In America we build our houses with wood. It has been that way since settlers from Europe arrived and needed to clear forested areas just to plant crops. The forests were so vast, it was hard to conceive that the day would ever come when we have cut almost all of the original trees. Only about 2% of the virgin coastal forests now remain in North America; over 90% of the rest of our forests are gone forever.
But wood is a renewable resource, right? We just need to plant more trees. The problem has been greed, an insatiable appetite for more wood, and lack of foresight. Timber companies, aided and abetted by the Forest Service, have gone after trees so voraciously that enormous ecosystems have been devastated, all across America (and in the rest of the word as well). Realizing that the source of their wealth is diminishing, the timber companies have finally started replanting trees in clear cut areas, but it is a hard go for the little saplings out there, baking in the sun.
The way we have treated our forests has negatively impacted biodiversity through loss of suitable habitat for plants and animals. Ground water is compromised, because forests attract atmospheric water and hold it in the ground. Top soil is lost through erosion, and the silt clogs our waterways and leads to flooding and declining fish populations. It becomes harder for new forests to take root, because the nutrient base is diminished. Forest fires become more prevalent because of all the logging debris that is left and the brush that grows in place of mature trees. The access to the forests through all of the logging roads further degrades these areas through the pollution left in the wake of people and their machines. Deforestation leads to global warming, because trees utilize the carbon dioxide that creates the greenhouse effect. And much of the oxygen that we breathe is generated by trees!
Selective harvesting to maintain a healthy forest is still a rarity. Instead we have tree farms that masquerade as forests. It is estimated that there are eight times as many miles of logging roads in our country as there are interstate highways. Long stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail now winds through tree stumps, or in some cases detours around clear cuts to try to avoid public outcry. The new trees are cut as soon they have potential value, usually way before they are mature; so many products are now made with wood chips or pulp, why wait?
In the end, we are all losers. As Rene Dubos wrote: humans adapt to "starless skies, treeless arenas, shapeless buildings, tasteless bread, joyless celebrations, spiritless pleasures - to a life without reverence for the past, love for the present, or poetical anticipations of the future. It is questionable that man can retain his physical and mental health if he loses contact with the natural forces that shaped his biological and mental nature."
So what can we do to turn this situation around? One thing us "consumers" can do is reduce our demand for wood. We can come up with other ways to satisfy our needs, such as grow hemp for paper, use less paper, or use recycled paper. We can build our houses with wood conservation in mind. Domes made of compressive materials like bricks or adobe or volcanic rock require little wood because the need for a framed roof structure is eliminated. In the parts of a house where wood is virtually a necessity, culled round wood can often be utilized, wood that improves the forest through thinning. We can design and build smaller, more compact houses.
Many products that have traditionally been made of wood are now available as 100% recycled plastic products. Some of these have simulated wood grain for appearance. Siding for houses, compost bins, retaining wall components, etc. are all available this way, with the advantage that they won't rot or harbor insects.
The National Forest Service, which was established to protect our forests, has rarely done that. In fact our government has subsidized the logging industry through building roads for transport of the logs. This arrangement has been a net loss for us, both financial and environmental. Recent polls show that over 70% of Americans want our Forest Service to stop selling timber from our national forests. We should hold our elected officials accountable for this preference.
Another thing we can encourage is the certification of wood that has been harvested through a truly sustainable process, one that holds the health of the forest and our environment as the highest priority. With this sort of certification, we could force timber companies to look at the larger picture, because business as usual would not pay.
There are some national organizations that foster good stewardship of our forests that are worth supporting. American Forests, founded in 1875, is a leading advocate for forest conservation. They can direct you to many tree-planting groups (www.amfor.org). The Nature Conservancy (www.tnc.org) buys large tracts of land to preserve whole ecosystems. Perhaps, if you do build with wood, you could offset the tree loss by planting more trees or supporting these conservation efforts.
One of the reasons that I enjoy living in the Southwest is that I am not constantly confronted by the atrocities that have occurred in our forests, both private and public. In the Pacific Northwest, no matter where I looked I was reminded of what used to be. Here we have lots of open horizons and deserts, naturally.
As Americans we need to rethink much about the way we have been living, if we are to proceed into a sustainable future. Plundering the earth for its seemingly endless bounty can no longer be a way of life. We must be conscious that we and our actions are part of the intricate and delicate web of life that sustains us. We are all in this together.