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Article #29, November 1999
By Bill Cook

     I was talking to a friend of mine about forest sustainability a few days ago.  We digressed into the role of wood and wood products in our society.  Discussions on forests seem to increasingly omit talk about wood products or timber production.  And wood is such a tremendous natural resource.

     Think about wood a moment.  Wood is renewable, as well as reusable and recyclable.  Over 5,000 products used in the USA include wood or wood products.  That’s a lot of stuff! 

     So, my friend and I were saying, why do we hear so much about saving trees by using alternative materials? 

     First of all, you can’t save trees.  They die the same as every other living thing.  Might as well manage them.  Second, pick any alternative material and you’re causing more environmental disturbance and energy consumption than wood requires.  Third, wood is renewable.  You can’t grow more iron, coal, or oil. 

     That’s not to say that wood can replace critical properties of other materials, but why do we see messages promoting wood alternatives in order to do something good for the environment?  Very odd, indeed, we were thinking.

     Michigan’s forests are not threatened by over-harvesting.  Michigan has about 19 million acres of forest, about half the area of the state.  It’s the fifth largest forest among the fifty states.  We have more forest acreage and more wood volume than any time this century.  We grow far more wood than we harvest. 

     My friend observed that at least two to three million acres of Michigan forest were “protected” from timber harvest.  Nationally, at least 150 million acres have laws or policies that exclude timber harvest.  Recent proposed rule changes by the federal administration may remove another 60 million acres from timber production, including over 168,000 acres in Michigan.

     In a sense, successful lobbying to reduce timber harvest on public lands, and the misplaced sentiment that timber harvest is “bad” for the forest, has “exported” the harvest to the private sector where there is less expertise and ability to implement scientifically sound forest management practices.  Scary stuff.

     Pressure to harvest from private forests has increased.  Not just because of decreased volumes from federal lands, public set asides, and restrictive policies, but also due to increased consumer demands for wood, especially several species and products.  The monetary value of the “back forty” has exploded in the last ten years.

     Additionally, much of our private forest is being chopped up into increasingly smaller ownerships or bought up for resort and second home communities.  Many of these owners have little interest in timber harvest or forest management.  So, similar to our federal forests, more and more private acreage is “set aside,” too.

     Much of the harvest from private forests is done without the assistance of a forester.  Forest regeneration and consideration for other forest values are often not part of the decision process.  This threatens forest sustainability and good stewardship. 

     Nationally, and even in Michigan, part of our wood supply now comes from other nations.  Many do not have the environmental protection policies we share in the United States.  So, we export part of our harvest to developing countries, and indirectly cause some of the problems we read about in newspapers and magazines.  Ironically, those newspapers and magazines are forest products, too.

     Forest management is more important than ever.  It’s critical!  And its role in providing timber and the full range of forest benefits will only increase.  But it will probably have to occur on a shrinking available forest base with increasing governmental regulation.  And that is worrisome.  Michigan is an excellent place to grow timber and supply the forest needs of our society.  We are one of the “forest baskets” of the world.  It seems a shame, at least to my friend and me, if we won’t be able to live up to that challenge.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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