Tree cutting

For decades, forestry outreach has been trying to encourage private forest owners to manage their forestlands.

Human encroachment into forest lands is one of the major forest threats. Photo credit: Bill Cook l MSU Extension

Human encroachment into forest lands is one of the major forest threats. Photo credit: Bill Cook l MSU Extension

For decades, forestry outreach has been trying to encourage private forest owners to manage their forestlands. Perhaps the biggest hurdle might be convincing people that tree cutting can be a good practice. Joining the bandwagon against tree cutting seems to be popular and the “politically correct” thing to do, especially considering that most people no longer live anywhere close to the land. However, let’s examine the practice a bit further.

Everyone is a major consumer of wood, which comes in hundreds of forms such as lumber, paper, chemicals, foods, clothing and more. Emerging technologies are making wood an increasingly feasible source of clean and renewable energy, especially district heating and cooling. Few people are willing to do “without,” so that means our increasing daily supply of wood (4-5 pounds) has to come from somewhere.

Imagine living without wood. Start with surrendering such commonplace products like toilet paper and tissues. Give up the books, posters, newspapers and other reading materials. Much of your furniture has wood in it. Your house is largely made from wood. The wood came from a forest somewhere and it is better for it to be domestic than to come from elsewhere.

Rolls of high quality maple veneer made in Michigan.

Rolls of high quality maple veneer made in Michigan. Photo credit: Bill Cook

You can forget about anything electric, as few people receive power that has not been transported over wooden utility poles.

Nearly everything you buy comes in packaging that contains cardboard, boxes, pallets, crates or dunnage (the wooden pieces used to keep goods from moving around on ships). 

The real kicker for many of us would be giving up coffee, chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla. Hmmm. Now we are getting more serious.

Next time you might grumble about tree cutting somewhere, think what our lives might be without wood. We all need wood. We all need good forestry. We do not necessarily need to know a lot about it (although it is really quite interesting) but we should encourage and allow the professionals to provide guidance and advice. You trust your doctor, don’t you? Or the folks that manage your retirement investments?

Cellulose fiber from wood that is used to manufacture cloth.

Cellulose fiber from wood that is used to manufacture cloth. Photo credit: Bill Cook

Wood is one of those commodities that flow around the world largely unnoticed. Yet, for hundreds of years, it has been one of the most-traded raw materials. Wood has played a significant role in the success, and failure, of entire civilizations, including ours. Historical geographer Michael Williams has written a couple of insightful books on the topic.

It is hard to over-emphasize the importance of wood, although few people think much about wood and wood products. We lead busy lives.

There are few ecologically valid reasons to avoid timber harvest. Cutting trees provides for regeneration, improved habitat for many species, maintains forest health, and helps us shape forests for the future. For forest owners, it does all this while providing revenue. The story is an exciting one for those that listen.

Fuel supply for a multi-building district heating and cooling system.

Fuel supply for a multi-building district heating and cooling system. Photo credit: Bill Cook

Harvesting, processing and manufacturing products from wood carries the lowest environmental cost of any raw material. So, substituting a wood product with some other material in order to “save a tree” is actually ecologically unfriendly. Good ideas are not always intuitively obvious.

Michigan has one of the greatest annual increases of wood volume in the nation. We have grown more wood nearly every year since the great logging era of a century ago. We have one of the largest forests among the 50 states. Yet, Michigan is a net wood importer. So is the United States. We import wood from other states and foreign countries. Many countries do not have the ecological protection infrastructure that we do. Importing wood raises questions of self-dependence, global sustainability and social justice. Maybe the best way to save the rainforest is to manage and harvest our back forty.

Forest operations, loading sorted products for transport.

Forest operations, loading sorted products for transport. Photo credit: Bill Cook

How in the world will Michigan be able to create a “greener” bio-based economy if people will not allow trees to be harvested and regenerated?

The Michigan ownership with the greatest accumulation of volume is owned by individuals and families. Nearly 50 percent of Michigan’s forest falls into this category. Yet, across the Lake States, this category is the least productive, at least in terms of fiber supply. Landowner reluctance to harvest puts increasing pressure on public and corporate forests, as well as those forests outside our borders.

Are the decisions made by private owners sustainable? Good stewardship? Now, these are good questions with complex answers, depending upon how somebody defines sustainable or good. In this nation of private property, each owner has decision-making authority and responsibility. Somewhere in this mix lies an ethical and practical quagmire. It is not a particularly easy dilemma. 

Wood-fueled maple syrup operation.

Wood-fueled maple syrup operation. Photo credit: Bill Cook

While forest management involves a great deal of well-established science, the important questions may very well lie beyond the science. What is right? What is self-serving? How will our grandchildren fare? From where will our future supply of wood come? Will our decisions of today compromise our future? Will visual quality continue to win the day over sustainability? Does fiction have more to do with action (or inaction) than fact?

According to Michigan State Unviersity Extension, these private forest lands hold the key to future economic, social and environmental stability. Yet, these forests are becoming increasingly unavailable to management and wood supply. The world is full of opportunities for good people to do good things and help correct bad situations. Tree cutting is just not one of those bad situations.

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