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Sustainable Development
May 28, 1996


A Hard Look At Softwoods

by Peter Warshall

[Editor's note: Dr. Peter Warshall is a biologist, ecologist, poet, and anthropologist. Dr. Warshall is a keynote speaker at The Harbinger symposium on Sustainable Development on June 29.]

The whole earth is in transition from old-growth forests to either managed forests or tree plantations. In the United States, leaving aside "preserved" acreage, this conversion will be complete by 2000 (in the South) and 2010 (in the Doug fir region). The Earth is trading trees like Australian eucalyptus and US Monterey pine for faster and faster biomass growth. Given the North's relentless appetite for softwoods and the South's need for both fuelwood and agriculatural land, there's no turning back.

While we wait for the tree-farm trees to reach harvestable size, consumers can relax. There will still be enough trees. The volume of tree biomass has been increasing in the United States and internationally, despite tree harvests, hurricanes, acid rain, and spruce budworm. The softwood supply is not in jeopardy. The demand for paper pulp and housing lumber can be met for the next fifty years, which is about as far as any human dare look. Nevertheless, in the next decade, the lumber price will increase (maybe 2 to 3 percent per year after adjustments), the monthly price will be volatile, the quality of sawn logs will deteriorate, and the complexity of the forested landscape will be simplified. Younger, faster-growing plantation trees will increasingly replace older, slower-growing natural stock. Judges have already eliminated Select and Finish A grades. The best you ca hope for is B and Better (B & BTR). The questions are: Can we retain any sanctuaries of specific forest communities relatively free of human disturbance as living museum, gene banks, ecological universities, natural service providers and, for some of us, sources of pleasure and peace? Do we have the will, practical strategies, and multinational muscle to do it?

Wood Savings

The forest products business can slow the cutting of trees despite increasing demand. Wood saving comes from more product per tree, substitute for trees, reusable tree products, and trees that grow faster.

Trees now yield more product per tree because high-tech saws slice more carefully and electronic eyes find the flaws, maximizing useful product. Wood is increasingly an engineered product, with plywood, veneers, composites, and other laminated boards replacing solid lumber. Engineered woods use up all the mill residues. Designed-in-the-factory structures such as home trusses can save 30 percent compared to on-site trusses.

Fertilizers, pesticides, fire management, biotechnology, genetically "improved" stock, proper spacing and thinning -- in short, high-tech forest management -- has allowed private plantations to grow trees faster and bigger. When the plantations of the 1950s and 1960s reach twenty to thirty years (which for plantations is a "mature" loblolly) or forty to sixty years (a "mature" Dog fir), the supply will relieve some of the pressure on other harvests.

Recycled paper and cardboard, paper substitutes (kenaf, agricultural byproducts, hemp), and reusable salvage construction lumber have entered the market. At the same time, paper and salvage demolition have become America's most voluminous fillers of waste dumps. With the cost of landfill skyrocketing, paper recovery and secondhand lumber have the win-win advantage of saving dumping costs as well as reintroducting a non-product into the economic stream.

Aluminum and vinyl siding have captured a solid market share. Plastic veneers now come in oak and maple images. Steel studs are trying the market's edge. Non- wood substitutes save trees but may, like aluminum and steel, cause comparable enviro damage. Globally, one major use of trees is still fuelwood. Petroleum (especially natural-gas-based stoves) would save forest biomass.

Saving Wood Is Not Saving Precious Forests

Softwood savings is economically friendly, with a few enviro-friendly aspects such as slowing harvest rates or allowing more annual growth. It helps producer/consumer prices by more efficiently converting the tree into pulp and solidwood timber. But it is not robustly sustainable. Increased efficiency can simply increase supply and lower prices, which perpetuate demand. Wood savings does not necessarily decrease consumption. Wood savings does not necessarily save forests. Just as water conservation can lead to more and denser housing development, wood savings technologies can encourage sales and conversion to tree farms as the most efficient technique to increase biomass output. The US consumes five times the volume of forest products per person as the average developing nation, and three times the planet's average. Only a major "de- consumption" program would have a major impact on harvesting rates of softwoods. Only if the wood savings actually transforms itself by clear linkages into forest conservation does it contain an ecologic.

