Page E1.4. 24 October 2012   
ArchitectureWeek - Environment Department
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The Corruption of Wood


The reality, I've come to understand over recent years, appears to be that giant trees were once found all across North America.

The giant conifers of the west are simply the last few remaining of a variety different species reaching great size, once spread widely across the land.

For instance, the scale of the original white pines of New England is discussed in the Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels, director of the Environmental Biology Program at the Antioch New England Graduate School:

It is hard to imagine what four-hundred-year-old groves of this tree must have looked like, for today few white pines reach half this age. At two hundred years they tower above all other species by more than fifty feet and attain diameters of up to five feet. Yet these 150-foot giants have just reached their adulthood. Given another two centuries of growth, they would tower well over 200 feet and reach diameters of up to eight feet. Some white pines encountered by early colonists were recorded at heights up to 220 feet, trees whose stature would fit nicely in a Pacific Northwest old-growth forest but seem out of place in our current image of New England woodland.

While the giant white pines of New England and the enormous chestnuts farther south are long gone — not to be seen again for hundreds of years, if ever — while some of the great sequoias and coast redwoods are protected in California — and while the tallest trees on Earth may have been Douglas firs in the Pacific Northwest, felled and milled routinely, early in the 1900s — Douglas fir of all ages, up to and including giants several centuries old, is still viewed by many as an inexhaustible commodity in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

Approaching Collapse

Natural ecosystems are typically resilient to impacts up to a certain level, at which their resiliency is exhausted or overwhelmed. At this point, rather like a steel beam under increasing strain, the typical ecological response changes from slow degradation into rapid failure.

In June, 2012, 22 leading scientists co-authored a review paper in the leading scientific journal, Nature, titled Approaching a state shift in Earth's biosphere. This major paper outlines the concept and science of ecosystem collapse, and the strong evidence that cumulative land use changes across Earth are approaching the level of 90% of land altered.

Ninety percent change is enough to put most ecosystems into a state of irreversible collapse.

Of the many millions of acres of old growth forests found across what is now Oregon, Washington, and northern California by the first surveyors, it's estimated that less than 10% remain.

This is one of the ways we know that extraction or harvest of wood from these forests has gone past the predictable breaking point. If we're going to keep using wood, it's up to current generations to imagine and then create local, regional, and global outcomes that are different from what people wrought at Easter Island.

This is something every architect, designer, and builder should take into account when choosing and using wood, and more broadly, as an active, professional participant in modern society.

One simple thing every reader can do today is to be sure to only buy toilet tissue made with recycled fiber. A shocking percentage of Canadian old growth logging goes to feed the utterly pointless virgin fiber tissue market.

Kevin Matthews is Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek. More by Kevin Matthews


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ArchWeek Image

Like Eastern white pine, American chestnut trees, including these in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina in 1910, are among the lost giants of eastern and central U.S. forests.
Photo: Forest History Society, Durham, North Carolina

ArchWeek Image

Net change in forest area by region. This metric does not reflect the conversion of millions of acres of native forest in North America from old growth to recent clearcuts and plantation monoculture.
Image: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Taken together, the U.S. and Canada are second only to the Russian Federation in total forest area.
Image: FAO Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

The map of forest areas worldwide shows that while most forest area is either tropical or boreal, a great share of the especially-productive temperate forest areas is in the U.S.
Image: FAO Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

A five-hundred-year-old Douglas fir, like this old giant in Lane County, Oregon, represents an island of native forest biodiversity in, on, and around itself.
Photo: Kevin Matthews/ArtificeImages Extra Large Image


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