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Article #122, August 2007
By Bill Cook

     For decades, forestry outreach has been trying to encourage private forest owners to manage their forestlands. Perhaps, the biggest hurdle might be convincing people that tree cutting can be a good practice. Joining the bandwagon against tree cutting seems to be popular and the "politically correct" thing to do, especially considering that most people no longer live anywhere close to the land. However, let's examine the practice a bit further.

     Everyone is a major consumer of wood, which comes in hundreds of forms such as lumber, paper, chemicals, foods, clothing, etc. Emerging technologies are making wood an increasingly feasible source of clean and renewable energy. Few people are willing to do "without" so that means our increasing daily supply of wood (4-5 pounds) has to come from somewhere.

     Imagine living without wood. Start with surrendering such commonplace products like toilet paper and Kleenex. Give up the books, posters, newspapers, and other reading materials. Much of your furniture has wood in it. Your house is largely made from wood. The wood came from a forest somewhere. Better domestically than elsewhere.

     You can forget about anything electric, as few people receive power that has not been transported over wooden utility poles.
Nearly everything you buy comes in packaging that contains cardboard, boxes, pallets, crates, or dunnage (the wooden pieces used to keep goods from moving around on ships).

     The real kicker for many of us would be giving up coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla. Hmmm. Now we're getting a bit serious.

     Next time you might grumble about tree cutting somewhere, think about running around half-naked, looking for bugs and tubers to eat. We all need wood. We all need good forestry. We don't necessarily need to know a lot about it (although it's really quite interesting) but we should encourage and allow the professionals to provide guidance and advice. You trust your doctor, don't you? Or the folks that manage your retirement investments?

     Wood is one of those commodities that flow around the world largely unnoticed. Yet, for hundreds of years, it has been one of the most traded raw materials. Wood has played a significant role in the success, and failure, of entire civilizations, including ours. Historical geographer Michael Williams has written a couple of insightful books on the topic.

     It's hard to over-emphasiZE the importance of wood, although few people think much about wood and wood products. We lead busy lives.

     There are few ecologically valid reasons to avoid timber harvest. Cutting trees provides for regeneration, improved habitat for many species, maintains forest health, and helps us shape forests for the future. For forest owners, it does all this while providing revenue. The story is an exciting one for those that listen.

     Harvesting, processing, and manufacturing products from wood carries the lowest environmental cost of any raw material. So, substituting a wood product with some other material in order to "save a tree" is actually ecologically unfriendly. Good ideas are not always intuitively obvious.

     Michigan has one of the greatest annual increases of wood volume in the nation. We have grown more wood nearly every year since the great logging era of a century ago. We have one of the largest forests among the 50 states. Yet, Michigan is a net wood importer. So is the United States. We import wood from other states and foreign countries. Many countries don't have the ecological protection infrastructure that we do. Importing wood raises questions of self dependence, global sustainability, and social justice. Maybe the best way to save the rainforest is to manage and harvest our back forty.

     How in the world will Michigan be able to create a "greener" bio-based economy if people won't allow trees to be cut?

     The Michigan ownership with the greatest accumulation of volume is owned by individuals and families. Nearly 50 percent of Michigan's forest falls into this category. Yet, across the Lake States, this category is the least productive, at least in terms of fiber supply. Landowner reluctance to harvest puts increasing pressure on public and corporate forests, as well as those forests outside our borders.

     Are the decisions made by private owners sustainable? Good stewardship? Now, these are good questions with complex answers, depending upon how somebody defines sustainable or good. In this nation of private property, each owner has decision-making authority and responsibility. Somewhere in this mix lies an ethical and practical quagmire. It's not a particularly easy dilemma.

     While forest management involves a great deal of well-established science, the important questions may very well lie beyond the science. What is right? What is self-serving? How will our grandchildren fare? From where will our future supply of wood come? Will our decisions of today compromise our future? Will visual quality continue to win the day over sustainability? Does fiction have more to do with action (or inaction) than fact?

     These private forest lands hold the key to future economic, social, and environmental stability. Yet, these forests are becoming increasingly unavailable to management and wood supply. The world is full of opportunities for good people to do good things and help correct bad situations. Tree cutting is just not one of those bad situations.

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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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