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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?

Is Wood A Green Building Material?

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.”

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  1. Most designated Roadless Areas don’t have timber that can be economically and environmentally managed. There is plenty of areas already roaded that could use some “sprucing up”, so to speak. It sure sounds better to use excess trees to make boards out of and burn for power, leaving the remaining forests vigorous, healthy and resilient. Instead, the government’s illegal Let-Burn program continues to pretend they can control wildfires allowed to burn for weeks. Why should we tie up suppression resources in the middle of summer, when devastating wildfires can pop up at any time in the 22 million acres of dead forests? How many new wildfires will be under-manned, due to Let-Burn fires already burning? People’s lives and properties are at risk, and firefighters are gambling that their “pet project fire” won’t get away from them. In fact, they sometimes help them along with drip torches and other techniques to increase the sizes of these dangerous wildfires.

  2. Gee Dave, fiscally-rational forestry = tree mining, that is, cut and run, take the profits and leave the locals to deal with the costs. I don’t think that’s what we want. Well, maybe that’s what you want. I don’t.

    In case haven’t you noticed, modern industrial society hasn’t been all that sustainable. We’re seeing the beginnings right now of the return of feudal society, with a few lords and ladies at the top and a lot of serfs.


  3. And why is it that China’s decided wood is good? It’s long since destroyed its forests, just as its destroyed its soils, rivers, groundwater, and wildlife, so it has to provide “markets” so places like North America can do the same.

    Who’d have thought Dave Skinner wanted to turn North America into an ecologically blighted China.


  4. Just so everyone knows, whole Federal logs cannot be exported without a waiver. Yep, it’s against the law. The only examples of waivers I can think of is selling black cherry logs to Europe and trying to export beetle killed logs from the LA Basin, since there is no mill close by. Federal logs get branded and painted to designate them as non-exportable.

    And, Canada actually has closer to 40 million acres of bug kill. We have only a mere 22 million acres, which converts over to 33,000 square miles of dead forests. While many of the pure lodgepole stands are in the higher elevations, the lower elevation mixed conifers have too many flammable trees in the understory, stealing water from old growth and providing ample fuel ladders. Removing the invading lodgepoles and returning frequent prescribed fires are essential to restoring the historical conditions of healthy and resilient forests that survive drought, bugs and wildfires.

  5. A tree dies, and someone falls it, cuts it to log lengths, and flies it out of the brush on a skyline or by helipopper, and an already dead tree is no longer going to be quickly oxidized into carbon particulates and various greenhouse gases in a wildland fire event.

    No matter what happened to that tree, another of its size will not be there for decades. Few if it is a high site, and many if it is a low site for tree growth. It takes 100 years to replace a 100 year old tree. At the least. And it does not matter how or why the tree died, or whether it was burned, or killed by disease or bugs, or a chainsaw. The only difference is that the one killed by a chainsaw will end up being used to make lumber or energy, and somebody will work to cut the tree, yard it to a landing, load it on a truck, haul it to a mill or chipping site, create the end product, and transport the end product to it end use, where someone else will work to pound nails in it to create something, or glue it together, or will have the energy to plug in their hybrid car or the sewing machine or the food processor, or whatever needed electricity to make it work. And the used energy will produce some more heat, and the product made from the wood will be a part of something structural, or maybe just the frame around a painting, or the fiber for the paper on which a watercolor is painted. All you get from fires is a lot of green house gases, and the same empty space slowly being filled by another seral stage of conifer reproduction which will be revered in 75 years as some sort of holy shrine to nature. The Tillamook Burn in Oregon was replanted because a newspaper editor railed against letting it go to pasture for cattle and sheep. The people of Oregon voted on a $13 million bond sale to finance growing and planting trees in the burn. Only they didn’t have any screening process as to where the seed came from. So doug fir seed from Idaho, Montana, Eastern Oregon, and Southern Oregon, along with seed collected in the Willamette Valley and in the Cascades was all used to grow seedlings that were planted in the burn area. Now there is this forest of wonderful trees planted in the last 40 years from site matched seed, and the failing trees of before that from the dubious seed sources. Those trees need to be cut, turned into lumber, and the areas planted with seed of all the species native to that area, from native seed sources by slope aspect, elevation, and nearness to the coastal fog belt or even from inside it. But this worship of “wilderness” created from off site seed sources is what you get from uninformed urban tree huggers who don’t want one tree cut, one feral cat removed from the land, one cow to graze on public land. Now we have the lowest cattle numbers since I don’t know when and 600 lb steers sold for $145 per hundred weight this week, and cow calf pairs are over $1500. House cats are killing a billion birds a year in North America (if a farmer killed a thousand, he would be tried in criminal courts). For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. And lumber prices are rising even though housing starts are still Great Depression era low, because China is using some of their US Dollars to buy enough lumber (some lumber companies are selling a million board feet a day to China) and logs to raise the market prices and serve their growing middle class housing needs. But, by the Hoskins way of thinking, people are better served by a Mobile Dimension mill and a Victory garden and the saturday Farmer’s Market than lumber from some large mill and groceries from Albertson’s. He must be pensioned from a government job, because they are the only people with guaranteed incomes for life, health care, and all for providing the public with crappy faux solutions to real problems.

