Tuesday, August 10, 2004

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 harvesting.

No matter how earnest activists may seem, or how concerned their sound bites, experience shows there are devastating consequences of abandoning active forest management.

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 for wood.

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 landscapes.

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 World forests.

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 been identified.

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 solid waste.

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 gas.

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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