By Mitch Lansky
The major justification for "intensive management," clearcutting, herbicide spraying, and plantations on a short rotation, is that we need the "high yields" to meet the projected demands over the next 50 years. Of course, those who indulge in that line of reasoning fail to follow it to its absurd conclusion. If one projects growth in forest products consumption a thousand years ahead, instead of just 50, then we will need to grow trees in outer space, for there will be no place left on earth.
Consumption of wood products cannot grow indefinitely, because there are limits to how much the earth can supply. Given that simple reality, the question arises as to whether we will find some sustainable consumption level now, when there are still natural forest options, or later, when options have become severely limited because so much land has been simplified by plantation forestry. Forcing a greater and greater proportion of the earth to produce what humans want by simplifying ecosystems leads to greater "needs" to use external controls in the form of pesticides, to deal with the insects and weeds that arise in the less stable forest.
Wood product consumption leaves multiple footprints on the earth. These footprints occur during extraction, pest control, shipping, processing, manufacturing, use, and finally disposal. Not only does increased reliance on timber products mean impacts on wildlife, soil, and water, it also increases reliance on oil (for harvest, pest control, transportation, and manufacture) and other fossil fuels By contributing to use of fossil fuels, the woods product industry contributes to global warming and war.
It is neither necessary nor possible for consumption to grow geometrically forever. Projecting such growth into the future and devising strategies to meet those "demands" is not so much an exercise in prediction as in planning. The planning benefits a small subset of our society that might benefit from such growth in the short term.
Reducing demand on wood products is a strategy that benefits the whole system. There are possible savings and efficiencies at every step in the manufacture and use of paper or lumber. These savings multiply through the resource chains leading to major reductions in the acreage required for cutting while still meeting the needs of consumers.
The United States, with less than 5% of world population, uses around 30% of all the world's paper products. Simply because the United States is wealthy does not mean it has to consume at its current rate. Switzerland, Finland, Japan, and Sweden all have a higher GDP/capita than the US, but lower paper consumption rates.
For writing and copy paper (21% of all paper use in the US) consumption can be reduced by the following strategies:
Since these savings multiply along the chain, simply by reducing wood needs by an average of 10% at every stage of these 10 steps, would mean we would only need 1/3 of the land currently used to meet the same needs. Rather than convert more and more land to plantations, we could free more and more land for wilderness, and other uses.
With lumber, there can be similar savings:
The same strategies can be used to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. There are problems, however, at using wood biomass as an oil substitute to create electricity. Stand-alone biomass plants are extremely wasteful--over 2/3rds of the energy produced is "waste" heat that dissipates into the atmosphere. Wood is best used as a heat source (heating air or water), where efficiencies can be greater than 80%. Electricity generation makes more sense if it is combined with heating (cogeneration).
Burning "biomass," when it consists of tops and branches, can have lead to degradation of soil fertility, especially when combined with short rotations. To ecosystems, tops and branches are not "waste"; they are nutrients.
Energy saving can come from increased efficiency in generation, transmission, conversion, and use. Tremendous saving can be had from cogeneration, decentralized production (and therefore minimized transmission), and use of efficient equipment. Mini-fluorescents, for example, use 1/4th the energy for the same amount of light as incandescents. There are energy-efficent refrigerators, washing machines, and other appliances that use a fraction of the energy of those used by average American consumers. Burning fuels for electricity (and losing 2/3 of the energy as waste heat), transmitting and transforming the electricity for space or water heating is far less efficient than burning the fuels where the heating is needed. Efficent design combined with ample insulation can eliminate much of the heating "needs" (many of which can be met by passive or active solar). We could easily shut down most power plants by pursuing such efficiencies, without impacting the wasteful lifestyles of the average American. Further gains can be made by dealing with those wasteful lifestyles.
The savings from pursuing such a policy of waste reduction and increased efficiency are more than just dollars. Rather than external costs there would be external benefits, benefits to forests, soil, water, wildlife, air (including less contribution to acid precipitation), and the climate. There would be further benefits to our balance of trade from reductions on imports of resources from other countries.
While the need for demand reduction is global, every region, including the Northern Forest, can benefit by committing to the goal and developing strategies. Industries in the region can benefit as the waste from one company can be the resource for another.