Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack chose an unusual way to celebrate the International Year of the Forest – unusual, at least, if you’re a tree.
Vilsack announced plans by the Agriculture Department and the Forest Service to use more wood in its buildings – part of a three-year plan to step up the department’s green building practices.
“Wood has a vital role to play in meeting the growing demand for green building materials,” Vilsack said.
Just how green is wood, though?
For decades, it was demonized by environmentalists who complained about logging companies clear-cutting acres of forest, polluting rivers and destroying wildlife habitat. Logging supporters jabbed back, saying environmentalists who lived in log cabins shouldn’t throw stones.
But with the Pacific Northwest’s timber wars mostly quiet, and amid growing concerns about the carbon footprint of other building materials, wood is finding a new place as a green material.
“There is no one-size-fits-all, but oftentimes wood really is going to be a very good choice,” said Brendan Owens, vice president, for LEED technical development for the U.S. Green Building Council, the organization that developed the popular LEED green building certification system.
Owens recommends looking at the lifecycle of the materials to be used in a building, and by lots of measures, he said, wood performs well. It is natural, renewable and recyclable. Compared to a steel mill, which burns carbon, a forest sequesters carbon. Local wood means an even lower carbon footprint. And it lasts for a long time.
“The house I’m standing in is 100 years old,” said Owens, speaking by phone from the home he was remodeling. The carpet, the plaster, the sheetrock had to go, he said, but “when we pulled back the walls, the dimensional lumber, that is going to last another hundred years.”
But many of the factors on the plus side of wood depend on it being harvested properly, Owens said. Intensive logging, poor reseeding efforts and replacing virgin forests with fast-growing timber monocultures can erase its benefits, particularly in parts of the world where slash-and-burn is a common approach.
“The desire to maximize a return on the investment their managing causes some people to make bad decisions,” he said.
As part of the government’s new green-building strategy, the Forest Service says it will prefer wood in new buildings and “look for opportunities to demonstrate the innovative use of wood as a green building material” for buildings over 10,000 square feet.
“Forest Service studies show that wood compares favorably to competing materials,” Vilsack said.
He directed other USDA agencies to adopt the Forest Service policy of using “domestic sustainable wood products” as its preferred green building material.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell directed units in his agency to use more locally-milled timber in its buildings.
Not surprisingly, the timber industry was pleased by the announcements.
“This is good news – for the environment, for rural economies and for jobs in the woods and building industries,” said Marc Brinkmeyer, board chairman of the Idaho Forest Group, the state’s largest lumber manufacturer. “We have known for many years that wood is a green product and a fully renewable resource.”
Wood hasn’t always been seen that way, though. Environmentalists say forests across the West still show scars from decades of clear-cuts and poor timber practices that made the logging industry one of the top nemeses of conservationists.
Timber harvests can be done sustainably, but “for a long time it wasn’t,” said Terry Harris, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, Idaho’s oldest environmental group, which began as a response to logging practices.
“Up here we’re paying for it,” Harris said. “It takes a long time for forests to come back. There are places that were clear cut 10, 20 years ago that are now coming back dysfunctionally.”
Certifications exist now for green timber practices, Harris said, often created by the industry itself, which offer assurances about how the wood was harvested, where it was milled and processed and how far it was shipped.
“Our efforts up here on forestry tend to be about the types of forest harvest practices: whether the soils are preserved, the waters are preserved, whether wildlife habitat is preserved during logging,” Harris said. “Those are complicated issues, complicated questions. Logging isn’t always sustainable unless those things are taken into account.”
A recent Forest Service lifecycle study found harvesting, transporting, manufacturing and using wood in buildings produces fewer air emissions, including greenhouse gases, than other materials. It found using wood for walls can require significantly less energy in manufacturing than other materials.
The agency is also encouraging the use of wood-to-energy power systems and other renewable energy techniques. The measures are part of President Obama’s executive order mandating green building techniques.
“Our country has the resources, the work force and the innovative spirit to reintroduce wood products into all aspects of the next generation of buildings,” Tidwell said. “As we move forward with restoring America’s forests, we are getting smarter and more efficient in how we use wood products as both an energy and green building source, which will help maintain rural jobs.”
Timber groups estimate wood product businesses support more than 1 billion jobs.
Brinkmeyer said the USDA’s action will “put people back to work in rural communities and help our environment.”
Those are good reasons to consider wood, Owens agreed.
“You’re looking at local job creation, local investment in communities, particularly in green jobs,” he said. “Those are benefits.”