those of us who can.

People can bellyache all they want about longhairs and spotted owls, but we’re here to do business. If you live outside of Muskogee, it’s a matter of time before someone asks about certified sustainable materials. You can do some research and put yourself in a position to make money on a premium material, or not.

Comment from contributor I:
I am amazed and surprised at the ignorance, envirophobic attitudes, denial and plain blindness of many of the contributors. If we are woodworkers or foresters (as I am it is up to us that there is good sustainable (meaning that can carry on for the future) practices there to protect our source of livelihood. We are all part of the environment, and it is the only one we have it is all of our responsibility to do all in our power to keep it healthy and life (yours too) sustaining. Trees and forests are vital to life.

There are many good systems of forestry that can provide timber without destroying the complex and irreplaceable web of life that exists in old growth forest. I suggest you arm yourselves with knowledge and realize that without healthy interaction with the forest we cannot globally survive as a race.

Comment from contributor M:
Personally I think that certifying where lumber comes from is a failing endeavor. I have seen in southwest Virginia standing Hemlock killed by the Wolly Adelgid that will be left to rot. It could be harvested which would reduce demand on other trees that will be cut. It seems to me that woodworking companies could arrange to plant their own wood lots on marginal land owned by farmers or industries. Here in Virginia it does not take much looking around to see land abandoned to farming. I seems that it could be replanted rather than wait for nature to take an extra three to four decades to start a hardwood forest. Even if you do not see the harvest you could still count it as an asset to your business.