The Corruption of Wood
by Kevin Matthews
Trees are fundamental to urban landscapes and natural ecosystems. Wood from trees is a fundamental material for architecture.
The tension between wood in living trees, and wood in buildings and other products, is arguably at an all-time-high on planet Earth.
This is especially true in North America, where primary harvest of irreplaceable primeval forest, having swept across the continent during the last 300 years, is still underway.
In the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada, even as fierce political battles rage over the logging or conservation of the last few percent of older forests on public lands, vast acreages of once-vibrant forest in private industrial ownership are being stripped and scoured rapidly.
Wood is beautiful, used well in our homes, shops, and offices. Where it comes from, and the destruction wrought in its taking, can be very ugly.
What would it take to use wood from the Pacific Northwest, the world's largest softwood lumber-producing region, in a truly sustainable, green way?
Most basically, to use wood sustainably, we have to collect what we need from the forest while keeping the overall forest intact.
It's not enough that strip-mined hillsides can be replanted with a spindly monoculture of fiber stalks, pushed up with chemical fertilizer and defended with massive aerial spraying of herbicides and other broadly toxic pesticides.
The richly interwoven web of life that is the ecosystem of an intact Pacific Northwest forest restrains steep slopes, builds and maintains top soil, filters water and buffers peak stream flows, maintains cool understory temperatures, broods freshwater and anadromous fish, supports myriad species of resident and seasonal birds and wildlife, and sequesters carbon from our overtaxed atmosphere.
We know scientifically that the intact forest is essential to the health of salmon, seabirds, and in turn even orca populations, as well as for elk and owls. In turn, it has been shown that historically the remains of spawning salmon fertilize the forest, their oceanic isotopes detectable in trees tops far from a watercourse.
Decline and simplification of the forest causes decline in salmon, which causes further decline in the forest, and so on. Ecology is all about feedback loops — not free lunches.
Myths and Faith
Similar in a way to climate change, some of the eventual impacts of widespread clearcutting are separated from the extraction act in time and location. After all, in many forest areas west of the Cascade range, when a patch of trees is cut down, it starts to grow back spontaneously within a few years.
Yet each time the woods are clearcut, and when they are replanted as "managed forest," slopes erode, soil is lost, streams are silted and down cut, fungi, invertebrates, fish, fowl and mammals are scattered, starved, and killed.
The underlying faith that forest regrowth as provided by Nature for millennia is something inevitable, is reminiscent of the great faith that the free lunch of fossil fuel energy can go on indefinitely.
And — like the faith that humankind will somehow be held harmless from the inevitable outcomes of continued mountaintop removal and tar sands mining, ubiquitous petrochemical pollution, and use of the atmosphere as a vast open sewer — the faith in forest returning is buttressed and protected by great heaps of pseudoscientific mythology.
The reality is that on much land in the Pacific Northwest, particularly the industrial forest lands of Oregon managed under the pernicious Oregon Forest Practices Act, even where there is a dense stand of conifers, there is truly no longer a forest — in the sense of the diverse, resilient, tree-centered life-giving landscape, in which the Douglas fir, for instance, evolved millions of years ago.
Myths of Timber
The myths of timber are many and widespread. Interestingly, professional foresters we have spoken with are often dismayed by the prevalence and frequent repetition of so much misinformation. Yet very few are willing to speak above a whisper, in a regional wood products culture where timber barons control much wealth and political power, such that failure to toe the industry line is expected to result in quick, decisive ostracism and loss of livelihood.
Myth of Thinning
It is often stated that forests need to be actively thinned to grow robustly, to prevent wildfire, to resist beetle attack, to improve ecological structure, or for other reasons. A failure to thin is sometimes seen as a travesty of forest mismanagement.
First, the forests that show the greatest apparent need for thinning are typically those that were industrially planted with purposefully-close tree spacings. This close planting is done for purely silvicultural reasons, including crowding out competitor species to achieve an intentional monoculture, and suppressing conifer branches as a short-cut to producing knot-free lumber.
