The DIY movement has firmly established itself, particularly when it comes to home improvement. On cable television, HGTV and the DIY Network feature non-stop programming on renovations that cover a range of projects and budgets. A common element in many of the renovations is wood. People want it in their homes whether in the form of hardwood floors, high end kitchen cabinets, or a durable table. In my own home, we have a coffee table that we've had for 15 years. The wood bears the marks of the lives that have been lived around it—including a few watermarks since I am terrible about using coasters—and occasionally we talk about replacing it, but we never do. It has character. And it's a solid wooden table—we'd be crazy to give it up.
Anyone who has ever tried to light a fire knows that there are two types of wood: softwoods and hardwoods. For fires, hardwoods will burn hotter and longer—important factors when you're trying to ward off the chill—while softwoods will ignite more easily so it makes excellent kindling. Softwoods are the source of about 80% of the world’s lumber so when we talk about wood, more often than not, we're talking about softwoods. These woods include cedars, Douglas firs, cypresses, firs, junipers, kauris, larches, pines, hemlocks, redwoods, spruces, and yews. The wood from these trees tends to be more malleable. However, the softwood/hardwood division is not concrete: some softwoods are harder than some hardwoods. The Douglas fir and the yew listed above, for example, are actually mechanically harder than several hardwoods. In general, softwoods tend to be far less expensive in comparison to hardwoods and are used more frequently in construction.
Wood has played an important role in the history of civilization. Humans have used it for fuel, building materials, furniture, paper, tools, weapons, and more. And demand for wood continues to increase annually, spurring conflicts between neighboring states over control of shared resources. Our relationship to this resource has remained relatively unchanged over time, and our methods of developing and managing woodlands continue to rely on tried and true techniques established by early civilizations. So perhaps this is why we take it for granted: wood has long been a part of our lives, and we probably can't really imagine it not being there.
The United States and the world’s timber supply
Strong states and nations have typically had access to a generous timber supply that they draw upon liberally to further their own development. These fortunate states have followed a similar pattern in the treatment of their lumber resources. First, they use their own virgin forests. Then they begin to barter with neighbors, and trade relations may be established for that purpose. Finally, they manage to cultivate timber for consumption, but may continue to import materials to supplement their stores from countries still possessing a lumber surplus. This is the story in the lumber trade that echoes over centuries, from India to the Americas. It perpetuates a cycle of diminished resources that often leaves behind a trail of disenchantment and bitterness between industry and the citizens of the state or nation.
The United States is still able to harvest timber from its own supply, but these resources are quickly being exhausted. To initial settlers in the seventeenth century, America seemed to be an endless forest—820 million acres to be exact. The export of timber products began in the early days of the Atlantic colonies, for several generations the forest was a barrier to settlement and migration rather than an economic resource. A timber shortage seemed impossible.
Lumber was chiefly transported by water: Logs moved down the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Boston, from the upper Hudson to New York, and from the shores of the Great Lakes into Buffalo and Chicago. With Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania leading lumber production and waterways being used to transport materials, lumber was cheap in the major markets of the country. Softwoods were used for picket fences, boardwalks, paving blocks, windmills, pails, tubs, farm implements, and furniture. However, once these stores were depleted, and lumber manufacturing moved first to the Lake States and then to the South and then to the Pacific Coast, railways and trucks were increasingly required which increased the costs for the manufacturers and the consumers. The rise of overland transport also increased competition for the foresters and lumber processors because it opened the markets to each other—eastern lumber markets were made available to western producers, and vice versa. The lumber market appeared to be expanding.
Following World War II, the Assistant Chief of the U.S. Forest Service E.I. Kotok suggested that America would be viewed as a source of timber for those European and Asian countries damaged by the war. He cautioned against accepting this responsibility and drew attention that American consumption of softwoods had been dampened by the war efforts and would quickly rebound as the nation looked toward development once more. During the war, lumber had been designated a “critical” war material, and was consigned to cantonments, crating, dunnage, pallets, and general wartime construction. He estimated that Europe may need as much as six to ten billion board feet per year, and stressed that in the United States, millions of houses and farm buildings needed to be built and/or renovated.
But the needs of the war-worn nations bore consideration. Who did the North American forests belong to? Were they the sole possession of North America? Or were they a world resource that was meant to be shared with those countries in need? Kotok stressed the need to manage the forest resources so that all could benefit. Healthy forest economies could provide more than timber products—for example, if foreign nations needed agricultural products, the United States could provide these commodities as well. Kotok could see little that the United States would not be able to provide to the redeveloping world that could not be aided by the management of the North American lumber supply.
This strategy contributed to the position of the United States as a powerful leader following World War II. In emphasizing end-use forest products, manufacturers increased their offerings beyond lumber—both at home and abroad—to include beams, arches, prefinished paneling, insulation board, pre-primed siding, and precut pieces for furniture and toys. Kotok’s caution seems well advised in light of the experience of developing nations like Haiti and much of Southeastern Asia. These areas have harvested their forests to meet the demands of external countries to the detriment of the forest industry and development within the nation, reaping devastating ecological change in the process.
