- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Concerned about impending reductions in wood imports from Canada, U.S. homebuilders are looking around the globe for a solution. In their sights: Russia.

In some ways, Russia is a logical place to look for more wood because it has almost one-fourth of the world’s forestland. But looking beyond that fact, Russia quickly comes up short. While the Russian government is attempting to address problems, there remain widespread issues related to a lack of environmental oversight of forest harvesting, inefficiency among timber operators, and illegal logging. In fact, a 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service estimates 25 percent to 50 percent of logs exported from Russia originate in illegal logging, putting forests at risk.

Illegal logging continues to be rampant internationally, causing environmental damage and encouraging corruption. It also leaves behind a hefty price tag for developing nations, who forfeit an estimated $15 billion a year in lost revenue, according to the World Bank.

As the United States sets its sights on wood supplies outside North America it runs the very real risk of simultaneously transferring the environmental impacts of forest harvesting to other countries while also magnifying the impacts of harvest.

The National Association of Homebuilders is looking to Russia for one simple reason — its pleas to increase the harvesting of wood in the United States have gone nowhere. The lack of attention to changing harvest policy is surprising in view of the fact that in many federally managed forests in the United States thinning is badly needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire — a risk that grows with each passing month.

Harvest activity in the nation’s federal forests is a fraction of what it was in the relatively recent past. In California alone, state records show that harvesting trees on federal lands today is just 12 percent of what it was 20 years ago.

While some might applaud the lack of harvest activity in federal forests, the fact is that the rate of forest growth is well above the rate of removals nationwide, and in federally managed forests in particular. As a result, tree mortality is far higher on federal land than on any other class of forest ownership. In California, more than 11/2 times the annual consumption of wood accumulates as new growth onto existing trees each year.

The increasing occurrence of large, catastrophic fire events is a direct result of overcrowding resulting from nonmanagement. Billions are spent in attempting to protect lives and property as these events unfold, while millions of tons of carbon dioxide, methane, and particulates are released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, harvesting is quietly shifted outside the borders of the United States.

It is completely irresponsible not to utilize more of the unprecedented forest growth in this nation’s forests. Thankfully, attitudes are beginning to change.

In Massachusetts, a group of Harvard University professors concerned about forests are encouraging sustainable harvesting of trees to keep forestland in that state, rather than seeing such land developed. They note Massachusetts harvests trees to meet just 2 percent of its wood product needs, yet has the capacity to harvest far more.

Before we take steps to export more of the impacts of our consumption to other countries, it is time for policy leaders to rethink management standards for the nation’s federal forests. We can and must do a better job of managing our national forests and we need to reverse, as soon as possible, the little-to-no-harvest mantra of the past decade.

Jim Bowyer is a professor emeritus, Department of BioProducts and BioProcess Engineering, University of Minnesota, St. Paul. He is also director of the Responsible Materials Program, Dovetail Partners Inc., White Bear Lake, Minn.

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