As wood use grows, particularly for commercial and multi-family construction, so does the potential impact on North American forests. Can we meet increased demand while continuing to manage our forests in a sustainable manner?
THE FUTURE OF THE NORTH AMERICAN FOREST
North American wood supply is solid.
Total wood volume in Canada’s forests is about 47 billion cubic meters but just 148 million cubic meters was harvested in 2013—0.3 percent of total.1 “Across Canada, we have generally been harvesting below what is sustainable,” confirmed John Pineau, Provincial Leader/Ontario for FPInnovations. “In fact, we have been under-harvesting, in some jurisdictions by as much as 20 to 30 percent in recent years.”
The story is similar in the U.S. Between 2010 and 2015, total forest land increased by 14 million acres; it now totals more than 751 million acres.2 More than 56 percent of U.S. forestland is privately owned, mostly by family forest owners. These privately-owned forests supply 91 percent of the wood used by the U.S. forest products industry, while state, tribal and municipal forests supply 7 percent; federal forests provide the remaining 2 percent.3
But the potential for U.S. federal forest supply is huge. According to Timm Locke, Director of Forest Products with the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, “Federal forests in the Pacific Northwest used to supply more than 6 billion board feet of timber each year. Today that number is well below 1 billion feet. In Oregon alone, Federal forests represent about 60 percent of the forested landscape, but in 2013, these forests contributed only 13 percent of the total timber harvest. Yet they continue to grow at a significant pace.”
TOO LITTLE OF A GOOD THING?
While some consider extra capacity a good thing, under-harvesting can actually pose problems. For example, when a forest is left with too many stems per acre, all the trees get weaker; this makes a forest more susceptible to insect infestations and wildfires.
“We’ve become very good at protecting forests from fire, but at some point, nature will win,” said Pineau. “When you combine old forests with high fuel content and dry, windy conditions, it leads to problems, which we saw in Alberta this last spring. While the overall health of Canadian forests is good, we have to be proactive.”
In many western U.S. states, the primary objective of forest management is not for active harvest but rather to provide habitat or recreation. “But when you use harvested wood as a byproduct, it’s good for the land,” said Todd Morgan, director of Forest Industry Research at the University of Montana. “Besides improving the health of the forest, it helps pay for stream restoration, roadwork and other things that have environmental benefits.”
Locke added, “The Nature Conservancy told me that in Oregon and Washington, there are 9 to 11 million acres of forest land in need of restoration, which could conceivably create a substantial supply of timber. By establishing CLT and other mass timber industries, we could provide an outlet for this lower quality timber; harvest would actually pay for the restoration.”
ENSURING FUTURE SUPPLY
In simple economic terms, increased demand ensures future supply. During the economic downturn, some U.S. landowners began selling their timberlands to real estate investment trusts (REITs). When this happens, the land tends to be managed more for shorter-term economic gain than for long-term sustainable wood supply; REITs devote less effort and investment to the maintenance of production forests.
When we build demand, we retain the ability to maintain a healthy wood industry, which provides landowners the incentive they need to keep their land forested rather than convert it to agriculture, development or other uses.
DEMAND IS RELATIVE
In 2015, North American softwood lumber production totaled 57 billion board feet, but it has been as high as 75 billion board feet in past years. A large CLT manufacturer would use an estimated 24 million board feet of lumber per year—less than 1/10 of one percent of North America’s annual production.4
“Approximately 75 percent nonresidential and multifamily residential construction falls into the 6- to 12-storey range, which is a sweet spot for wood,” said Locke. “With enough interest for more wood buildings, our potential is huge.”
Morgan agreed, adding, “Increased substitution of wood for concrete and steel would benefit the wood products industry, timberland owners and forests. When landowners can manage their forests profitably, those lands are more likely to remain sustainably managed.”
As one person put it, “We’re in a paradigm shift right now. And underlying it all is a social perspective of how we utilize this forest resource.”
Brock Commons, courtesy of Seagate Structures
1. The State of Canada’s Forests: Annual Report 2015
2. USDA National Report on Sustainable Forests—2015
3. 2014 American Forest & Paper Association Sustainability Report
4. Forest Products News, The Beck Consulting Group, spring 2016