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What drives the forest products marketplace?
You, the buyer, do.
Installing a new wood floor? Kretz Lumber of Antigo sells hard maple flooring harvested from well-managed forests of Wisconsin and Michigan. From another supplier, however, you could buy flooring made of tropical Indonesian merbau trees, alleged to have been logged illegally.
Looking for a sleek hall table? A popular retail website offers one handcrafted from the endangered makore wood, also known as cherry mahogany, found in the wet evergreen rainforest of West Africa. But from the same store, you can find one made from maple, a common species in Wisconsin. Or you might be considering one made from metal or plastic.
The birth and death of industries and forests rides on thousands of individual decisions like these. Advocates of "intelligent consumption" believe that buyers should know the environmental impact (the "eco-print") of a particular product to help guide them to wiser choices.
When Aldo Leopold worked at the Forest Service's Forest Products Lab at Madison in 1928, he wrote of the need for responsible consumption. "The American public for many years has been abusing the wasteful lumberman. A public which lives in wooden houses should be careful about throwing stones at lumbermen, even wasteful ones, until it has learned how its own arbitrary demands as to kinds and qualities of lumber, help cause the waste which it decries."
The Intelligent Consumption Project (ICP), an effort of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters and the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, explores the role that informed consumer choices can play in shaping conservation policy, practice and ultimately our landscape. The expected increase in the world's population will present unprecedented challenges. According to the ICP, per capita wood consumption in the United States is twice the average for other developed countries and roughly three times the worldwide average.
Given population trends, forest ecosystems will be pressured even in the absence of increased consumption. Sharp reductions in forestland per capita virtually ensure escalating conflict over forest uses. Yet, wood remains a good consumer choice because it is renewable and available in many species and sizes. It has a high ratio of strength to weight and is durable. Dry wood is insulating, resists oxidation and other corrosive agents, and can be treated with preservatives and fire retardants. The grain patterns make it aesthetically pleasing and wood may be remodeled, repaired and has a high salvage value.
Trees resprout much faster when logging is properly done. The same cannot be said of coal, oil, or nonrenewable metals mined from the ground. Once excavated, a copper mine sits empty forever. Manufacturing wood products also generates less air and water pollution. According to the Temperate Forest Foundation, as a building material, steel and concrete require 2.4 times and 1.7 times more energy than wood. Respectively, they also produce 1.42 times and 1.67 times more airborne emissions.
Stuart Stotts, a Madison resident and Vernon County landowner, says that he was once skittish about logging mainly because of the esthetic damage that is so immediately visible. But no more, he says.
"We live in houses made of wood. I play a wooden guitar," he says. "The wood has to come from somewhere. It might as well be Wisconsin."
In late 2005, Stotts harvested 10 acres of fully mature red oak, aspen and bitternut hickory according to sustainable forestry and modern logging principles. The harvest, conducted on 10 of his 45 wooded acres, was done according to a personalized management plan created by a professional forester, a deal in which Stotts agreed to tend the woods properly – including periodic tree thinnings – in exchange for property tax relief. The felled trees are being sold to a sawmill and can be certified as sustainably grown.
"Good management is preferable to no management," Stotts says. "When I look at places that have been [managed sustainably], they're beautiful," he says. "So there's nothing wrong with the aesthetics, except in the short term. In the long run, you get bigger trees, and straighter trees."
Natasha Kassulke is associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. Katherine Esposito writes about environmental issues for WNR.