Across North America, we’re seeing growing interest in using wood for commercial construction—it’s a renaissance of sorts, driven by a number of factors. There is more focus on the sustainability and carbon sequestration benefits provided by wood as a ‘green’ building material. Building codes are evolving, and design professionals are becoming more knowledgeable about wood’s capabilities. Innovative products such as cross laminated timber (CLT) are allowing us to build higher, finish faster and reduce cost.
As we look forward, though, we want to remain mindful of what more wood buildings could mean for our forests. Can we support a dramatic increase in the demand for wood? What environmental impacts will this have? Where will all the wood come from?
One industry expert referred to the issue as the ‘pink elephant in the room.’
THE FOREST RESOURCE
Canada currently has 348 million hectares/860 million acres of forested land1 and wood volume is expected to stay steady. At 751 million acres/304 million hectares, the amount of forested area in the U.S. has remained stable over the past 50 years, and the amount of wood in these forests is actually increasing.2
Total standing wood volume in Canadian forests was estimated in 2015 at 47 billion cubic meters (1.66 trillion cubic feet)3 and timber growing stock volume in U.S. forests measured 932 billion cubic feet (26.4 billion cubic feet) in 2010.4
That’s a lot of wood.
We all agree that our goal is to have a sustainable wood supply that meets market demand as well as environmental goals.
Most of Canada’s forests are on public land; just 6 percent is located on private land.5 By law, 100 percent of the forests harvested on Canadian public lands must be successfully regenerated by planting, seeding or a mix of the two.6 Forest land ownership is a bit different in the U.S. Most forest stands in the southern U.S. are privately-owned, where western forests reside on a mix of private, state and Federal lands. Land use policies vary as a result, but nearly all harvested forests are replanted within a couple years.
Both Canada and the U.S. have forest management practices which govern sustainability and preclude deforestation. In fact, about 25 percent of private forestland in the U.S. is managed using forest certification standards7; 46 percent of Canadian forests receive third-party certification.8
Nature actually accounts for more loss of standing timber than actual harvest. In Canada, 20.1 of the country’s 348 million hectares of forest have been damaged by insects; this compares to 0.74 million hectares that were harvested in 2013.9 The U.S. Forest Service reports that insect-induced tree mortality has increased three-fold in the last decade.10 And wildfires damage millions of additional acres.
To some, the obvious solution would be to manage forests in a manner that would mitigate this loss, but others advocate for letting nature take its course. There are negative environmental impacts of letting a forest stand indefinitely, where it becomes subject to natural destruction from fire or insects. A young, vigorous forest absorbs carbon while dead or burning forests actually release carbon into the atmosphere.
ON THE HORIZON
Wood is growing, particularly for commercial and multi-family construction. Increases will come from two sources: from the conversion of steel and concrete buildings to wood construction, and from the increased use of CLT and mass timber.
As the world’s economy improves and building activity increases, so will demand for wood products. If standing timber volumes are expected to remain stable, where will the extra wood come from? What will happen to our forests?
We’ve talked with a number of experts across the U.S. and Canada to get their perspectives. In the coming months, we’ll look at forest resources, mill capacities and import/export trends. We’ll also consider how increased demand for wood products impacts rural communities and indigenous people.
Is wood the right choice? Let’s start the conversation.
1. / 3. / 5. / 6. / 8. / 9. The State of Canada’s Forests: Annual Report 2015
2. / 4. / 10. USDA National Report on Sustainable Forests—2010
7. Outlook for Cross-Laminated Timber in the United States, Mallo and Espinoza