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Friday, August 31, 2012

Politics, Government, and Natural Resources

In the spirit of the season, I thought you might like to consider how the wood industry and specifically, natural resource management, enter into the the political discussion. You may think, "They don't"...but then you wouldn't really be aware of where the governments of the world are taking us. It's been going on a long time, perhaps as long as governments have existed.

Heads of state have long realized that control of the land and the resources it produces are the key to power and wealth. And there was a time in America, for our first one hundred years or so, when private citizens wrested control of the land away from the government and used it for their own personal sustenance and gain. But by the end of the 19th century, politicians began to respond to "the public's" growing anger with the monopolization of the country's land and resources by large corporations, and the Occupy Wall Street movement was born. Although in those days, the occupiers were politicians and respectable, in the form of populists like Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. They were early champions of what has become to be called the Progressive Movement, and that movement continues to grow and evolve to this day in various forms.

In fact, I think a case could be made that both of our political parties are now Progressive, although their visions of how we get to the Progressive ideal are quite a bit different. You see, at its foundation is the assumption that the world's resources are limited, and that the government is required in its wisdom to manage these resources and their distribution in a fair and equitable manner. That most governments and political parties support this idea is apparent in the actions of the leaders, not their words. You rarely if ever hear any American political leader, for instance, from either party, question the existence of agencies like the Department of Interior, Department of Agriculture, or Forest Service, although these departments were created by Progressives precisely to accomplish the Progressive vision of resource management.
"The first duty of the human race on the material side is to control the use of the earth and all that therein is. Conservation means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men. Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation, and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands, and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.
...
Nationally, the outgrowth and result of Conservation is efficiency. In the old world that is passing, in the new world that is coming, national efficiency has been and will be a controlling factor in national safety and welfare.
Internationally, the central purpose of Conservation is permanent peace. No nation, not even the United States, is self-sufficient in all the resources it requires. Throughout human history one of the commonest causes of war has been the demand for land. Land (agricultural land, forest land, coal, iron, oil, uranium, and other mineral-producing land) means natural resources.
Therefore, world-wide practice of Conservation and fair and continued access by all nations to the resources they need are the two indispensable foundations of continuous plenty and permanent peace.
Conservation is the application of common sense to the common problems for the common good. Since its objective is the ownership, control, development, processing, distribution, and use of the natural resources for the benefit of the people, it is by its very nature the antithesis of monopoly. So long as people are oppressed by the lack of such ownership and control, so long will they continue to be cheated of their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, cheated out of their enjoyment of the earth and all that it contains. It is obvious, therefore, that the principles of Conservation must apply to human beings as well as to natural resources."
- Gifford Pinchot, from his autobiography Breaking New Ground, 1947
So, conservation must prevail in all things human and natural, it is the key to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and it must be provided and controlled according to the dictates of The Common Good (in political talk, that means The Government). And Pinchot was a Republican!

Now, it is true that progressive, big government thinking like this was countered in the intellectual arena by writers such as F.A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged. And it is also true that these classics are having a resurgence in popularity due to what is perceived as governmental over-reach by some. Yet, for all the recent political rhetoric about freedom and the American way of life, we can't escape the fact that governments around the world, including ours, are tightening their control over almost every aspect of our daily activities. We also can't ignore that an increasingly large number of our fellow citizens believe that to be a good and necessary thing, for a wide range of reasons.

Which brings me to the point of today's post. The following video excerpt from the 2011 movie Zeitgeist: Moving Forward gives us a glimpse of the obvious endgame of the Progressive Movement, with respect to natural resources management. Some of you will find it logical and inspirational, others of you will find it deeply disturbing. But either way, don't dismiss it as something theoretical and unreal; I assure you, forces around the world, both government and commercial, are moving us ever closer to the vision so clearly explained in the video. I ask you to stick with the video to its conclusion, for even if you find its political ideology offensive, it builds to a conclusion that I believe fairly captures the essence of a large percentage of government, university, and commercial research in the arena of natural resources. And lest you think it some quirky, radical dream, you might consider that the full movie version posted on YouTube has received over 17.8 million views, with more than 90,000 "likes" and only 5,000 "dislikes".

As a person or company interested in the utilization of wood from the forests of the world, you need to be aware of these trends and begin to consider how to monitor and react to the changes that are headed our way. Like it or not, access to wood and forest resources will some day likely be dictated by a conservation-based acquisition process, not the free market.

Of course, Orwell was at least thirty years too early with his title of Nineteen Eighty-Four; who knows when the "Resource Based Economy" explained below will be finally realized.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Great Designs in Wood (30) - The Yin-Yang House

Here's a different perspective on an interesting use of wood in a contemporary, energy-efficient home design. The Yin-Yang House of Venice, California was designed by Lawrence Scarpa of Brooks + Scarpa Architects.