Wild Cards And Major Uncertainities

So that you don't agree too easily that future softwood supply and relatively slow-moving prices are a sure thing, here are a few wild cards that should humble any prophet.

One: The reduction of acid rain would help wood savings, ecosystems, and prices. An increase in acid rain would stimulate faster cutting of the dead trees (temporary price breaks and supply) but more expense for human infrastructures to replace the deteriorating forest ecostructure.

Two: Natural disasters appear to be more frequent. Insurance companies lobby for subsidized taxpayer insurance to cover their own inadequate insurance. With forests collapsing to hurricanes or frying in unexpected drought, the pricing of timber shows strange spikes with unpredictable impacts on purchases. For conservationists, the forest saved today may be the forest flattened tomorrow. Thoroughly artificial management of the new forests with pesticides, herbicides, and fire control confuses forest economists and conservationists. Economists have more difficulty predicting supply, forest health and growth, and price relationships. Conservationists can no longer sit back comfortably with the forest acreage that they feel is "safe" from the chainsaw or weather. What was "minimally viable" in the early 1990s may be too small today.

Three: Harvesting and access equipment will either help watersheds or increase the wreckage. Under pressure from the public and the Forest Service, the industry has been developing harvesting machines that reduces erosion and fishery damage. But the same equipment now allows extraction of trees that were once "off-limits" because of unavoidable watershed destruction or inaccessible locations. Watch the boreal forests of Canade for a machine that can cross tundra and permafrost. Watch for increased helicopter logging. New access and harvesting technology must be tamed, or watch it go wild.

Four: Many American wood-based homes are reaching the end of their lifespan. Wood rot and termites increasingly advertise their superiority. How many homes will need repairs and renovations? The scale of need and what materials they will utilize are unknown. America, like Japan, is a wood-loving nation, and the market may boom after 2000. Protected forests, including national parks, could become sources of timber.

Five: The global supply is uncertain, with each of the top ten softwood suppliers (see box) going their own merry way. When the world is so uncertain, wood dealers and speculators think very short-term. Non-sustainable harvests tend to parallel uncertainty. Watch the disorganized Siberian supply chain, acid-rain-plagued Europe, public policy about sustainable forestry in Canada, the endless conflicts in the Pacific Northwest over taxpayer subsidies for old- growth clearcutting, the holding back or hasty release of softwoods from plantation in Chile and the American Southeast, and the introduction of new utility-tree species, such as alder and aspen. All these confound import/export scanarios. The wood products industry and their economists have become jumpy. Global conservationists, unable to safe-harbor any specific region and forest type, are equally jumpy.

The conservative attitude in the face of so many wild cards is: hold as much old-growth and ancient forest as possible out of the softwood products market. Wait util the softwood markets are less volatile so harvesting plans, prices, and purchases can stabilize. Wait until we have a less volatile (or better understood) biosphere. Anyone sell patience pills?

Conserving Softwood Forest Communities

How do we save viable acreage of specific softwood forest types? Redwoods, the Klamath Mountain mixed evergreen, Red fir, Coastal true fir with hemlock, special Canadian Black spruce or White spruce/fir communities, northern pine barrens, the southeastern flatwoods and pine savannas -- and this is just a start, just in the United States. There appear to be only two strategies: remove special forests from the marketplace, or manage the markets. I know of no free- trade or libertarian market scenario to preseve particular forests.

Land preservation is the name of the game. In the purely private sector, we rely on morality, vision and personal bucks. Doug Thompkins (former owner of Esprit) purchased tens of thousands of acres of Chilean araucaria and alerce forests. Through donations, The Nature Conservancy has removed prime softwood forests from the tree meat market. But small companies that advertise wood savings (kenaf paper, recycled sawn wood) must still figure out how to link their actions to specific forest savings.

In the public sector, morality and money are more fickle. National monuments or research-area forests help thwart major land use changes on public lands. But it's all up to special-interest groups, state land commissions and Congress. Today's sanctuary could be tomorrow's clearcut.

