Tree Farms, Not Forests

One of the biggest controversies in the world of green building is how trees are forested. More than 95% of the original forests in the United States have been razed. Yet, according to the American Forest and Paper Association, there are more trees in the United States now than there were when the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts nearly 400 years ago. On the surface, that seems like a good thing, but once we dig deeper into the issue, our views may be more tempered.

Wood has attractive advantages as a building material, but the stupendous volume of material that goes into residential construction creates a variety of interrelated problems.

During the expansion of European–American culture, forests seemed endless and empires were built on what could be harvested. Replanting was unnecessary because there were so many trees yet to cut. As the resource became more depleted, tree farming became a good business practice and tree plantations began springing up across the country. Today, most “forests” are actually tree plantations.

It is only when we visit the tiny pockets of remaining ancient forests that we realize what a profound difference there is between a tree plantation and a natural forest ecology. It takes hundreds of years for a forest to regain its complex interconnections of life-forms and the inherent stability that goes along with them. Clear-cutting a forest only to replant with a single species destroys the forest ecosystem.

Lost habitat decimates natural animal populations. Because they are artificial environments with a lack of natural diversity, tree farms are not places where people want to backpack, hike, or fish. So people flock to our overrun national parks, now so overcrowded they are barely managing the flood of people looking for a glimpse of the real thing.

As concerns have mounted over how forests are managed, a number of programs have popped up to certify that lumber harvesting is causing no long-term damage to either the environment or the people who live nearby.

Standards were adopted internationally in the mid-1990s and include strict requirements for how timber is harvested, how much can be cut, and how the forest ecology is to be protected. The program also mitigates problems when indigenous people are affected by lumber harvesting. Each forest, mill, distributor, and retailer must be certified to preserve the integrity of the lumber’s sustainability.

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