Second, when trees grow naturally in dense stands, for instance in some cases after a major "stand-replacing" disturbance, the trees naturally weed themselves out in the race for sunlight, as they have for millions of years. Human assistance in the process is optional at best.
Third, in many cases, thinning actually hurts progress toward the stated goals. Thinned forests, with more open canopies, are commonly warmer and drier than before thinning, potentially increasing fire susceptibility. And when variable size thinning, as opposed to bottom-up thinning, bows to commercial pressure and takes from among the largest, oldest trees in a stand, it's virtually impossible that the actual outcome will be reaching "old growth characteristics" sooner.
This also connects with the Myth of Fire, below.
Myth of Rural Economies
The din of proclamations that logging must be increased for the sake of rural economies, rural employment, or to fund rural county governments is frequently deafening.
Right now, three Congressmen in Western Oregon, including southern Oregon Republican Walden, centrist Democrat Schrader representing Clackamas County, and supposedly-progressive Peter DeFazio, are shopping around a legislative proposal to effectively privatize over a million acres of federal public forest lands, and turn them over to industrial timber operations. The stated rationale is a share of the logging proceeds are needed to fund county governments.
Several lines of definitive evidence show up the Myth of Rural Economies.
First, strong economic studies have shown that the indirect costs loaded onto rural communities by heavy clearcut logging actually overwhelm the local economic benefits from timber-related jobs, etc.
Second, many years of statistics clearly illustrate that timber-related employment has gone down in years when harvest levels have been flat or even increasing. This is due to high levels of automation in modern mills, increasingly sophisticated heavy equipment in the woods and log yards, and large shipments of raw logs from private timberland, and laundered logs from public timber land, to mills overseas. For perspective, in Oregon, the largest producing U.S. state for saw logs and dimensional lumber, jobs in the wood products industry are only about 3% of statewide employment total.
Third, the sad fact is that rural county governments across western U.S. timber areas are broadly dominated by timber interests, with timber barons and/or their designees maintaining safe majorities. Many of these counties have drastically low tax rates, having lived for decades off of federal subsidies. They point to poverty in their communities as evidence of government need — as if the two were synonymous — overlooking both untouched concentrations of private wealth, and that the resource extraction process itself is a driver of community and worker impoverishment.
The Myth of Spotted Owl — that protecting owls, murrelets, and other endangered forest-dependent species is a driver of rural economic woes — is an oft-repeated, equally groundless subsidiary fiction.
Myth of Fire
Wildfire is erratic, huge, terrifying, and devastating — classic mythological territory.
Moreover, the underlying trends of gradual and accelerating warming across most temperate timber lands, coupled with widespread overall and/or seasonal drying, suggest strongly that wildfire, always part of the rhythm of natural continental landscapes, will be increasing.
So perhaps it's not surprising that the Myth of Fire has many tendrils, and connects to other forest myths around thinning, economics, carbon, and over-generalization. With the huge differences across forest types, the time-consuming complexity of pinning down real science on a highly variable, spatially-dispersed phenomenon, and the sheer number of dubious fire-related propositions, addressing wildfire myths is a huge project in itself.
While many dimensions of forest management are widely exaggerated in their influence on forest fire and fire impacts, an area that rarely gets appropriate attention is the extent to which logging increases fire effects. Many fires start in thinned or clearcut woodlands, yet this goes unreported. And experienced foresters anecdotally report repeatedly seeing wildfire rage through managed timberlands and then lay down on encountering cooler, moister, more fire-resistant primeval forest.
Of course forest does burn — both primeval and highly-modified — and important subsidiary myths can come into play after a large fire. The Salvage Logging Myth suggests that after a fire, since the landscape is toast anyway, there's an ecological free period to go in and collect remaining timber. In other versions, it's mandated to collect timber to prevent insect outbreaks, more fire, or other calamities.
Science shows to the contrary that after a large fire, the forest landscape may be at its most delicate, with unprotected soils still hosting surviving or fire activated seeds. These along with stray surviving trees and specialist wildlife like the black-backed woodpecker are parts of Nature's delicate but highly-effective after-fire regrowth system. In short, research has documented that the optimum management tactics after a large fire are to avoid any further anthropogenic disturbance. Salvage logging in fact retards the forest regrowth process.
