- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

National Forest Products Week, which runs from Oct. 2026, is a good time to reflect on America's most startling environmental paradox: Even as activists succeed in getting the U.S. government to declare more and more forestland off limits to tree harvesting, America is destroying more forestland than ever before.

How can this be? Easy: If U.S. tree harvesting declines and U.S. demand for forest products is rising (which it is), somebody has to pick up the slack. In other words, somebody has to provide the United States and other developed nations with the wood products we aren't willing to harvest from our own back yard.

So, who is picking up the slack? Third World nations such as Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines. By not harvesting its forests while increasing its demand for wood, America has created a domino effect, in which California gets its wood from Oregon or Washington, which gets its wood from Canada, which gets its wood from some other country, and so on.

At the end of the line picking up the slack created by U.S. environmental policies are less-developed nations where environmental protections are lax or nonexistent. These nations are more than willing to allow devastation of their forestlands and look the other way.

In other words, Americans who are well able to harvest their timber without devastating the environment are preserving their forests by allowing huge tracts of tropical forests in Third World countries to be reduced to scarred wasteland. As U.C. Berkeley forestry professor emeritus William J. Libby has written, this is like "locating a landfill for an affluent city in a neighboring community that needs the money and is willing to put up with the smell."

In the past decade, as U.S. wood imports have grown by about a billion cubic feet, domestic production has fallen by nearly half a billion cubic feet. California, which was self-sufficient in wood only 20 years ago, now imports 80 percent of its forest products.

What is this doing to the environment? According to Mr. Libby, for every acre of forestland not harvested for timber here, 2 acres must be harvested in tropical forests of the Third World. The government of Indonesia, for example, reports that an area the size of the state of Connecticut is being cleared of forest each year. Forest depletion deprives native peoples of their primary source of energy for cooking and warmth: firewood.

Here in America, we're fortunate not to have to live on that kind of subsistence level. But that means we build houses. Wood makes up about half of a modern home's construction. New housing starts are up more than 4 percent this year, and U.S. homes have doubled in size in the last 20 years from 1,500 square feet to 3,000. Alternative building products are not an option, since they require much more energy to produce than wood and are not renewable.

Growing and harvesting our own trees in an environmentally responsible way is the best thing America can do for the global environment. But tell that to many environmental groups which scream the loudest about Third World forest devastation, while at the same time demanding that U.S. forestland be left alone and their retort will be about how lumber companies are propagandizing in order to exploit forests everywhere.

American leadership can solve this dilemma but not by pointing fingers of blame. The solution doesn't lie in environmentally irresponsible harvesting of timber in the United States or anywhere else. But neither does it lie in cordoning off more and more U.S. forestland from timber harvesting while turning a blind eye to the environmental consequences elsewhere.

There is more forestland in this country today than there was in 1900. In California, more than 1½ times the annual consumption of wood is added as new growth onto existing trees each year, and goes unharvested. It's impractical to think a state the size of California will ever return to self-sufficiency. But it's irresponsible not to utilize more of this unprecedented forest growth.

Moreover, no-cut, total fire suppression policies on federal lands have created a forest that is dangerously dense, the source of devastating wildfires experienced in the West over the past several years. Our forests desperately need thinning, which makes use of our own forests into a win-win situation for everyone, including Third World nations.

Why can't environmentalists put away their animosity toward private landowners and timber companies, link arms with the private sector, and help us use our most sustainable resource in an environmentally responsible way?

We have the answer the only obstacle right now is politics.


Donn Zea is president of the California Forest Products Commission.

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