Timber Famine - Always Just Around the Corner

Out of the many dire circumstances we are constantly reminded of, timber famine strikes closest to home here at Go Wood. The most frequent question I get at events for the general public is something along the lines of "We're almost out of trees, right?"

Fortunately, not right. I always wonder where those folks have come from to ask me that question. If you look at Philadelphia on a map, you see a great urban coloration across most of southeastern Pennsylvania. But when you approach it on the ground, you're driving through a lush green forest literally until you're within the shadows of the city's great skyscrapers. And when one drives from the western border of Pennsylvania to the eastern border, 300 miles away on I-80, he never leaves sight of vast eastern hardwood timberlands. Timberlands that were harvested indiscriminately between 1800 and 1930 for timber production and conversion to farmland, are now in the process of reverting back to their natural state. And in that process, are providing the world with some of the finest hardwood timber on the planet.

I'll be addressing this issue with respect to the controversy of palm oil plantations in an upcoming post, which is still in contemplation. In the meanwhile, I'd like to share with you some fascinating writing that was done eighty-five years ago for the second addition of a wonderful old reference book I opened last night, entitled The Timbers of the World by Alexander L. Howard of Great Britain.

One of many fascinating pictures in this book...logging African mahogany back in the day.

The foreword and introduction of these old reference books are often more fascinating that the content itself. I think you'll find the following excerpts, written in 1933, quite interesting.

From the Preface to the Second Edition...

"In 1918, at the conclusion of the war, the first edition was in the press. At that time the general public were under the impression that the whole world was faced with a really serious shortage of timber supplies. There was at the moment a definite shortage resulting from the war and the cessation of shipping. A host of publications, some inspired by trade interests, some by the unprecedented high prices for timber, and all supported by the certain knowledge that the world's supplies were being too rapidly exhausted, confirmed the impression. As a result, new and hitherto unknown timbers poured into the markets of the world. Activity was especially noticeable in India and Burma, in which places a large accumulation of timber had been stored up, and the first and only really energetic exploitation of the forests of the Indian Empire had been vigorously pursued. The Indian Forest Service, the largest in the world, with at that time fifty-four years behind it, would seem to have failed to realize the commercial value of their vast forest resources. Differing from other countries, India and Burma have never been forced by necessity to realise their forest wealth. The ease with which teak timber has been marketed has had a very deterring influence upon the exploitation of the remaining very abundant and highly valuable store of fine timbers. The situation has been remarked upon by several American foresters and writers, some of whom have visited India and reported upon the forests.It has also been reported [that]...'India is still undeveloped and industrially backward, and the existing forest resources have barely been touched.'"

From the Introduction to the Second Edition...

"The subject of timber, its supplies both within and beyond our own Empire, together with its treatment and its possibilities, is one full of interest in itself, and which might well be introduced, not as an isolated item upon an already over-burdened list of subjects, but in rational correlation with science and geography. We are now faced with  period of wide industrial change and novel development, when the natural resources of the world must be mapped out, and measures taken for their right use and conservation. The forests of five continents hold in themselves a vast portion of the world's wealth, and much of its value is so far unrealised. Timber has been put to a multitude of uses in the past, but latterly a belief was gradually gaining ground that it might be superseded by steel and concrete. This belief is groundless and mistaken, as we have clearly seen since the war. In many ways it is again being used instead of these substitutes, while further uses are being discovered for it every day. Certain woods essential in industrial developments and making the engines of war are finding new commercial values hitherto entirely unsuspected.

These considerations, though they may appear to be but generalisations, have a close practical application to the subject, and if they have shown anything, it is that the time has come for the British Government to concern itself with the all-important subject of the adequate supply of timber within its own boundaries. In the past it was the policy of the Government to maintain an attitude of laissez-faire with regard to industry, but opinion has now swung around to regard it as a normal function of Government to foster and assist all industries  and trades necessary to the well-being of the community. The difficulties under which the timber industry labours should be removed. There should be adequate protection for woodlands, where, too frequently, valuable timber is ruined by wanton ill-usage, while the present unreasonable freightage dues need readjustment so that trade be not strangled.

It was seen during the European war how effective definite Government propaganda could be when it is necessary to enlighten the public upon matters which concerned its interest. This weapon, through the schools and in the press, could well be used for the benefit of essential industries. As an illustration of such wise action of the State, might be mentioned the fact that in America, in Australia, in Norway, and in Portugal, the school children are taught to plant saplings in order that the timber supplies of these countries may not fail. In addition to protecting the industry and enlightening the public, the Government should take every opportunity to encourage and foster it by providing information and advice as to the best policy to pursue. In the Forestry Regulations of France, Germany, Jugoslavia, and other countries, we can find models which it would be wise to follow, or even to actually adopt in their entirety. We cannot wish to see the number of our woodland areas decrease, when we realise the national, and indeed the imperial, importance of a fully sufficient reserve of timbered land. As far as may be reconciled with economic principles, the denuded areas should be replanted and fresh trees introduced."

