Why Using Wood is the Answer to Saving Forests

I believe that trees are the answer to a lot of questions about our future. These include: How can we advance to a more sustainable economy based on renewable fuels and materials? How can we improve literacy and sanitation in developing countries while reversing deforestation and protecting wildlife at the same time? How can we pull carbon out of the atmosphere and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide in particular? How can we increase the amount of land that will support a greater diversity of species? How can we help prevent soil erosion and provide clean air and water? How can we make this world more beautiful and green? The answer is, by growing more trees and then using more wood, both as a substitute for non-renewable fossil fuels and materials such as steel, concrete and plastic, and as paper products for printing, packaging and sanitation. The forest industry stands accused of some very serious crimes against the environment. It is charged with the extinction of tens of thousands of species, the deforestation of vast areas of the Earth, and the total and irreversible destruction of the ecosystem. If I were one of the urban majority and thought the forest industry was causing the irreversible destruction of the environment, I wouldn’t care how many jobs it created or how many communities depended on it; I would be against it.

I have spent the last 15 years trying to understand the relationship between forestry and the environment, to separate fact from fiction, myth from reality. Since 1991, I have chaired the Sustainable Forestry Committee of the Forest Alliance of British Columbia. This has provided me with an ideal opportunity to explore all aspects of the subject. This article is the synthesis of what I have learned. But first, let me give you a little background.

I was born and raised in the tiny fishing and logging village of Winter Harbour on the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, in the rainforest by the Pacific. I eventually attended the University of British Columbia studying life sciences. It was when I discovered ecology that I realized that through science I could gain an insight into the mystery of the rainforest I had known as a child. I became a born-again ecologist, and in the late 1960s, was soon transformed into a radical environmental activist. I found myself in a church basement in Vancouver with a like-minded group of people, planning a protest campaign against U.S. hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska. We proved that a somewhat ragtag looking group of activists could sail a leaky old halibut boat across the northern Pacific Ocean and change the course of history. By creating a focal point for opposition to the tests, we got on national TV news in Canada and the United States, building a ground swell of opposition to nuclear testing in both countries. When that bomb went off in November 1971, it was the last hydrogen bomb ever detonated on planet Earth. Even though there were four more tests planned in the series, President Nixon canceled them due to the public opposition. This was the birth of Greenpeace.

I spent 15 years on the front lines of the eco-movement as we evolved from that church basement into the world’s largest environmental activist organization, taking on French atmospheric nuclear testing in the South Pacific, Soviet factory whaling, baby seal slaughter, and the dumping of nuclear waste into the Atlantic Ocean. By the mid-1980s Greenpeace had grown into an organization with an income of more than $100 million per year, offices in 21 countries and more than 100 campaigns around the world, tackling toxic waste, acid rain, uranium mining and drift net fishing, as well as the original issues. We had won over a majority of the public in the industrialized democracies. Presidents and prime ministers were talking about the environment on a daily basis.

For me, it was time to make a change. I had been against at least three or four things every day of my life for 15 years; I decided I’d like to be in favor of something for a change. I made the transition from the politics of confrontation to the politics of building consensus.

All social movements evolve from an earlier period of polarization and confrontation during which a minority struggles to convince society that its cause it is true and just, eventually followed by a time of reconciliation if a majority of the population accepts the values of the new movement. For the environmental movement, this transition began to occur in the mid-1980s. The term sustainable development was adopted to describe the challenge of taking the new environmental values we had popularized and incorporating them into the traditional social and economic values. We cannot simply switch to basing all our actions on purely environmental values. Every day, 6 billion people wake up with real needs for food, energy and materials. The challenge for sustainability is to provide for those needs in ways that reduce the negative impact on the environment. Compromise and cooperation, with the involvement of government, industry, academia and the environmental movement, is required to achieve sustainability. It is this effort to find consensus that has occupied my time for the past 15 years.

The Challenge of Sustainable Forestry

Coming from British Columbia, born into a third generation forest industry family, and educated in forestry and ecology, it made sense that I would focus on the challenge of defining sustainable forestry. After all, forests are by far the most important environment in British Columbia, and they are also by far the most important basis of economic wealth for families and communities there.

