The world is not running out of wood.

The basic fact is that the use of wood by industrial countries is stable, almost all of it is produced in these countries on a sustained basis, it uses a small part of the land, the technology is advancing, the area of forest is stable and the volume (amount of wood) of the forest is increasing. The situation in the underdeveloped tropical world is different. Large amounts of land are still being converted to agriculture (about 0.8 percent is converted per year). As these countries advance, we can hope that their situation will become more like that of the Northern industrial countries.

[This article discusses forests from the point of view of wood supply. To some others, the main issues are biodiversity. I discuss that in my page Biodiversity and Extinction Rates.]

Here are some facts taken from the article "Forests: Conflicting Signals" by Roger A. Sedjo of Resources for the Future. The article is from The True State of the Planet, edited by Ronald Bailey and published by The Free Press. I have omitted most of the historical material from the "highlights" of Sedjo's article.

Though nearly 75 percent of the total industrial wood production comes from Northern Hemisphere industrial countries, the temperate forest lands of this region are expanding.

Almost all of the timber harvested in the United States, Europe, and Nordic countries comes from second-growth/plantation forests.

The world's current industrial wood consumption requirements could be produced on only 5 percent of the world's current forest land.

The rate of conversion of the tropical forests increased from 0.6 percent in 1980 to about 0.8 percent in 1990.

Fully two-thirds of the deforestation in the United Sates occurred in the sixty years prior to 1910 and most of the other third before 1850.

Although the United States has been the world's number one timber producer since World War II, U.S. forests have experienced an increase in volume in the past fifty years and have maintained roughly the same area over the past seventy-five years.

In recent years, private forest lands have accounted for 85 percent of total tree planting and seeding in the United States. The expansion of American forests has been made possible by improved tree-growing technology, the advent of tree plantations, improved control over wildfire, and the reversion of many agricultural lands, especially in the South and East, to forest.

Commercial logging is not a major cause of deforestation; expanding agriculture is. In temperate countries, which provide over three-fourths of the world's industrial wood, reforestation is the rule, while in tropical countries forest land conversion to agriculture remains common.

The developed countries in the temperate regions appear to have largely completed forest land conversion to agriculture and have achieved relative land use stability. By contrast, the developing countries in the tropics are still in a land conversion mode. This suggests that land conversion stability correlates strongly with successful economic development.

A more recent article with similar conclusions is Searching for Leverage to Conserve Forests: The industrial ecology of wood products in the United States by Iddo K. Wernick, Paul E. Waggoner and Jesse H. Ausebel. It appeared in Journal of Industrial Ecology, vol. 1 no. 3, 1998.

Opponents of the forest industries generally object to clear cuttting, i.e logging all the trees in a tract. The 20th anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens volcanic has given rise to articles relevant to this. The general gist of the articles is that recovery from the sterilization of 230 square miles has been faster and more varied in character than was expected on the basis of pre-existing theory. In particular, areas that had previously been clear cut recovered particularly well. Here's a news story about it, but I don't know how long it will remain accessible. If anyone knows a link to a 20th anniversary story that his likely to remain, please let me know. The article is: Life returns to volcano's blast zone: 20 years after eruption, Mount St. Helens ecosystems thrive by Molly Masland, MSNBC.

Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, objects to the anti-scientific attitude of many of his former colleagues. In particular, he supports sustainable forestry including clearcutting. His main page is called Greenspirit.

Paul Waggoner and Jesse Ausubel have a detailed paper How much will feeding more and wealthier people encroach on forests? elaborating the thesis that improved technology can minimize the reduction of forest area. The article is part of a symposium The Great Restoration: The Potentials for Forest Protection to 2050.

All this assumes that basic energy needs will be satisfied without increased use of wood for fuel. Some "soft energy" advocates want to increase use of fuel wood, because they don't like coal and hate nuclear.

I have read that the availability of high quality wood for furniture will improve in the near future because of plantations. I'd like to include a reference on that. I also need a reference to the fact that a large part of the land regarded until recently as virgin forest, especially in tropical countries has actually been modified by human use.

Logging in the Northwest U.S.

As I presently see it, the flap over logging in the Pacific Northwest is a tempest in a teapot as concerns the sustainability of human material progress. Here's why.

If the loggers win, the amount of forest protected by previous laws covers most of the forest area. It will not be greatly reduced. The idea that logging the national parks will come next is just a fantasy.

If the environmentalists win the issues currently being disputed, the amount of wood available for paper, construction and furniture will not be enormously reduced. There is enough available from privately held and managed land. Only a minority of environmentalists want to take over this land also.

Of course, the issue matters to some people directly involved. The loggers now logging will indeed lose their jobs if the environmentalists succeed in their campaign. I don't know whether the environmentalists personally stand to gain or lose from one outcome or another.

As a matter of taste, I admit to liking loggers better than environmentalists.

At the moment these last remarks are just impressions. I am currently gathering the facts needed to support or refute them. I welcome email with help.

Other uses of forests

Forests are also used for recreation including hunting, and they play a role in maintaining biodiversity. The amount needed for recreation seems to be a lot less than is available. However, it is complained that some large predators, e.g. wolves, require more land than is available. I doubt that humanity will move out of large areas for the benefit of wolves.

Forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. How much is unknown. An article Resurgent Forests Can Be Greenhouse Gas Sponges from Science of 1997 July 18 discusses this question. Carbon Sinks in the Post-Kyoto World, Part I by Roger Sedjo of Resources for the Future studies planting forests as a way of reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

It occurs to me that one way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere is cutting down mature forests and burying the wood - or anything but burning it. Then fast growing trees are planted and they remove CO2 from the air. Repeat as required. As a minor matter, the Brazilians cutting down trees in the Amazon to make agricultural land might be persuaded not to burn the wood, say by buying it from them.

American Forests is an organization concerned with forests that has been in business since 1875. It favors planting trees; probably it always has. It also favors cutting down trees and always has.

Up to: Sustainability FAQ

2000 January note: This article was reprinted (with some cuts) in the 1999 December issue of Wood and Wood Products, a trade magazine. It's on page 72.

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