    The late T.J. Starker. One of America’s first academic foresters. Yale graduate degree in Forestry. Oregon State College Dean of Forestry School, and very, very successful tree farmer and entrepreneur, replied to a story in the Corvallis Gazette-Times about horse logging in a small patch of young timber. T.J. wrote that “a horse logger is an ambitious, hard working young man trying to make enough money to buy a cat.” (For those of you in Missoula, a “cat” is a tracked machine to drag logs that runs on diesel and can work all day, whereas a horse can only work half a day logging, and then has to be rested, thus requiring two horses, or planning logging to cut for half a day, and yard for half a day.)

    Hoskins is terminally against any and all logging. He and millions like him. Their best efforts, now, would be to make sure their grandchildren are conversant in Mandarin. The Hispanics won’t care, because the Chinese can learn Spanish if they want to talk to them. They haven’t even found the irony in the fact that the richest man in Mexico is Lebanese. And we haven’t seen the irony of the sawmillers and tree farmers pulling themselves out of this recession by exporting the very materials we will need to rebuild our economy. Only this time, there isn’t going to be a Barney Frank liar loan in Congress, to make sure people who didn’t work, won’t work, can’t pass a piss test to work, can buy houses with no money down and phony documentation. Poor people will live near the green ocean of trees, living the “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink” life of serfdom. The bankers are still making billions investing the trust fund money to make the NGOs happy. Eco-Obsessive elitists are the very same people the far left heaps scorn upon for their wealth and ability to avoid taxation. They give enough to the Green NGOs to limit their tax liability, even avoiding the constant snapping of lefty jaws that want to gnaw off the very hands that feed their appeals and lawsuits. The Circle of Life. Trickle Down. The Hoskins of the world are created, coddled and cuffed by the wealthy, including the heirs to the Weyerhaeuser fortune and others from old timber money. Like, how can people who are so stridently anti everything about extractive natural resources take a cent of Pew money?? Pew made it with his Sun Oil company…A pollution making greedy capitalist billionaire. Hoskins isn’t for much, and agin’ a lot. It must be a happy life. Not.

  6. Preservationists always point to the distant past for examples of why man should vacate “nature”. They do this to show only two options of what to do in the forests. One option is their preferred plan called NREPA. The only other option they offer is “destroying wilderness”. Nope, there are no other options in the middle. Nothing to see here. Move along, please… and dump a Franklin in my cup.

  7. Timber removal done on land that will sustain reforestation is an answer we must use. I applaud Mr. Vilsack’s decision. My hope is that the wars of the past 30 or 40 years have led to finding the land useable for timber management.