Forests as a Resource

By Carl Wojciechowski

Logging has long been seen as an important part of the economy in America’s forested areas. The lumber that is produced is essential, used in home construction, for paper products, furniture and much more. In the past in the United States, logging occurred largely unabated, with loggers felling huge swaths of forests across the country. However, as the environmental movement picked up steam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many citizens and governments moved to protect the quickly shrinking forested areas. In New York, these efforts resulted in the passage of the Forever Wild article of the New York State Constitution.  This clause protects over 2 million acres of land in the Catskills Mountains and the Adirondack Mountains from any kind of intensive use.

ForestPreserve1892-2017
Map of Forest Preserve Lands, 1892 to 2017. Source: New York State

The creation of this preserve wasn’t and isn’t totally without controversy, of course. In 2011 a state legislator proposed legislation that would allow logging on new parcels acquired by the state in the Adirondacks region, citing an economic need in the region. The bill never passed, but it is emblematic of the struggle to balance the need to protect forests for a myriad of reasons, including preserving habitats and protecting streams and water quality, as well as providing recreational opportunities.

Trees themselves are generally considered a renewable resource. When a tree is harvested, a new tree (or several new trees) will grow in its place in a relatively short period of time. However, over use of a renewable resource can lead to depletion, either to the forest itself or species that depend on that forest. Suppose the forest in question was an old growth forest, and that the forest was recut. The old growth wood, typically more valuable than younger wood, is now gone. After the forest was cut, the land where the forest once lay is redeveloped into a suburban tract housing. If there is a species that depends on old growth, and old growth forest is eliminated across a large area, old growth habitat and species that depend on it could disappear.

We could consider old growth forests to be a depletable, non-renewable resource. Once we deplete the supply of available old growth, we not only lose the more valuable older wood, but also the habitat that goes with it. If the land that was deforested is re-purposed for other purposes after the fact, it could be considered depleted since the resource won’t regrow, at least not for a long time. Though that isn’t the case with most forestry in the United States today, it is the case in many other countries around the world facing deforestation.

deforest.png
Deforestation in Oregon. Source: Google Maps

So what are some possible answers to these problems? One would be to separate uses. In the United States, forests often serve dual purposes, as conservation easements that may allow some logging. Logging is allowed on much of land owned by the US Forest Service. What if, instead we created plantations where the sole purpose of the land is to grow and harvest timber? This way land set aside for conservation could remain undisturbed. One would have to assume a large amount of land would need to be used since trees grow relatively slowly, and that may create an economic barrier.

Another intriguing possibility that will allow logging to continue while protecting critical ecosystems is the use of technology to recognize biodiversity “hot spots”. Dr. William Hawthorne of the University of Oxford developed a system for identifying such areas using surveys and mapping techniques. These areas can be protected while logging other areas. The system has already been adopted in Ghana, and is being established in other places as well.

With a more complete understanding of how a forest operates and the economic conditions around logging, authorities could analyze the cost of the timber industry to apply these methods. Presumably, practicing more sustainable, less invasive forestry will increase extraction cost. One concern here would be the increase in cost of wood products as result of this cost, but this may spur the development of alternatives.

Forests serve an important ecological role in many different facets. The act of logging forests is an important economic activity that provides society with a much needed resource. Though forests regrow, the need for old growth, extensive and undisturbed forests for many ecological reasons complicates the effort of creating sustainable forestry. The use of economic modelling, in combination with our knowledge of how forest ecosystems operate, could help us to find a way to be able to extract wood and still maintain relatively undisturbed stretches of forests. The development of new technology also offers a way forward, opening up new opportunities to use our forest resources more sustainable and allow future generations to benefit from them as well.

 

Citations

Armstrong, Joseph E. “Are Trees a Nonrenewable Resource or Are They a Renewable Resource?” Madsci, 26 Nov. 2003, http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/2003-11/1069877707.En.r.html.

“Importance of Old-Growth Forests.” Importance of Old-Growth Forests – Old-Growth Forests: Minnesota DNR, Minnesota DNR, www.dnr.state.mn.us/forests_types/oldgrowth/importance.html.

“Article XIV of the New York State Constitution.” Article XIV of the New York State Constitution , New York State DEP, http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/55849.html.

“The Economic Importance of New York’s Forest Based Economy.” Northeast State Foresters Society, 2013. http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/economicimportance2013.pdf

“Balancing Conservation and Commerce in the World’s Forests.” University of Oxford, www.ox.ac.uk/research/research-impact/balancing-conservation-and-commerce-world%E2%80%99s-forests.

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