I soon discovered that trees are just large plants that have evolved the ability to grow long wooden stems. They didn’t do that so we could cut them up into lumber and grind them into pulp; they actually had only one purpose in mind, and that was to get their needles or leaves higher up above the other plants where the tree could then monopolize the sun’s energy for photosynthesis.

Forests are home to the majority of living species; not the oceans, nor the grasslands, nor the alpine areas, but ecosystems that are dominated by trees. There is a fairly simple reason for this. The living bodies of the trees create a new environment that would not be there in their absence. The canopy is home to millions of birds and insects, and beneath the canopy, the environment is protected from frost, sun and wind. This, in combination with the food provided by the trees, creates thousands of new habitats.

This gives rise to the obvious concern that if the trees are cut down, the habitats will be lost and the species that live in them will die. But, there is a reason why forestry seldom, if ever, causes species to become extinct. We tend to think that forests need our help to recover after destruction, whether by fire or logging. Of course, this is not the case. Forests have been recovering by themselves from fires, volcanoes, landslides, floods and ice ages ever since forests began more than 350 million years ago.

It follows from this that every species that lives in the forest must be capable of recolonizing areas of land that are recovering from destruction. In ecology, this is known as dispersal, the ability to move from where you are and to inhabit new territory as it becomes available. Dispersal is an absolute requirement for natural selection and the survival of species. No species could exist if it were not capable of dispersal. Therefore, so long as the land is left alone after the forest is destroyed, the forest will recover and all the species that were in it will return.

Fire has always been the main cause of forest destruction, or disturbance, as ecologists like to call it. But fire is natural, we are told, and does not destroy the forest ecosystem like logging, which is unnatural. Nature never comes with logging trucks and takes the trees away. All kinds of rhetoric is used to give the impression that logging is somehow fundamentally different from other forms of forest disturbance. There is no truth to this. Forests are just as capable of recovering from destruction by logging as they are from any other form of disturbance. All that is necessary for renewal is that the disturbance ends, that the fire goes out, that the volcano stops erupting, that the ice retreats, or that the loggers go back down the road and allow the forest to begin growing back, which it will begin to do almost immediately.

The Eye of the Beholder

We all have been taught since we were children that you should not judge a book by its cover—in other words that beauty is only skin deep. Yet, we are still easily tricked into thinking that if we like what we see with our eyes, it must be good, and if we don’t like what we see with our eyes, it must be bad. We tend to link our visual impression with our moral judgment of what is right and wrong.

“Deforestation” is a difficult subject for the forest industry because an area certainly looks deforested when all the trees are cut down. But cutting the trees down is not sufficient in itself to cause deforestation. What really matters is whether the forest is removed permanently, or is reforested with new trees. But the unsightly nature of a recently harvested forest, even if it is going to grow back eventually, can easily give the impression of environmental destruction.

On the other hand, a rural scene of farmlands and pasture looks pleasant to the eye and is neat and tidy compared with the jumble of woody debris in a clearcut. Yet, it is the farm and pasture land that truly represents deforestation. It has been cleared of forest long ago, and the forest has been permanently replaced by food crops and fodder. More important, if we stopped plowing the farmland for just 5 years in a row, seeds from the surrounding trees would blow in and the whole area would be blanketed in new tree seedlings. Within 80 years you would never know there had been a farm there. The entire area would be reforested again, just by leaving it alone. That’s because deforestation is not an event that just happens and then is over forever. Deforestation is actually an ongoing process of human interference. That’s why deforestation is seldom caused by forestry, the whole intention of which is to cause reforestation. Deforestation is nearly always caused by friendly farmers growing our food and by nice carpenters building our houses. Deforestation is not an evil plot, it is something we do on purpose in order to feed and house the 6-billion-and-growing human population.

How to Save the Forest

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against farming. We all have to eat. But it is interesting to note that the three things we can do to prevent further loss of the world’s forests have nothing to do with forestry. These three things are:

  1. Population management. The more people there are in this world, the more forest we must clear to feed and house them. This is a simple fact of arithmetic.
  2. Intensive agricultural production. Over the last 50 years in North America, due to advances in genetics, technology and pest control, we have learned to grow five times as much food on the same area of land. If we had not made these advances, we would either have to clear away five times as much forest, which is not available anyway or, more likely, we simply could not grow as much food.
  3. Urban densification. There is actually only one significant cause of continuing forest loss in the United States: 200 cities sprawling out over the landscape and permanently converting forest and farm to pavement. If we would design our cities for a higher density, more livable environment, we would not only save forests, we also would use less energy and materials.