Public/private-sector fusions are the soil of fertile action. Ecotrust (private) helped the Haisla Indians (private) receive 800,000 acres of softwood forest back from the Canadian government (public) and a timber concessionaire (private). Land Trusts help private landowners slow forest conversion to farms or subdivisions by offering easement, tax breaks, and inheritance benefits. The Nature Conservancy buys land and then gives it to public agencies with binding nondestructive sales agreements.

Nonconsumptive Uses

Forests could be considered bioengineered ecosystems with many functions such as erosion control, humidification, carbon sinks, fishery infrastructure, and gene banks. These services are hard to price, though economists are trying to use price equivalents by comparing them to engineering works and including restoration costs. Relatively nonconsumptive forest value in ecotourism is equally tricky to price. Economists could try to invent a "rarity" value, such as is placed on gemstones, for specific ancient groves. Perhaps these "real prices" would place the planet's most cherished forests out of the reach of the harvest machines. Perhaps not.

The "existence value" of a specific forest community ("these trees are good because they are awesome") is essentially beyond economics. Dollars do not translate into reverence. Cut-and-run bubbas know this. That's why, when you sleep with your arm over the giant root of a redwood and pass into serenity, you will be called a pagan and a druid. The Protestant Ethic cannot absorb a nonutilitarian unpriceable need.

Local/Global Working Rules

Saving a forest here may simply chainsaw a forest somewhere else. A brilliant negoitator could implement a trade agreement to establish a worldwide system of softwood trade-offs that might shape supply and, simultaneously, conserve specific species or forest types. But, to the GATT and NAFTA crowd, this "managed" market is taboo. Even if the rules were written, cheaters, shirkers, and thieves would make them hard to enforce. The near future is in the trenches: tree-traders trying to dismantle tariff barriers, quotas, ceilings, and rules of origin, as well as standardized milling sizes, vs. Citizenries for Ecosystem Preservation fighting with blunt populist tools such as non-tariff barriers (Europe's green labeling), boycotting and buycotts, phyto-sanitary and health restrictions. (A typical health restriction would limit out-gassing from engineered woods.)

What Do You Mean, Sustainable?

Saving wood is not saving specific trees. It is not softwood supply for solidwood products and paper that is threatened, it's particular forest types. At the moment, the only solutions seem to be to buy the forests or to create a civic religiosity that can out-lobby any other special-interest group. All other solutions contain enormous "ifs."

A Spotted Owl Afterword

The spotted owl -- though it lives among elder softwoods -- does not enter the stage front-and-center. The spotted owl is an economic foil and also a precise symbol for the real issue: remnant forest ecosystems. The desire for rampant logging burns hottest in the hearts of exporters, not loggers. Locally, logger/conservationist deals can be worked. But the exporters have invested heavily in docks and shipping and the cheap dollar and the insatiable Japanese appetite for cheap beautiful cants. Exporters want more high-quality wood and have little concern if it's harvested by hand or by a totally automated process.

The news media are a sick Greek Chorus. When the Georgia Pacific railroad went on strike in 1989, 1992 and 1993, the price of wood immediately elevated. But no one mentioned the strike, only the spotted owl. When two major hurricanes hit the South, and then California had its earthquake, and then the Gulf War played itself out, the price leaped upward. But once again the owl got blamed. Higher prices are so confused with the mythology of softwood scarcity and lost jobs that futures market speculators and concessions bidders on public land have inflated prices further, and further inflated the myth. Watch the difference between speculative buys and final cash-outs and the pattern is obvious.

At fault are ideological economists, not heathen biologists. The lack of complexity in the prevailing understanding of single-event price spikes, yearly prices, five- or ten-year averages, seasonal price variations, etc., is appalling and has created false opponents. Economists still believe the market ("free" or "managed") is somehow rational and nonpolitical. Meanwhile, the guys who make those speculative forest overbids are still pointing their collective finger at the spotted owl.

This article is reprinted with permission from Whole Earth Review, Winter, 1995.

-- May 28, 1996

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