From the firm's website description of the home...
"The Yin-Yang House is a single-family home in a quiet Venice, CA neighborhood. The design objective was to create a space for a large and growing family with several children, which would create a calm, relaxed and organized environment that emphasizes public family space. The home is also meant to serve as a place to entertain and a welcoming space for teenagers as they seek social space with friends."
http://www.pugh-scarpa.com/projects/ying.yang
 "Many of the materials used, including the bamboo interior, composite stone and tile countertops and bathroom finishes are recycled, and reinforce the environmental DNA of the house, which also has a green roof. Blown-in cellulose insulation, radiant heating and a host of other sustainable features aids in the performance of the building’s heating and cooling.
The active systems in the home include a 12 KW solar photovoltaic panel system, the largest such residential system available on the market. The solar panels also provide shade from the sun, preventing the house from becoming overheated. The owners have been in the home for over nine months and have yet to receive a power bill."
This house intrigued me because of what it isn't. It isn't a house designed specifically to showcase great wood architecture, specialty woods, or even wood as a focus of the green design of the house. The materials paragraph above doesn't even mention wood (unless you count the cellulose insulation). But what the many pictures of the home reveal that wood lends its character to a space that has been designed specifically for modern, even future, visions with their requisite restrained functionality.

Spock was always tense. No wood on Vulcan.
As a Star Trekkie, I always thought there was one real big gaffe in the set design for the USS Enterprise...there were no wood paneled walls or teak railings! Surely, I thought, even if the writers were making some obscure point about the possible extinction of forests on Earth in the 23rd century, we could assume that some beautiful exotic woods could be harvested from Omicron-3 and incorporated into the command decks or captain's quarters of Imperial Starships. In fact, Captain Kirk was found chopping wood in retirement at his hacienda in one of the Star Trek movies, just before he was brought back out of retirement to save Mr. Spock, if I recall correctly. Irrefutable proof that man will still need to Go Wood in the 23rd century.

So, the Yin-Yang House proves that it will be so. Wood is a natural yang to the cold, sterile yin of concrete, steel, glass, and plastic.

Beam me up, Scottie. I've got a load of nice quartersawn oak for the holodeck entryway.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Droughts and Biomass Supply

A reader asked...
"Chuck, 
I am curious about droughts and forest health. With the ongoing drought situation, and reported likelihood that droughts become the norm, have you seen any information on how this may affect the biomass industry long term?

Thank you, 
M"
My reply to M...
"Well, long term over a wide range is pretty tough to predict. 
First of all, drought rarely kills trees except in the most extreme of circumstances...they simply slow down on growth, unless the drought is extreme for several years in a row. A good wet year generally brings their root system back to life. In Pennsylvania, despite all the talk about drought, we're having a good year for forest growth (notice how green it is out there?)

The relationship between rainfall and forest growth is really an issue of species. As rainfall amounts decrease, areas affected are likely to see species change. So if drought caused the annual rainfall in an area to actually decrease over time, we would see some certain species gradually replaced in the forest by species that require less rain. But still biomass would be there...although the growth rates would decline some.
Northern Quebec, 2512 A.D. 
Also, as global temperature increases, areas further north will become more productive. So, Canada would produce more biomass under global warming. In fact, Pennsylvania would become more productive as well for certain species, such as pine and yellow poplar.  If you saw my blog post on Logging the Redwoods, you may remember that the narrator said that Greenland and Alaska were once covered with redwoods, long ago when the global climate was warmer. So, long-term temperature changes really just move the species around, they don't necessarily impact the global volume of biomass.

East Texas livestock ranch, 2512 A.D.

And remember, CO2 is food for trees, so the higher the CO2 level goes, the more biomass growth we will get, at least until the planet burns up. And by then we won't be worrying about the biomass industry. "







Now, my friends the ecologists and climate scientists will quibble over practically every statement I made in the above reply. And of course, I'm treating a complex issue very lightly...but that's what normally I do at Go Wood. Insects, disease, and fires, all related to drought, will significantly impact biomass supply if not effectively controlled. And yet, generally, that is the way it works...species adapt and move to where they can best thrive. And they do.

Bottom line, biomass is here for awhile, probably longer than man. Supply-side prospects for the biomass industry: great, and looking better all the time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

North American Pellets for European Power

You may ask...how do European countries justify the production, use, and transportation of North American wood pellets for their power production facilities, when we know that power production is a relatively inefficient use of wood energy?

