A global view of our forests
As you enjoy your deck or park gazebo this
summer, eating hot dogs and apple pie off paper
plates, consider the world around you, and your
impact on it. You use forest products every day,
from napkins and newsprint, to crayons, cosmetics,
and charcoal for the barbecue.
That's OK, so long as we properly care for our
forests. As a forest geneticist, I observe how
forests respond to insect infestation, disease,
increased tree densities, wildfires, non-native
pests and the like. What I see demonstrates it's
time to stop cordoning off our forests from
No matter how earnest activists may seem, or how
concerned their sound bites, experience shows there
are devastating consequences of abandoning active
The devastation goes beyond the unnatural
accumulation of forest fuels that trigger megafires
across Florida, Colorado, Arizona, California and
the Pacific Northwest. These catastrophic blazes
burn hotter than their historic predecessors,
wreaking greater environmental havoc, but tell only
part of the story.
Domestic activism has also ignored the global
implications of severe harvesting restrictions here
in the States. Whereas responsibly managed forests
could help us meet our own wood needs, broad
harvesting restrictions here have sent us elsewhere
Consumers are often blind to the costs of
consuming, having lost sight of the fundamental
connection between the things they use and where
they come from. The United States uses more wood
than any country in the world, in total use and
per-capita consumption. The world average for wood
products consumption is 0.7 cubic meters per person
per year. The United States' average is about 2
cubic meters per person.
My home state of California exemplifies the
environmental paradox inherent in our 'consume but
don't produce' attitude. California has almost 40
million forested acres. Yet compared to 15 years
ago, timber harvests are down more than 90 percent
on public and 40 percent on private lands.
Meanwhile, the state imports about 75 percent of the
wood it consumes.
If Californians, who have among the most
advanced harvesting technology and highest
environmental standards in the world, harvested more
wood, we would so so in a way that conserves forest
environments. But we don't. Instead, we rely on
forestlands where environmental safeguards are
weaker or nonexistent and harvesting can devastate
As wood consumption rises, some forests outside
the United States are being cut at record levels.
According to University of California-Berkeley
forestry professor emeritus William J. Libby, for
every acre of forestland not harvested for timber
here, at least two acres must be harvested in Third
Forest geneticists like me are also keenly aware
of the danger of unintentionally importing
non-native pests when we import wood. Dutch elm
disease and chestnut blight infestations, for
instance, originated in Asia and devastated forests
in the United States that lack natural resistance.
At least 27 potentially dangerous pests that may be
accidentally imported and thrive in our forests have
It is time to accept responsibility for our
consumption, and to bridge the gap between
perception and reality, both in forestry practices
and the environmental aspects of using wood.
As Patrick Moore, co-founder and former
president of Greenpeace noted: "We have been led to
believe that when we use wood we are causing a bit
of forest to be lost. This is not the case. When we
buy wood, we send a signal to the marketplace to
plant more trees, and produce more wood."
Wood is the only entirely renewable and
recyclable building material we have. Compared to
other building materials, wood saves energy,
produces the least greenhouse gases, causes the
least water and air pollution, and yields the least
Today, tremendous amounts of non-renewable
fossil fuels are burned to import wood from outside
our borders, and alternative building materials take
lots of energy to produce. It takes 70 times more
energy, for example, to produce one ton of aluminum
than it does to produce a ton of lumber.
Furthermore, the power to grow trees comes from
the sun. The power to produce steel, aluminum,
plastic and concrete comes from petroleum, coal and
There is little reason to expect our wood
consumption to decline. But we can meet more of our
wood needs from our own forests. Many private-sector
American foresters practice sustainable forestry,
replenishing forests for future generations by
replanting far more trees than they harvest.
We would do well to see these private forestland
practices expanded, and replicated on public lands.
If and when we do, we can begin reversing our
dependence on imported wood, and improve
environments both local and global.
Donna Dekker-Robertson is a forest
geneticist and adjunct professor at American River
College in Sacramento, Calif.
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