Wood is Good

You would think that since forestry is the most sustainable of all the primary industries, and that wood is without a doubt the most renewable material used to build and maintain our civilization, that this would give wood a lot of green eco-points in the environmental movement’s ledger. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Greenpeace has gone before the United Nations Inter- Governmental Panel on Forests, calling on countries to reduce the amount of wood they use and to adopt “environmentally appropriate substitutes” instead. No list of substitutes is provided. The Sierra Club is calling for “zero cut” and an end to all commercial forestry on federal public lands in the United States. The Rainforest Action Network wants a 75 percent reduction in wood use in North America by the year 2015. I think it is fair to summarize this approach as “cut fewer trees, use less wood.” It is my firm belief, as a lifelong environmentalist and ecologist, that this is an anti-environmental policy. Putting aside, for a moment, the importance of forestry for our economy and communities; on purely environmental grounds the policy of “use less wood” is anti-environmental. In particular, it is logically inconsistent with, and diametrically opposed to, policies that would bring about positive results for both climate change and biodiversity conservation. I will explain my reasoning for this belief:

First, it is important to recognize that we do use a tremendous amount of wood. On a daily basis, on average, each of the 6 billion people on Earth uses 3.5 pounds or 1.6 kilos of wood every day, for a total of 3.5 billion tons per year. So, why don’t we just cut that in half and save vast areas of forest from harvesting? In order to demonstrate the superficial nature of this apparent logic, it is necessary to look at what we are doing with all this wood.

It comes as a surprise to many people that over half the wood used every year is not for building things but for burning as energy. More than 60 percent of all wood use is for energy, mainly for cooking and heating in the tropical developing countries where 2.5 billion people depend on wood as their primary source of energy. They cannot afford substitutes because most of them make less than $1,000 per year. But, even if they could afford substitute fuels, they would nearly always have to turn to coal, oil or natural gas; in other words, non-renewable fossil fuels. How are we going to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions from excessive use of fossil fuels under the Climate Change Convention if 2.5 billion people switch from a renewable wood energy to non-renewable fossil fuels? Even in cases where fuelwood supplies are not sustainable at present levels of consumption, the answer is not to use less wood and switch to non-renewables. The answer is to grow more trees.

About 20 percent of the wood used in the world is for building things such as houses and furniture. Every available substitute is non-renewable and requires a great deal more energy consumption to produce. That is because wood is produced in a factory called the forest by renewable solar energy. Wood is essentially the material embodiment of solar energy. Non-renewable building materials such as steel, cement and plastic must be produced in real factories such as steel mills, cement works and oil refineries. This usually requires large inputs of fossil fuels, which inevitably results in high carbon dioxide emissions. So, for 70 percent of the wood used each year for energy and building, switching to substitutes nearly always results in increased carbon dioxide emissions, contrary to climate change policy.

Twenty percent of the wood harvested is used to manufacture pulp and paper, mainly for printing, packaging, and sanitary purposes. Half of this wood is derived from the wastes from the sawmills that produce the solid wood products for building. Most of the remaining supply is from tree plantations, many of which are established on land that previously was cleared for agriculture. So, even if we did stop using wood to make pulp and paper, it would not have the effect of “saving” many forests.

Saving the Trees Through Wood Use

It is therefore clear to me that the policy of “use less wood” is anti-environmental because it would result in increased carbon dioxide emissions and a reduction in forested land. I believe the correct policy is a positive rather a negative one. From an environmental perspective, the correct policy is “grow more trees, and use more wood.” This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

First, it is important to place some of the world’s forest into permanently protected parks and wilderness reserves where no industrial development occurs. The World Wildlife Fund recommends that 10 percent of the world’s forests should be set aside for this purpose. Perhaps it should even be 15 percent. Then the question becomes how we should manage the remaining 85 to 90 percent of the forest. I believe we should manage it more intensively for higher timber production, keeping in mind the needs of other species in the landscape. Through the better management of our existing forests, we could dramatically increase the world’s supply of wood. In addition, we should expand the geographic extent of our forests, largely by reforesting areas of land that previously were cleared for agriculture. In particular, huge areas of forest have been cleared for domestic animal production. A modest reduction in meat consumption would open up large areas of land for reforestation. This would be good for our health as well as for the health of the environment.