In the video below, the answer is..."Europe has strong renewable energy policies"...and it cites their goal of 20% renewable energy by 2020. The full set of policies is embodied in the phrase "20/20/20 targets"; 20% reduction in greenhouse gases, 20% production of total energy consumption from renewable resources, and 20% reduction in energy consumption.



Update, 1/20/2015: The original video has disappeared; this newer video gives us an update of EU goals for the period 2020 - 2030...which has a target of 27% renewables by 2030.

The first report referenced in the video is European Power from U.S. Forests, and it is a useful document for getting a handle on the current and projected wood pellet markets in North America and the EU, and for the policy drivers and shifts in each country. Indeed, if the renewable energy world goes as projected in the studies cited in the document, wood pellet markets look very bright indeed.

This is the Conclusion of the first document referenced in the video:
While there is much uncertainty in pellet demand projections for the next 5–10 years within Europe, it is likely that imports will remain important and will continue to increase, especially in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, the UK, and Sweden. Within the scope of the reports studied here, import projections range from 16 million to 60 million tonnes. It is also possible that new markets will develop, particularly in Germany and Austria. Demand for pellets for CHP and district heating will likely increase, as those technologies are considered highly efficient and are strongly encouraged in several EU policies. The mandatory development of National Heating and Cooling Plans for all Member Countries should provide an additional stimulus. Demand for pellets for electricity generation will likely increase as well, as some countries are implementing mandatory co-firing regulations, or encouraging dedicated biomass firing in power plants through financial schemes. The large potential capacity for pellet production in the U.S. (currently estimated at 6 million tonnes) could be made available for increased EU demand, but will require production practices and supply chain logistics meet sustainability and quality requirements for the EU markets. 
Sustainability is likely to remain a pivotal issue into the future. The general trend is toward harmonization of sustainability requirements, yet it remains to be seen whether this will be industry-led or through EU legislation. Topics such as carbon accounting and indirect land use changes need to be resolved, if possible with a global consensus, in both certification schemes and national or international agreements on sustainability requirements. This will help to decrease trade and market barriers globally while ensuring climate goals are met through bioenergy development. 
It is probable that certification of pellets will become the norm within the EU, and U.S. producers need to consider how they might begin to meet those requirements. Within the Southern U.S., only 17% of commercial forest land is certified sustainable through one of the major U.S. schemes: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and American Tree Farm System (ATFS) (Lowe et al. 2011). Of that 17%, FSC certified land makes up 1%, while SFI and ATFS represent 16% of the total certified land within the southern U.S. (Lowe et al. 2011). Whether or not forest management practices within North America are generally considered to be “sustainable,” it is necessary to ensure that specific sustainability requirements for wood pellets in the EU are met or exceeded by U.S. forestry practices. 
Sustainability requirements laid out in the EC-RED and Report COM (2010)11 likely will remain the baseline for future policies. Domestic producers need to examine how sustainability pathways, whether through certification, biomass harvest guidelines, or other conservation programs, might be consistent with the sustainability requirements of the EU. See the companion report Pathways to Sustainability by Environmental Defense Fund and Pinchot Institute on this topic. The upcoming report from the EU examining the different national sustainability schemes should provide additional guidance as to which European schemes will be appropriate in the near future and will further define what sustainability standards will be required for production of wood pellets in the United States.
- Environmental Defense Fund, European Power from U.S. Forests

The projections are clearly ambitious and at the same time, unrealistic in the face of the gathering economic storm in the EU. Otherwise laudable sustainability goals will seem minor in importance to the Euros as they struggle to keep economic and social stability on the continent. The rather isolated and forest resource-rich Scandinavian countries may come close to meeting the goals, but the others really don't have a prayer. Or if they do, it will be because the Eurozone is economically crashing and can't afford the energy, not because they're transitioning seamlessly to renewable energy resources.

As our wood pellet industry ramps up for these overly optimistic projections, look for the pellet market to go soft in the coming years. Demand will probably fall short of the projections, and sustainability-certified supply requirements will drive costs higher. Once again, unintended consequences of good intentions enforced by government fiat instead of free markets will probably fudge the whole thing up.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Great Designs in Wood (29) - The Pine Ridge Pallet House

...and the winner of this year's Go Wood Wooden Woodie Award for Pallet Re-Purposing is...

The Pine Ridge Pallet House, built by some inspiring natural builders out on the Pine Ridge Ogalla Sioux reservation in South Dakota.

Pine Ridge is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and it has been the site for some of the most shameful deeds in the history of our country. Custer made his infamous Last Stand there while in the process of violating a treaty in order to take the Black Hills from the Sioux. Fifteen years later, the tragic Wounded Knee Massacre effectively ended the era of the free Native American culture in the country. The subsequent 120 years have clearly illustrated the futility of government-imposed living; the reservation has suffered chronic alcoholism and unemployment ever since.