Finally, the carbon-sequestering capability of standing natural forest is sometimes diminished based on the belief that carbon storage is permanently lost if the forest burns. Current science shows that, if left undisturbed, burned-over forest lands will recover the great majority of their previous carbon storage within a few decades.
Myth of Carbon
The myth of carbon suggests that it is useful for climate change mitigation to cut down trees and use the wood in building, because the CO2 stored by trees in their wood is sequestered in the buildings.
This myth, heavily promoted by the wood products industry through means like false carbon calculators on the web, has apparently even been embraced by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA). Their annual national student design competition for the current academic year, co-sponsored by a timber industry association, promotes the idea of building urban high-rise buildings with wood structures.
The reality, as documented by current science, is that after slash and roots left behind, plus trimmings and other waste, only a fraction of the total above and below ground biomass of a tree (typically about equal in temperate forests) gets into wood products incorporated in a building. Even this fraction is negatively offset by the loss of carbon sequestering capacity of the living tree when it's cut down.
Related to the Myth of Carbon are two other hoary prevarications. The Myth of Biofuels suggests that forests are a reasonable source of fuel for energy production. In fact, cutting trees for fuel, while less extreme than fossil fuel mining, is still typically a negative activity in terms of GHG emissions.
The Myth of Old Forests is is also related. In the Northwest one often hears the timber trope that old forests stops storing carbon, or don't store as much carbon as a "fast growing" young forest.
Of course it is easy to see growth when a six-foot-tall Douglas fir sapling adds another foot of height in a year. But when a 20-foot-circumference Douglas fir elder, hundreds of years old, adds its annual growth ring every year, the amount of new biomass is incomparably greater.
Myth of Similarity
The myth of similarity suggests that sweeping statements, particularly about what is good or necessary in forest management practices, are valid and useful.
Recently this is showing up in glib statements around western wildfires, their causes, and prevention strategies. In fact, just within the western United States, there is so much variation from north to south, from coast to interior, from rain forest to dry, that what might be an appropriate fire-related strategy in one forest biome can easily be counterproductive in another.
Myth of Elsewhere
In one incarnation, the myth of elsewhere leads campaigning national environmental groups and international discussions of REDD strategies to focus overwhelmingly on tropical forests and the third world, as if the remaining temperate and boreal forests, located in wealthier countries, were not also important and at risk.
Another version of the myth of elsewhere leads regional exposes and conservationists to attack the forest practices of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Oregon, while the U.S. Forest Service is just as bad, and the practices on vast areas of private industrial timberland are incomparably worse.
Too Many Myths
That's too long a list of myths already. Only the surface of each has been touched. And yet sadly this listing is far from complete.
Like systematic misinformation in other areas of modern living (around fossil fuel use and climate change, just for example), the persistence of timber myths is fueled by corporate public relations and astroturf, and aided and abetted by a continuing stream of credulous journalism, at all levels of the U.S. media, in which reporters and editors, typically with little technical subject area knowledge, address forest-related stories, from fires and floods to economics and species, parroting industry sources, or in the outmoded he said/she said manner.
Together, these and the many other timber myths, and the culture that keeps them alive, are central to the corruption of wood.
Certification of What?
Certification of green forest practices could, and should in theory, provide an assurance of sustainable wood origin.
In practice, certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is categorically superior to that of the wholly-industry-owned Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), as ArchitectureWeek has addressed in previous coverage, later echoed in the New York Times.
We've also received credible accounts of serious shortcomings even in FSC certified forest practices, including avoidable take of endangered species.
Given how politically-embattled FSC is from the right, notably in the push-pull over acceptable certification in the USGBC LEED system, perhaps they'd benefit from balancing competition from the left, by a "pure" green wood products certified analogous to the Living Building Challenge.
Where Have the Big Trees Gone?
Growing up outside Boston, I knew about the big trees in California, the giant sequoia and the towering coast redwoods. I loved the white pines and hardwoods in New England, but grand as they were, I understood those trees were nothing to what was out West.
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.
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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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
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