In tropical developing countries, there is a pressing need for sustainable fuelwood plantations, as well as for forest plantations to provide timber. We should direct more of our international aid programs toward this end. Relatively modest changes in fiscal and taxation policy could bring about a doubling of global wood supply within 40 years. All that is required is the political will to put these policies in place. The general public and our political leaders, however, have been confused by the misguided approach towards forestry taken by much of the environmental movement. So long as people think it is inherently wrong to cut down trees, we will continue to behave in a logically inconsistent and dysfunctional manner.

I believe that trees are the answer to many questions about our future on this earth. These include:

  • How can we advance to a more sustainable economy based on renewable fuels and materials?
  • How can we improve literacy and sanitation in developing countries while reversing deforestation and protecting wildlife?
  • How can we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide in particular?
  • How can we increase the amount of land that will support a greater diversity of species?
  • How can we help prevent soil erosion and provide clean air and water? How can we make this world more beautiful and green?

The answer is, by growing more trees and using more wood both as a substitute for non-renewable fossil fuels and materials such as steel, concrete and plastic, and as paper products for printing, packaging and sanitation.

By far the most powerful tool at our disposal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumption is the growing of trees and the use of wood. Most environmentalists recognize the positive benefits of growing trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But, then they say, “Don’t cut them down, or you will undo the good that’s been done.” This would be true if you simply piled the trees in a heap and lit them on fire. If, however, the wood is used as a substitute for fossil fuels and for building materials that require fossil fuel consumption, we can dramatically reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions. For example, consider a large coal-burning power plant. If we grow trees and use the wood as a substitute for the coal, we are able to offset nearly 100 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions from the power plant. That is because sustainable use of wood results in a zero net release of carbon dioxide, whereas coal combustion counts for the full 100 percent. If environmentalists recognized this fact, it would inevitably lead them to believe that the answer is in growing more trees and using more wood rather than in reducing our use of this most renewable resource.

A Final Example

To conclude, let me take you back to the rainforest of the West Coast of North America. About 300 feet from my house in downtown Vancouver is Pacific Spirit Park, 2,000 acres of beautiful native forest, right in the heart of the city. It is not a botanical garden where people come and prune the bushes and plant tulip bulbs, it is the real thing, a wild West Coast rainforest full of Douglas fir, western red cedar, hemlock, maple, alder and cherry. But people who come by the hundreds each day to walk on the many trails in Pacific Spirit Park would find it hard to believe that all 2,000 acres were completely clearcut logged around the turn of the century to feed the sawmills that helped build Vancouver.

The loggers who clearcut Pacific Spirit Park with double-bitted axes and crosscut saws didn’t know the words ecology or biodiversity any more than my grandfather did on the north end of Vancouver Island. They just cut the timber and moved on to cut more somewhere else. Nothing was done to help restore the land, but it was left alone. It became part of the University of British Columbia Endowment Lands, and it was not developed into housing like the rest of Vancouver. It all grew back into a beautiful new forest and in 1989 was declared a regional park.

In Pacific Spirit Park, there are Douglas firs more than 4 feet in diameter and more than 120 feet tall. All of the beauty has returned to Pacific Spirit Park. The fertility has returned to the soil. And the biodiversity has recovered— the mosses, ferns, fungi, liverworts, and all the other small things that are part of a natural forest. There are pileated woodpeckers, barred owls, ravens, hawks, eagles, coyotes and a colony of great blue herons nesting in the second-growth cedar trees. It is a forest reborn from what is routinely described in the media as the “total and irreversible destruction of the environment.” I don’t buy that. I believe that if forests can recover by themselves from total and complete destruction, we can—with our growing knowledge of forest science in silviculture, biodiversity conservation, soils and genetics— ensure that the forests of this world continue to provide an abundant, and hopefully growing, supply of renewable wood to help build and maintain our civilization, while at the same time providing an abundant, and hopefully growing, supply of habitat for the thousands of other species that depend on the forest for their survival every day. The fact is, a world without forests is as unthinkable as a day without wood. And it’s time that politicians, environmentalists, foresters, teachers, journalists and the general public got that balance right. We must get it right if we are going to achieve sustainability in the 21st century.

Reprinted from Hardwood Floors Magazine