Which is one of the many reasons I love the following video. Some good folks have banded together to do a good thing for the right reason. The Pallet House is in itself a demonstration of various building techniques that have been used for centuries; the folks at Texas Natural Builders who directed the project utilized techniques that not only provide a great home for its occupants, but do so in a style that is perfect for the surrounding environment. While not possible in every situation, their philosophy is a good one to pursue...
Our philosophy is a very simple one, let go. We believe in letting go of all the excess things in life that normally bust your wallet, and can't we all agree that's what they are intended to do? We use as little power as possible, we are not tied to the electrical or water grids and will not ever be. We reuse as much as possible in every facet of life, from clothing to food scraps. We do use some electronics and believe that technology used in its most efficient way is not a bad thing. We are not some isolationist group that wants nothing to do with society but more of a family with the desire to live in peaceful surroundings, not so close to the pollution, noise and commotion of the big city. Everyone wants a spot where they can feel more relaxed and free and this is what we have!
 Thus, the Pine Ridge Pallet House. Watch the entire video, and enjoy.



This video compilation was done at the end of last summer, and it indicates that the house was to be finished this summer. I haven't been able to find out if it was done...if anyone out there knows, we would be glad to share the final photos and any supporting story.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Great Designs in Wood (28) - Re-purposed Pallets

In #23 of these Great Designs posts, we examined a video of temporary, cost-effective housing solution for refugees. That was a popular post, and the recent post on pallet art has zoomed right up the list of most popular posts ever on this blog (although I'm not sure why.)

Wooden pallets are appealing, I think, because they are simple, functional in so many ways, easily converted to something else, and easy to obtain. I've found a few more interesting pallet videos that I thought were worth of a Go Wood Woodie award.  Here are the category winners...

In the "You Might be a Redneck if..." category, the winner is "pallet decks", which easily demonstrates that you might be a redneck if you build a deck of pallets set atop bricks that hold down a plastic sheet...and the pallets are clearly rental-pool pallets that are the property of the largest pallet company in the world which is notorious for dragging pallet purloiners into court...and for good measure, you make a compilation video of your work (including a good shot of a large stack of the proprietary blue pallets at the 0:40 mark), and then soundtrack the whole thing with a rockin' version of "If Bubba Can Dance, I Can Too."

Hope the good Reverend who uploaded the video gets some hot boot scootin' done on his deck before the pallet police show up. Or, at least, that he has a receipt showing that he actually bought them legally after Big Blue released them. But hey, the project at least shows you can build a pretty nice deck out of pallets without getting real fancy.


In the category of "Best Use of International Pallets to Feed the Hungry" is the video "Mesa de Pallet", which again demonstrates the concept of "pallet pool leakage". A nice dinner table is made with the use of European and Canadian rental pallets, which I'm pretty sure are not going to find their way back to the Mother Pool.

 

But the Canadians, at least, are good sports about it, as they usually are in all things not hockey-related. In the category "Best Promotional Video of Encouraging Folks to Make off with Your Product" the video "Old Pallets" wins hands down, with dozens of great ways to re-purpose a wooden pallet for life after logistics. They even promote a website called RePallet.com that tells you all about used wooden pallets and gives you plans and blueprints, to boot! Check out the spectator stands at the 0:57 mark...

 

For my friends down under, is "Smash Pallet Palace", the winner of the "Best Production Value of Man Handling and Sawing Pallets." Really nice job on the live action video production, and a pretty nice project, mate.



Can't leave out the Europeans, who can pretty much design chic furniture out of anything. The winner of the "Best Poolside Pallet Lounger" category is this chaise in the video entitled " Fabriquer une chaise longue design en pallete." Must be French.



And finally, the Winner of the Coveted Go Wood Wooden Woodie Award in the Pallet Re-Purposing Category for 2012 is.......

Monday, August 6, 2012

Quality Sells

A couple of posts ago I shared with you a story of customer service and disservice, and the difference that made in a product purchase. And I received some nice feedback both on the blog comments and in personal emails that great customer service will, in fact, produce results.

There's a broader lesson to be learned from that story. Great customer service is just one component of a satisfying purchase, as is the high quality of a product. A satisfying purchase is one in which you acquire the product you need, perhaps in a nicer quality than you expected, at a better price than you expected, delivered in a timely manner, and resulting in a relationship with the supplier that you can trust to be reliable for another purchase in the future.

