The best way to preserve forests? Use trees.
Regardless of your political ideology or where you fall on the environmental spectrum, we can agree on one thing: American public land needs healthy forests and the more public and private land we can dedicate to sustainable growing trees, the better our environment will be.
Conversations surrounding forest management can quickly turn combative, as conservationists advocate for active forest management, but some environmentalists push for a hands-off approach. The solution to this impasse is simple, albeit counterintuitive. If we want more trees, we should all be using more products made from trees.
The key to keeping forests healthy and resilient is strong demand for forest products – coupled with a commitment to replant more trees than we harvest.
It’s Economics 101. Additional demand for wood building materials, paper and bioenergy raises the value landowners receive from keeping their land as managed forests. If you are a private landowner growing trees, and you are making money when you sell those trees, you’ll keep planting more trees.
Conversely, if no one is buying your trees, or if you can’t make a profit, you will stop growing them and use your land to make money in some other way. You might grow a different crop, or sell your land for development.
More and more people are recognizing that the U.S. has an incredible opportunity to drive a win-win solution across several industries that use wood products:
- Wood Buildings. Architects are increasingly turning to innovative mass timber products in various types of buildings. By some estimates, the near-term use of wood technologies in buildings seven to 15 stories tall could have the same emissions control effect as taking more than 2 million cars off the road for one year.
- Paper and Packaging. We’ve all seen the pictures of plastic waste swirling in our oceans or washing up on our shores. Many plastic products, especially single-use products, can be replaced easily with renewable and recyclable paper substitutes (think milk cartons versus plastic jugs, or paper shopping bags).
- Renewable Wood Energy. Bioenergy must be part of an all-in strategy to reduce emissions and develop alternative fuels. Other countries are ahead of us here. In Europe, for example, biomass represents more than 60 percent of renewable energy consumption and is widely seen as part of the strategy for meeting ambitious carbon reduction goals.
Most importantly, these industries all work together. Landowners sell the most valuable part of the tree for wood products such as 2x4s. They use residuals and other parts of the tree, like tops, limbs or bark, to make paper, packaging, or wood pellets for energy. Each of these markets is a critical component to landowners’ ability to make a profit by growing trees.
Of course, this model is only effective if landowners are replanting trees, which is exactly what’s happening. Last year, independent landowners planted hundreds of millions of trees. Additionally, many property owners operate under third-party certification standards, like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, that require replanting.
Government data demonstrates the benefits of a healthy forest products market. According to the USDA, from 1953 to 2011, in a time of expanding population and increasing demand for forest products, the total volume of trees grown in the U.S. southeast increased by 50 percent. Today, in this region, private forest owners are growing 40 percent more wood than they remove every year.
While some suggest a tradeoff between the environment and the economy, the forest products sector demonstrates we can have both. Working forests support 2.4 million jobs in the U.S., including 52,000 in Arkansas and 32,000 in my district alone.
We need to work together to steward our country’s abundant natural resources. Working forests provide long-term carbon storage and outdoor recreation, and they create profitable jobs and products we use every day. I remain committed to promoting smart policies and products that help this important industry thrive and invite you to join me.
Congressman Westerman represents Arkansas’ fourth district. He has a master's degree in forestry from Yale University and is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Working Forests.