Seeing Green: The Forest or the Trees

Opinion by Holly Moeller
April 14, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

Seeing Green: The Forest or the TreesI love wood.


I love my mahogany shelf, carried across the country from a high school workshop to my college dorm room, to grad school in Boston and across the country to Stanford. I love fires and the firewood waiting patiently outside my apartment for the next camping trip.

But I also love forests.

It can be hard to reconcile these loves, especially when driving through Canadian logging country as I did last summer (with my mahogany shelf in the trunk). Though most clear-cuts are carefully tucked back from the highway, I often glimpsed stumps through the narrow roadside band of remaining trees.

By declaring 2011 the International Year of the Forest, the United Nations is challenging each of us (or at least those of us who heard about the declaration in the first place) to weigh pyromania against picturesque views, to place furniture in its forest context and to reconcile our use of forest products (worth $325 billion annually) with the value of untouched forest (which house 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity).

Forests cover 31 percent of our land area, and 1.6 billion people make their livelihoods in them (about a fifth of these people are in forests). Each year we cut down 13 million hectares — about one California-sized patch every three years. Some of this loss is offset by tree plantations (lately the poster children of the carbon credits market) and forest re-growth, but in the last decade we still lost about 200,000 square miles of forest. And that’s just what we can see with satellites: uncountable acreage is affected by selective logging, a hard-to-detect precursor to all-out deforestation in which a forest is gradually thinned.

Most of us associate deforestation with the tropics. Indeed, that’s where most of it is happening, and that’s undoubtedly where one of the U.N.’s spotlights will point this year. But besides donating to “Save the Rainforest” campaigns and shaking our fingers at illegal loggers or corrupt governments, we must think hard about the home front.

First this: United States citizens make up 5 percent of the global population, but consume 20 percent of the world’s timber. We’re also the third largest importer of tropical lumber. (Of course, we also consume 25 percent of the world’s energy and emit 20 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, so no surprises there.)

Second, we do this even though — indeed, perhaps because — we have a timber industry right in our own backyard. We are a nation that grew up on wood: from log cabins to wood stoves to hardwood flooring. Having outstripped our local resource base, today we import trees from the West and, in a globalized world, from other countries. Meanwhile, American forestry flounders amid claims of sustainability and bankruptcy.

As I drove through the Pacific Northwest after crossing Canada, the signs of the timber industry’s propaganda war began cropping up: “Stand cut in 1992 — Replanted in 1996;” “Timber dollars pay for schools and healthcare.” Some slogans even rhymed.

In a land still echoing with the battle cries of the spotted owl wars, the timber industry is busy repairing its image as a job-providing steward of the land. The latest set of sheep’s clothing is forest fire prevention: supposedly, logging could thin out biomass just waiting to produce catastrophic blazes in our national forests. Of course, the biomass timber companies’ want comes from solid, big trees — the ones least likely to fuel such fires. So this is just another ploy to let timber companies turn their chainsaws on public lands, instead of working sustainably within the bounds of their own properties.

Today, many companies are propped up by government subsidies — especially the sale of trees on public land by the Forest Service. Various bureaucratic bells and whistles mean that these sales actually cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year, but they do provide us with raw materials for our (also subsidized) paper and timber mills.

Can sustainable forestry exist in America? Numerous green washers (pick your favorite acronym from FSC, SFI, ATFS and others) have preached sound principles but failed to honor them — probably because an extractive timber industry and an intact forest ecosystem are fundamentally incompatible.

Because trees take so long to grow, there’s constant pressure to log more forests. We must curb demand to halt deforestation (vintage furniture and recycled paper, anyone?) and harvest fresh supplies only from tree plantations. These log farms (which already exist in the Southeastern U.S., Asia and South America) will be just that: sources of wood, not carbon sinks or hiking locations or biodiversity enclaves. Leave the intact forests for that.

We’ll probably find ourselves building more with faster-growing species. We’ll have to manage soil quality and balance growth rates with product performance. After all, we don’t want to poison more land with pesticides or make California’s eucalyptus mistake again. Overall, we’ll have to dial back consumption.

But that’s really what the Year of the Forest is for, anyway: making us hear the trees that fell to print this newspaper. Asking us whether we can have both wood and woods.


What wood would you weep without? Send paperless commentary to Holly at [email protected].

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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