Each of these components reflects a different aspect of the quality, or value, of the purchase. And each of them has consistency as its foundation. A company that delivers the product with the expected (satisfying) results, time after time, will be one that generates return customers and a dynamic business model.
"Let me explain with a mind picture.  I always think of a McDonald’s hamburger when I want to use an example of quality.  OK, I know they’re not the best hamburgers you can buy.  But admit it…you can stop at a McDonald’s anywhere in the country, order a Quarter Pounder with cheese, and it will taste exactly like the last Quarter Pounder you ate, even if it was 600 miles away thirteen years ago.  That’s quality.

OK, so what?  My point is simply is that lumber and pallet customers want exactly the same thing, every time they order it.  They know there are different grades, with different performance standards…but they purchase what they need for their application, according to a description or specification of what we offer them, and having first experienced that product, they expect it to be exactly the same every time they order it in the future.

The point extends to service.  Not only do they want exactly the same product, they want it on exactly the same lead time, packaged the same way, with exactly the same marking and paperwork they got it the last time.  Any deviation from what they were happy with on their last order will be seen as a lower-quality alternative to what they wanted.  Even if it’s not.

Let’s go back to burgers.  I generally like Burger King burgers better than Mickey D’s, but there’s a problem…sometimes they get the ingredients wrong, or the bun is too dry, or it just doesn’t taste as good as the last one, for some reason.  So in any town I happen to be passing through, I have to make the decision…stop at McDonald’s and get the Quarter Pounder I can taste in my dreams, or stop at The King and hope their staff is having a good day."
That text is from a two-part article published last year in the fine industry magazine Pallet Enterprise. In the article, I discuss how companies should take an holistic approach to improving the quality of their products through focusing their quality improvement efforts on striving for consistency in every phase of their business process. Sometimes, that means leadership the employees can count on, instead of "management by crisis". Sometimes, it might mean technical statistical tools to control and monitor processes. Other times, it can be as simple as providing visual cues to employees to remind them of the standard being sought.


Daily communication of that day's order file, and open discussion of any issues that present themselves, is well worth the time it takes. Employees appreciate knowing how to handle the day, without having to guess how the boss wants each situation handled. Twenty minutes invested will return thousands in savings of rework and/or rejected shipments.


Visual grading and sizing cues are always helpful, even with the most experienced of employees.  Here, board sizes are labeled and displayed on board carts; as the carts are filled, the samples are transferred to the next cart.  Simple, but effective.
As owner or manager of a wood products operation, I suggest that you think of your mission as a eight-part "Circle of Quality"....

...in which you begin your product concept by...

  1. understanding the obligation to the customer, 
  2. specifying the precise product or service to meet that obligation, 
  3. consistently and specifically communicating those requirements to your employees, 
  4. observing the process set in place to ensure it is delivering what you intended, 
  5. collecting information in the form of employee feedback and process data, 
  6. measuring and understanding the variability in the process and working to reduce that variation to a level where the customer sees consistency in your output, 
  7. documenting the critical elements of the finely-tuned process to ensure future employees continue the same actions, 
  8. and then repeating this series of management steps for each new product or service that your company develops as it adapts to changing customer requirements.

You and your customers know a quality product or service when you see it. Even easier to see is poor quality and service. Your company will thrive if you produce the first, and fail if you provide the latter long enough.

For more on implementation of the Circle of Quality, see these articles...



If you're going to Go Wood, do it right, and do it consistently!

You and your customer know quality when you see it. These pallets are obviously the products of a well-designed, consistent process.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

An Industry Sure to Grow - Reclaimed Wood

There is a niche but growing industry in reclaimed wood...wood that is collected from old barns, urban homes and buildings, lakes, and other unusual places where old logs and lumber have resided for decades or centuries. Even the giant old remnant stumps of redwood harvested long ago are being resawn with special saws and sold for art, corporate meeting tables, and such.

This old wood is labor-intensive to collect and remanufacture - nails, bolts, and other forms of metal objects must be removed. Then, it is usually stored on site by the reclaimed wood company until a buyer comes along, looking for just that right piece or load of old oak, chestnut, or Douglas Fir. Most of it is then re-manufactured to purpose and ends up in nice new custom homes, or themed restaurants, where its beauty is on display for all to see. Like diamonds, these old slabs and boards lay hidden away from man, and when discovered by hard-working timber miners, and are re-cut and polished, dazzling the admiring eye and draining the wallet of  its next owner.



This is an industry where unique character of every piece of wood is really appreciated, and the folks who hunt for the wooden treasure love the challenge of their work. The final products have an added value beyond the skill of the woodworker...history. I expect this an industry that will continue to grow even as this old wood becomes scarcer.