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It all about the wood

by: Kent Schneider 03/28/09

 

With all things “green” becoming more prevalent today, we thought it was a good time to turn our attention to the wood that makes up the heart of the furnishings we use on a daily basis.  Many of you may have heard the term “sustainable” but may not know what it stands for, how applies to forestry, or why it is important.  What follows is a discussion about sustainable woods including what they are, why they should be considered and which ones you should be keeping an eye out for...both to use and avoid.

 

Forest

 

A Little History

    In the mid 1980’s many non-governmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund began to draw attention to the plight of the tropical rainforests.  It has been estimated that some 60 million indigenous people depend on the world’s tropical rainforests for survival .  Unfortunately natural virgin forest lands have been decreasing at a rate about the size of New York State per year .  As these forests are cut down, either for timber or more often for farmland, many of the unique species of trees that they contain are lost forever and landscapes are altered permanently. In an attempt to stem this tide, several organizations were formed as watchdog and/or overseeing groups.  The best know of these is probably the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) which was formed in 1993.  The stated goal of the FSC reads much like the definition of sustainability itself;


      to help “The world’s forests meet the social, ecological, and economic rights and needs of the present generation without compromising those of future generations”. 


    The organization does this by certifying forest land on a voluntary basis to ensure that it is being “managed” in such a way as to preserve the resource and respect those who work the land.

 What is sustainable about cutting the tree down?

    Does this mean we should not cut any trees down?  Well, yes and no.  While cutting absolutely no trees down would certainly preserve the resource, it is not very practical.  Therefore a method must be developed for taking what we need, while regenerating and leaving what we don’t.  This is where the concept of a “managed forest” comes into play.  I am going to over simplify and shorten the time lengths involved for clarity, but the general idea of a “managed forest” can be thought of as follows:


    Imagine that you have 100 acres of land broken up into ten, 10 acres plots.  Now assume that ten years ago you planted some super fast growing trees that reach maturity in 10 years (so they are now mature).  Under a managed plan, after ten years had elapsed you would have 100 acres of harvestable trees.  Rather than take them all right now, you would cut only 10 acres worth and replant on that 10 acres.  The next year you would move on to the second 10 acre plot, again harvesting only 10 acres worth and replenishing as you left.  After 10 years of harvesting (10 acres at a time) you will have cleared all 100 acres.  On the 11th year you would return to the first plot, which is now mature again and repeat the process.  If managed correctly this cycle should be able to go on forever.

Why are managed forests important?

    So why don’t we just take what we need, then move on and let Mother Nature do her job of replenishing?  There are several considerations that make this practice undesirable.  The first of these is the extinction.  The uncontrolled harvest of popular species may result in the loss of it all together.  A good example of this is Cuban Mahogany, which is all but extinct and available only as a reclaimed wood.  A second reason has to do with the possibility of irreversible environmental impact.  Clearing large swaths of a previously dense, life rich, humid forest can have several significant impacts.  Forests contain the vast majority of all terrestrial life . Unmanaged harvesting of forests risks the destruction of natural biodiversity, which may endanger or exterminate species.  Furthermore, by removing the protective canopy of a forest we expose the ground to the sun.  This can lead to drying of the forest floor.  As the floor continues to dry it becomes more susceptible to erosion and mudslides.  At its extreme this process leads to desertification, which can leave the area barren and uninhabitable.  Another important consideration is global warming.  As much as 20% of all global greenhouse gas is produced by deforestation.  This happens in two ways; the first and most obvious is the release of CO2 produced by the machinery used in felling the timber, the second and more profound is the release of the once sequestered CO2 by the now dead tree.  Trees can accumulate as much as one metric ton of CO2 per acre, per year of life until they reach saturation, which can take 90 years.  In a large stand of trees, this can amount to a tremendous release of greenhouse gas.

What types of wood are sustainable?

    We have discussed how the idea of sustainable woods came to be and why they are important but let’s discuss what kinds of wood are available.  Sustainable woods can be broken down into three general categories: Reclaimed Woods, Managed Forest Woods, and Urban Woods.

Reclaimed Wood

    The “greenest” of all sustainable woods is Reclaimed wood.  Reclaimed wood involves the cutting of no new timber and for that reason is the option with the least environmental impact.  In terms of strict definition, the argument could be made that this is not a truly sustainable source due to the fact that if everyone switched to solely reclaimed wood, we would use it all and have to begin cutting again.  However, from an environmental impact standpoint this is just recycling old wood and preferred whenever possible.  Reclaimed woods often produce furnishings with a great aged look or patina.  They may require extra care on the part of the craftsman and for that reason tend to be more expensive.

