We all use wood products every day, from furniture and paper to chemicals and some plastics. In my recent column, I showed examples of the permanent scars left by bad forestry. Today, I want to take a look at large-scale industrial forestry. Large scale forestry is beautiful up until the time of harvest, and then, in most people’s eyes, it becomes very ugly for a short while. If you have never seen a large scale logging operation, you may find this photographs disturbing. It’s a bit like going on a tour of a slaughterhouse and then being offered a pork barbecue sandwich.
I am constantly surprised at people who think harvesting trees is evil and that all forests need to be left alone. That would be nice, but the truth is that wood products are our most sustainable and climate friendly source of industrial materials. Forests produce about 10 billion long tons of harvestable wood per year worldwide. We would be better off increasing our use of wood and making less use of materials derived from fossil fuels, concrete and metal. That is why there is increasing emphasis, especially in Europe, on wood buildings, even very large ones. Large wood buildings avoid the carbon debt of metals and concrete, and have the benefit of directly storing carbon in the buildings’ wood. You can think of a wood building as a form of carbon capture and storage that uses photosynthesis for energy.
If we are going to use wood in our material economy, we need to harvest trees. The last 50 years (longer in Europe) have seen a fairly rapid transition away from harvesting in natural forests and toward creating plantations. In a plantation, trees are grown from seedlings or cuttings for a period of 20-100 years, depending on the species and site quality. Trees are then harvested mechanically and the site replanted. On steep slopes, the trick is to avoid disturbing the soil.
How can we trust a timber company to practice sustainable forestry? After all, the wood industries have been responsible for utterly destructive practices for hundreds of years. The answer lies in certification. A piece of wood, once it leaves the forest, usually becomes a commodity, indistinguishable from other pieces of wood. A sustainability certificate is attached to the wood at the time of harvest and travels with that wood until it reaches its end market. The certificate is applied by third-party certification agencies that are in turn accredited by one of the two major certification organizations, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). FSC certification has been regarded as stricter than SFI, but the two schemes have largely converged on each other.
Now, let’s enter the slaughterhouse. This is a softwood plantation in the western US. It is operated under SFI certification. The land on which it operates is privately owned. In case these pictures disturb you, remember that this is a plantation, not a natural forest. The natural forest that was here was destructively harvested long ago by companies that no longer exist. So, what you are looking at here is the forest equivalent of corn – a crop that is grown for commercial purposes. Unlike corn, this plantation uses very few chemicals, supports a wide diversity of wildlife, and uses a harvesting method that does not disturb the soil.