Managing Forests for Maximum Value And Health

Brass Knuckle Gloves

By Jack Petree

Both the American forest and the forest products industry will look significantly different than they do today.

Changes in the nature of the forest products industry will be driven by the need to adjust how we treat our forest resource in what will likely, in the next decade or two, become an all-out effort to help forests retain their health, resilience, and, consequently, the many values they provide the people of the world. Equally important, forests that cannot recover after catastrophic events will need help reestablishing themselves as new, albeit altered, functioning forests. The forest products industry is in the best position to play a leading role in assuring those healthy and resilient future forests.

An Intimate Approach

Using a baseball metaphor, the forest products industry of the past 40 years has been focused on the home run. “Go big or go home” can appropriately be applied to much of the industry over those years.

While large-scale commercial growing, harvesting, and milling is not going anywhere, much of the potential growth for the future is likely to be a more focused “small ball” approach to enhancing forest health and resilience. That more intimate approach means more, and smaller, harvests of trees selected because they are pest-infested or otherwise dangerous to the healthy trees around them — removals to enhance the forest’s resistance to catastrophic fire, for example.

There’s nothing new about substantial change, either in the nature of the North American forest itself, or in the shape of the forest products industry utilizing the resource. In the last years of the 19th Century, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted an extensive examination of the nation’s public forests on a township by township basis. Reading the surveys today, it’s easy to see that forests of the late 1890s were, for the most part, dramatically different from today’s forests. The forest products industry of today is also strikingly different from that of early years, having adjusted to change with new equipment, new approaches, and new management concepts in utilizing the forest resource to benefit the larger community.

Quantum Change Is Already Taking Place

The differences we see in the shape of our forests today differs fundamentally from the change we’ve seen in the recent past. In past decades major shifts in the overall nature of our forest resource (depending on location) have usually taken place relatively gradually. On a larger time scale, however, major alterations in the conditions impacting large areas of forest (an ice age, a time of massive volcanic activity, or a time of relatively rapid worldwide heating) brings about quantum change in what is, in the life of a forest, a very short period of time.

Today we find ourselves at what is likely to be one of those lynchpin times in forest history, especially in the West. Two factors, climate change (never mind the cause) and catastrophic plagues of insects, pathogens, invasive plants, and other nasty tree enemies introduced to the forests in recent times, are combining to create conditions both widespread and sometimes, irreversible, in the nature of many, if not most of our North American forests. These changes are so far reaching, some of the forests our industry and our larger communities rely on for work, play, clean water, clean air, and other benefits will no longer exist in the future, if not addressed with well thought out and immediate attention.

As summed up in a Forest Service web publication, Adapting Forests to Climate Change, in many forests, “The anticipated rate of climate change is expected to be too rapid for existing trees to adapt, creating a high risk of widespread tree mortality, and increased threat from other forest stressors such as insects, diseases, and air pollution. These interacting threats will very likely affect industries that depend on healthy, productive forests.”

Changes Ahead

These effects on the industry will almost certainly include changes in the equipment mix utilized to harvest individual trees that might be scattered through a forest being treated for health and resilience. At the mill end, we will certainly see a comeback in the small mill end of the industry. The big impact, however, will be on the focus the industry of the future will want to — and be required to — place on a much fuller use of the resource. Much of the carbon sequestered in a tree is sequestered in the limbs, roots, and tree parts that are either left on-site to rot or stacked up to be burned. That waste of the resource will have to end, and its end will result in significant opportunities to create niche products, even as carbon emissions now attributed to harvest are reduced.

Countless research articles have been published relating to climate change and other threats to forests. Much of that information has not distilled to a practical level —it’s only been less than a decade since climate change was routinely assessed, so even the Forest Service is lagging on implementing new approaches necessary to preserve forest health and value.

Anyone in the industry, from landowners to harvesting contractors and mill owners seeking to build businesses that will be successful ten to twenty years from now, should begin to pay close attention to what is already a rapidly shifting social, economic, environmental, and political landscape based on maintaining forest health and resilience. The coming years promise incredible opportunity for those in the forest products industry who stay on top of the curve of change, and significant risk for those who do not begin to implement business adjustments necessary to address the green wave of change surging through the North American forest of today.

Jack Petree is a public policy consultant and owner of Tradeworld Communications. 

TimberWest November/December 2013
January/February 2021

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Managing Forests for Maximum Value and Health


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