The impact of deforestation
Even as developing nations cut the softwoods under their control to participate in the global trade of this resource, it should be noted that the areas where these trees grow would be cleared in the course of development. In an ideal relationship, lumber trade should feed capital back into the nation to assist in sustained-yield practices. However, demand usually outstrips production—both internally and externally.
For example, growing populations need expanded areas for food activities, so forests are cleared for crops and ranching. Annual burnings often prevent forest regrowth, as does grazing by sheep, goats, and cattle. Wood fuels still remain widely used for domestic cooking and heating, brewing, baking, and brick making. And as oil prices rise, more people may be inclined to look to wood for fuel.
Logging itself depletes forest stocks before they can be replenished. Regulated timber harvesting should not permanently damage the forest, but in many smaller nations, timber extraction is not monitored. And as mentioned previously, without proper support any state management program is bound to fail—sustained-yield practices require support from local groups to be effective.
Deforestation is therefore associated with rising population and the expansion of agriculture, and in the long-term harvesting of wood for fuel and export. It is a common phenomenon in developing countries, and one that places them in economic peril as they deplete their source of capital. Developing countries have increasingly developed programs in response to international pressure to preserve their resources and establish national priorities. However, these efforts have had mixed degrees of success: Forest reserves still suffer from illegal cutting and grazing, and local groups lack an understanding about soil conditions and rainfall requirements.
Supply and demand
Though forests are widely distributed, they are not equitably distributed, and this has caused some dispute over the management, availability, and trade concerning forest resources. As evidenced by the case of the Indian forests under colonial rule, conflicts concerning these resources have long been a part of the history of lumber trade. The most recent and influential concerns the trade dispute between the United States and Canada.
As the North American timber supplies diminish, the nation has turned increasingly to British Columbia for wood. North American foresters have argued that the Canadian lumber industry is unfairly subsidized by the federal and provincial governments. This allows the price charged to harvest timber to be set by legislation rather than competitively, and in 1982 the U.S. claimed these practices undermined the market prices which tipped the scales commercially to Canada.
This trade dispute has lingered for 24 years. In 1996, the United States and Canada reached a five year trade agreement called the Softwood Lumber Agreement (SLA). The SLA limited Canadian exports to 14.7 billion board feet per year. The agreement expired on April 2, 2001 and neither party was able to reach an agreement for renewal. In fact, the United States renewed its request for tariffs, maintaining the United States lumber industry was under threat from the subsidized Canadian industry. The dispute continued anew until February 2009 when the London Court of International Arbitration ruled that Canada was in breach of the SLA because quotas had not been calculated properly during January-June 2007. The London Court of International Arbitration ordered sawmills in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan to pay an additional 10 per cent export charge.
The future of softwoods
Given the dwindling reserves of softwoods, it is imperative the alternatives be found to meet our needs and further development. One potential answer to an alternative has been found by working with more abundant materials previously regarded as unusable, or as “weed” species to create structural particle board (SPB). SPB is a reconstituted wood panel that is suitable for structural and exterior construction, which means it can be substituted for construction-grade plywood. It can be made from soft or low density hardwoods instead of the greatly diminished softwood supplies.
It’s possible that the growth of SPB may help reinvigorate lumber industries in places that have had to extensively rely on imports to sustain their lumber needs. In fact, though the early development and distribution of SPB has largely been controlled by the United States and Canada, SPB production has spread to other countries in Europe and Asia. SPB has a low density and is resistant to damage, which may help nations that can acquire a surplus achieve an influential trade status. At the same time, the focus on SPB may allow depleted woodlands to make a recovery if they are managed properly.
Allen, Julia C., and Douglas E. Barnes. “The Causes of Deforestation in Developing Countries.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 75(2) (June 1985): 163-184.
Bengston, David N., Hans M. Gregersen, and John Haygreen. “Seesawing Across the Forty-Ninth Parallel: The International Diffusion of a Wood-Based Technology.” Journal of Forest History 32(2) (April 1988): 82-88.
Greeley, W.B. “The Relation of Geography to Timber Supply.” Economic Geography 1(1) (March 1925): 1-14.
Guha, Ramachandra. “The Prehistory of Community Forestry in India.” Environmental History 6(2) (April 2001): 213-238.
Kohlmeyer, Fred W. “Lumber Distribution and Marketing in the United States.” Journal of Forest History 27(2) (April 1983): 86-91.
Kotok, E. I. “America’s Role in Meeting World Timber Needs.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 89(2) (July 1945): 418-422.
Streyffert, Thorsten. “Softwood Resources of Europe.” Economic Geography 10(1) (January 1934): 1-13.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.