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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

As mentioned in the last post, we have more wood in our forests today, except with local exceptions, than any time in the last one hundred or more years? How could this be, when Smokey the Bear and groups like Save America's Forests and Friends of the Earth have been warning us for decades that our forestland is dangerously close to extinction?

Well, in the first case, the US Forest Service, which is the parent of Smokey, spends an awful lot of its annual budget fighting wildfires in the National Forests. They would prefer to spend that money on proactive forest management, rather on reactive fire-fighting. So in the process of trying to educate folks on the dangers of campfires left in the woods, they imprinted the image of raging forest fires on the psyche of at least the last two generations of Americans. Left unsaid in this narrative is the fact that wildfires have actually helped our natural forests regenerate themselves at a faster rate than at which they were growing before the fires.

In the case of political action groups such as Save America's Forests, activists usually extrapolate their knowledge of a local harvesting incident that they don't appreciate onto a larger national or global platform. That is, they assume that if the thousand acres that used to be down the road from them has been cleared for development, then soon all the forests in the country will suffer the same fate.

Logically, it seems that this argument of population growth demolition of our forest would hold water, at least over a long time frame. But the population of the United States in 1900 was only 76 million folks, whereas we enjoy the company of over 300 million neighbors today. And yet the forest has increased!

The part of the story left untold and poorly understood is the impact of market forces. For most of the 19th century, the market affecting forest volume was that we were essentially a wood-based economy, for everything from energy to heat homes, to furniture, to almost every utensil found around the home and barn, to the homes and barns themselves, to fence posts, to boardwalks, to railroad ties...the list could go on for a lot of inches of this post. And almost all this wood came from local forests, not from plantations in New Zealand or Brazil. In addition, we were an agricultural society in those days, and folks wanted tillable land as a much larger proportion of their farm than their woodlot. So the forests were cleared.

In the 20th century, as people moved away from the farms and into the cities, our forest market forces changed from local forces to industrial forces. Down south and out west, large timber companies became the primary harvesters of the trees, and the wood that previously went into making oaken buckets was more commonly used for pulpwood to make paper. Back east, smaller hardwood sawmills became the norm and local markets for different species and grades of native hardwood lumber sprang up. But the difference in the 20th century was that most of this harvesting and conversion became subject to return-on-investment considerations, whereas in the 19th century wooden products were just made because they were needed.

And as return-on-investment became more important through the decades, more profitable alternatives to wood sprang up and resulted in a slow but sure decline in the utilization of our forests for products relative to general demand. That is, wood per capita consumption in the US decreased from 156 cubic feet of wood person in the year 1900, down to 68 cubic feet per person in 2006. (If in doubt, see this Forest Service reference, Table 6.) Despite this, environmental groups focus on short-term increases in wood consumption in under-developed countries to promote their "save the forest" agendas.

Ok, getting a little too technical for this blog. Easier to say, we're just not using as much wood per person, as we used to. And because of this, the forest is reclaiming the land. But at some price point, the market value of wood in various applications, and energy specifically, will increase the demand on the forest to the point that demand will once again outstrip supply.

Or will it? Tune in for the next post...

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I often ask the question "what is the single biggest positive impact on eastern forests (PA) in the last 100 years?"

My answer; The internal combustion engine. In 1900 the primary locomotive power on farms were animals (horses, oxen, mules,etc.) and ONE THIRD of all the crop land went to feed those animals. Historically speaking, over night we went from needing, feeding animals to plow, and cultivate, harvest, etc. to now using internal combustion driven prime movers (tractors) to doing all of the work. So all of the crop land to feed the animals was essentially superfluous and allowed to revert to forest. As this going on, there was another revolution going on, but could only happen if there was cheap power (tractors and trucks etc.)...the agricultural revolution; an explosion in productivity fueled by availability of cheap fertilizers, chemical controls for weeds and pests, hybridization of key crops, etc (the dreaded "modern agriculture"). This allowed a farmer to go from something around 20 bushels of corn per acre to over 200 bushels per acre. This in turn meant a farmer could cultivate fewer acres and get more product. This allowed even more acres to revert to forest, as he took out of production more marginal lands. It is historical fact that in every decade from 1900 to now, that PA has experienced a NET INCREASE in forested acres. Most all of it is from abandoned farm land.