The worry, nearly always brought to mind when one sees a recently harvested piece of timberland, is that too much wood is being harvested too quickly and will result in a national, or world-wide, timber famine, or as more commonly expressed these days, devastation of the world's natural habitat. The solution, nearly always promoted as supported by "rational correlation with science and geography" by some well-meaning natural resources manager like Mr. Howard, usually involves some type of government action to maintain "a fully sufficient reserve of timbered land." These actions take many forms, from school children planting seedlings to forest nationalization, with countless variations, restrictions, regulations, and imposed costs.

All these actions, which sprout from the minds of "progressive" individuals concerned with the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, ignore the most fundamental truth of human existence and interaction...the workings of the competitive market. Because of self-interest, humans will always gravitate toward low-cost solutions, especially when fulfilling fundamental needs. Free-market prices reflect relative supply and demand, disincentivize over-exploitation of available resources, encourage the use of more efficient and abundant solutions, and drive innovation. Government intervention can never anticipate the movement of the free market, and in fact impedes progressive movement toward more efficient economies by imposing "progressive" artificial solutions that always, always, always have unintended consequences.

Which brings us to the issue of palm oil plantations. See you next time.

Go Wood.


David Paal said…
Superb analysis, Chuck. We are in total agreement. This is the thing that bothers me about the "new progressives" taking over leadership roles in our government. They have no historical clue whatsoever. Maybe someone needs to let them know we have double the tree population now than we had in 1900.
Joseph Zorzin said…
Look, guys- it's not about progressives vs. whatever (conservatives? capitalists?)- it's about getting the facts straight. Regarding forestry, both sides often get it wrong. I've been a forester for 46 years and have seen it all. Much forestry work is poorly done. The environmentalists often only see that poor quality work and they hate it so much they'd like to stop it all together. This is a huge issue here in Massachusetts. The forestry establishment hates to admit that any foresters and loggers do it wrong- and the environmentalists hate to admit that anybody does good forestry work. Both sides need to grow up and realize the solution is that all forestry must be done right.
Chuck Ray said…
"Done right" or not, the forest always grows back. Those forests you saw high-graded 46 years ago have timber on them now, don't they. Not as nice as a well-done harvest, no. But it is there, and left long enough it will evolve back to its natural mix of species and diameters, right? And it will probably be left alone to do so, because the timber on it now isn't worth harvesting.

"Done right" forestry only increases the value of a stand of timber for a given period of time and management objective. It doesn't determine whether it will be in timber or not. You know that...but the typical Joe Q. Public doesn't. That's why I simplify concepts in these posts...so the untrained person (about 98% of my audience) can come to understand the dynamic resilience of the forest. They aren't trained foresters like you.

Your point misses my main point that the market will always work...and even better as the consuming public becomes more aware of the value of sustainable forestry. The best foresters and loggers will get the most business, thanks to market awareness...but some landowners will maximize current dollars and take the best offer, no matter what. That's why this dialogue is so important. Thanks for contributing.
martin melville said…
Hey Chuck. Think I'll go with Joseph here. Finley did a study back in the 90s that came up with roughly 2/3 of harvests either unsustainable or questionably so. I see a lot of regen failures. It's a real problem. Take a tour of the mills & ask if 1.) log quality has gone up or down, and 2.) if log diameter has gone up or down.

To your point about your main point: 1.) The wood products market is more than forest inventory. Our record wet year in PA has created severe log shortages at many (most? all?) mills that I'm in touch with. In addition, logging has gone the way of the family farm. It is capital intensive. It has a poor public image. Even if you're mechanized, it's hard, high risk work. It is possible to practice the CRAFT of logging, but when profit is measured in pennies per board foot, the pressure is toward mass production. And
2.) Proper, siviculturally based management is not cheap, and does not provide maximum short-term return. I think that if we surveyed landowners (evidence is that location really doesn't matter), somewhere above 75% would say they're environmentalists, or at least care very much about the environment. Yet we have the statics & observations that say they make unsustainable management decisions.
It may be green the whole way to Philly, but try logging down there. Yes, urban logging is a thing. And if you call the work "hazard reduction" or "tree work," you can produce a good bit of volume.
The irony is that at the root, greens & loggers should agree. Joseph is right. (Like the rest of society (see trump wars))we need to learn to talk to each other.
Peace, friends.
Chuck Ray said…
"we need to learn to talk to each other."

You're right about that, Martin. Even in a tightly-knit community like Go Wood, it is difficult to communicate clearly. This post was about the long history of using false narratives to drive global policy that have negative unintended consequences, not exactly what you and Joseph responded to. Unless I misread your comments, which might be.

But keep commenting, keep me honest. As iron sharpens iron...
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