Managed Forest Wood

    Managed forest wood can come from either certified or non-certified sources.  Several third party organizations have been established to “certify” that the lumber coming from a particular forest has been harvested in a sustainable manner.  The most widely known of these is probably the FSC (as noted above) but other common programs include; the American Tree Farms Systems, the Canadian Standards Association, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.  Most of these programs are in place to ensure the continued supply of useable timber as well as the overall health of the forest.  However, the absence of one of these certifications does not necessarily indicate that the wood has been harvested in a reckless or unsustainable manner.  Due to the high value of property in North America, most timberland is managed regardless of certification to ensure that its value remains for generations to come.  Certified sources of most common North American species (see chart 1 below) can be readily found and should be used if possible but it is not always a necessity.  Tropical Hardwoods are another story.  The demand for exotic tropical hardwood has, in many areas, resulted in rapid indiscriminant clear cutting, which can destroy entire eco systems if it is not abated.  Certified sources of many of these woods are available and should be sought to prevent further damage.  While not without exceptions, our research tended to show that woods from Africa and South America should be used with caution. If you have a question about a particular species, it is always best to check with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species database (CITES).  CITES breaks endangered species into three categories depending on the threat, with level I being critical and close to extinction, level II being under pressure and in need of management, and level III being on a watch list.  Below is a list of commonly used woods and their threat level along with a second list of woods that should be used with caution (chart 2). 

Commonly used North American Woods (chart 1)

Common name of Species

Where it Grows

Sustainability

Red Maple

East Coast of North America

Certified sources are available but the wood is plentiful and not considered in danger.

Sugar Maple

North America

Abundantly available in North America.  Certification not required.

Red Alder

West Coast of North America

Fast growing and readily available, no sustainability issues

Yellow Birch

North America

No current sustainability issues

California Cedar

West Coast of United States

No current sustainability issues

Hickory

East Coast of United States

Certified sources are available but no signs of threat.

American Beech

North America

Widely available, no current sustainability issues.

White Ash

North America

Widely available, no current sustainability issues.

Butternut

East Coast of United States

Widely available, no current sustainability issues.

Black Walnut

North America

Widely available but could be under pressure.  Certified sources are available and may be preferable.  Certified sources are available and may be preferable.

Spruce

North Western United States

Not currently listed as endangered but under pressure.

Yellow Pine

Southern United States

Widely available, no current sustainability issues.

American Cherry

North America

Certified sources are available.

Douglas Fir

West Coast of United States

No danger

White Oak

North America

Possible bio diversity issues but plentiful and available as a certified lumber.

Red Oak

North America

No current sustainability issues

Red Cedar

North America

Not endangered but some concerns exist about regeneration.  Look for certified sources.

Hemlock

North America

Widely available, no current sustainability issues.

American Elm

North America

Widely available, no current sustainability issues.

Poplar

North America

No current sustainability issues

 

Wood to watch out for (chart 2)

Common name of Species

Where it Grows

Sustainability

West Indian Cedar

South America, Florida, West Indies

Heavily exploited, look for Certified sources

Indian Rosewood

India

Over exploited, look for plantation grown

Brazilian Rosewood

Brazil

Facing extinction, use with caution from known sources.

Cocobolo

Central America

Vulnerable and in short supply.

African Ebony

Africa

Increasingly rare. Listed as endangered. No Certified supplies found.

Ironwood

Central America

Endangered, use with great caution

African Tigerwood (African Walnut)

African

Vulnerable , look for certified sources

Zebrawood

Africa

Vulnerable

Wenge

Africa

Endangered

African Teak

Africa

Risk of Extinction, use with caution.

African Paduak

Africa

Vulnerable but not yet listed

African Mahogany

Africa

Vulnerable

Cuban Mahogany

South America

Pretty much extinct

African Cherry

Africa

Endangered

American Mahogany

Central and South America

Vulnerable and listed on CITES. Use certified sources only.

Teak

Southeast Asia

Not listed as endangered but vulnerable, look for plantation grown sources.

 

Urban Woods

    The last category of sustainable wood is Urban Wood.  Urban wood is a term used to reference hardwood that is collected rather than harvested from urban areas, often as a result of a tree falling in a storm or being removed due to disease.  Urban woods are a great alternative and can often be found from specialty suppliers.  There are a few furniture producers recently emerging who specialize in urban wood, but manufacture is generally regional.

 

What it all means

 

    As Americans continue to buy and furnish homes, our demand for wood will continue to be strong.  In fact between 1985 and 2005 the US demand for lumber increased by as much as 12% according the US forestry service.  For a variety of reasons, including high land value, governmental policy and increased public awareness the United States has managed its forests well, having had essentially the same lumber production since the late 1980’s.  In order to fill the gap between supply and demand we have relied on imports as well as substitute products and the more efficient use of the timber we do have.  While North America has largely managed its valuable species, there are many parts of the world where resource sustainability has not been as prevalent.  The tropical rainforests have been hit particularly hard by unsafe harvesting practices.  When considering woods for home furnishings or home projects ask questions as to the origin of the wood.  Use certified wood sources where the option is readily available.  If the wood you are considering is native to North America, chances are that it is safe to use.  Be cautious when looking at exotics and/or tropical hardwoods.  When in doubt consult the CITES database to check on the status of the wood or ask your supplier for sustainable alternatives.  This diligence will preserve our forests and allow future generations to utilize and enjoy these woods.

 

Sources


 


 


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