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Wood We All Use
Article #316 November 2020
By Bill Cook

Americans use a tremendous amount of wood.  Fortunately, forest growth outpaces wood use, and wood is the most environmentally-friendly raw material available.

     How much wood?  For what products?  Who owns the trees?  Are we running out of trees?  All good questions. 
     The USA consumes the equivalent of nearly 200 million cords each year.  That volume would cover about nine million acres of “average” Michigan forest.  That area is larger than the entire State of Maryland. 
     The basis for these numbers come from a recent report generated by John Greene, who drew numbers from several common sources, including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and U.S. Forest Service.  The numbers are consistent with 2017 U.S. Forest Service report “Forest Resources of the United States”. 
     At first blush, this is a huge quantity of wood.  Michigan forests, alone, hold the equivalent of about 447 million cords, covering about 20.3 million acres.  If the annual national consumption came exclusively from Michigan, we could supply a little over two years’ worth of demand before exhausting our forest resource.  So, OK, our consumption really is a huge quantity of wood. 
     Should we be concerned?  Well, of course we should be concerned about any natural resource use and consumption.  Are we liquidating our forestlands?  No.  American forests are growing more wood than that what we consume.  This is especially true in Michigan.  More good news. 
     National forest inventory numbers have been collected since the 1930s, with many refinements over the decades.  Yep, foresters actually count and measure a lot of trees.  Agencies have also been tracking wood use for a long time, too.  How do we, as a nation of consumers, use all that harvested wood? 
     Over 70 percent of the national harvest goes to sawlogs (39 percent) and pulpwood (34 percent), followed by fuelwood, veneer, composites, and a few minor products.  This product mix varies widely from region to region.  Many items manufactured from these products we find throughout our home and workplace.  Some are reasonably good pools for carbon storage, digressing along the climate change angle. 
     Harvesting trees does far more than provide raw materials.  Forest management, which includes timber harvest, also helps keep forests healthy, enhances wildlife habitat, can maintain or improve long-term visual quality, accelerates carbon sequestration, and provides clean water.  These values, over the long-term, are reduced by a lack of management, and management cannot happen without markets for harvested trees.  So, wood-using mills and consumer wood use are key drivers to healthy forests.
     While this is counter-intuitive to many, using wood products helps keep forests in a productive condition because they provide markets that support sustainable forestry. 
      In Michigan, our forests continue to add more volume and quality each year, and our area has begun to plateau, similar to national trends.  However, within the last couple of years, volume lost to natural mortality has exceeded the volume that is harvested.  Both of these volumes are substantial. 
     If you think we harvest a lot trees, even more wood is lost from other causes, which is expected from increasingly older forests.  This trend is a concern to many forest managers from both the private and public sectors. 
     From a forest management perspective, the rising levels of natural mortality suggest that more forest area should be managed, or managed better.  Michigan forests have been growing older, with larger trees, for many decades.  As these forests age, forest health and regeneration issues become increasingly important. 
     Forest management has a lot of intriguing science behind it.  Nevertheless, its application is largely guided by sets of society values.  Public forests are managed by agencies accountable to public perceptions.  However, nearly half of Michigan’s forests is owned by families.  These acreages are entirely subject to the goals and objectives of the owners. 
     Private family ownership involves about two percent of Michigan’s human population.  This small pool of people control over nine million forest acres that provide benefits for all.  Only a fifth of those acres are under a management plan.  Some properties are stellar examples of forest stewardship, such as those enrolled in the Tree Farm program. 
    So, yes.  Wood is good.  Use it well.  Keep it growing. 

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TRAILER- This website was created by a consortium of forestry groups to help streamline information about forestry and coordinate forestry activities designed to benefit the family forest owner and various publics that make up our Michigan citizenry.  This website is maintained by Bill Cook, Retired Michigan State Extension Forester/Biologist.  Direct comments to cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.