It was September 1979 when I first visited Show Low, Ariz. After I’d worked in Racine, Wis., for a year and a half as the assistant product manager of Raid Insecticides, Johnson Wax Co. sent me to Phoenix for six months of sales training. My sales territory included Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, and part of the mountainous region to the northeast that includes Show Low.
Maybe you’ve heard Show Low mentioned in connection with the 500 square mile wildfire that raged in June. It was the largest fire in Arizona history, and a tragedy for the beautiful countryside in the Show Low area.
Most people agree that the thick forest lands that built up over many years created dangerous conditions that were bound to result in a catastrophic wildfire of historic proportion. But there is not agreement about what should be done about thick forestlands.
Beginning in the 1940s, Smokey the Bear was the symbol of government policy to suppress forest fires. And he worked. Tree densities in federal forests increased five- to tenfold. Trouble is, the denser forests became dangerous. More recently, the government employed “controlled” burning that simulated the natural result of a lightning strike and cleared out large areas for renewal. Sometimes those fires burn out of control, devastating huge areas.
Meanwhile, government and some interest groups successfully advocated prohibitions against logging in “old-growth” and national forests. Logging, they argued, risks impoverishing the soil, destroying animal habitat, limiting recreation, and spoiling the beauty of mature forestlands.
But logging can be done in a responsible way such that trees are harvested in a manner that maintains soil fertility; balances human and animal needs; maintains large, beautiful areas for recreation; and clears brush and fallen logs to the degree appropriate for fire safety. Those provisions can and should be required for logging on public lands. And responsible logging of national forests also can increase the supply of wood, lower prices, and make homes more affordable for people. So why not allow more logging on public lands?
The low point for U.S. forests was about 1900. Since then, over 100 billion trees have been planted in our country on commercial forestlands alone. Today forestlands cover over one-third of the U.S. Since the 1950s, six trees have been planted for every one harvested.
Mature forests are not only susceptible to insect infestation; they also absorb much less carbon dioxide than younger trees. Young tree forests are the key to maintaining oxygen in our atmosphere. Wood is not only a renewable resource, but regular logging can help both the health of our forests and our atmosphere.
My father-in-law lives in the heavily forested Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Intellectually, he understands that wood is a renewable resource and is willing to consider the premise that logging can improve the health of a forest. But he also says, “If I look out my window and see open space instead of forest, I’m not going to be happy!” That’s understandable. Softwoods and many hardwoods don’t tolerate shade, so clear cutting is necessary for regeneration. Fortunately most logging today employs a selective cutting technique that results in a mosaic of open space, old growth, and young growth forest. That maintains biodiversity and forest health while preserving the natural beauty of an ever-changing landscape.
Most of what we hear in the news about wood relates to softwoods like pine. In 1999, the U.S. had 450 million cubic feet of growing softwood timberlands—up 4 percent since the benchmark year 1952. Government regulations have a profound effect since 52 percent of softwoods are on public lands. To the extent the building industry uses wood, it is primarily softwood.
It’s odd to hear some people who claim to be environmentalists advocate the use of steel, aluminum, concrete, and plastics instead of wood. Steel, aluminum, and concrete release significant amounts of carbon dioxide and various air pollutants in the manufacturing process. A drive from Michigan through Gary, Ind., is a great reminder of the odorous air pollution caused by steel production. Then there’s plastic. The oil used to produce plastic is a finite, scarce resource. And oil extraction is a pretty ugly process itself.
By contrast, wood processing requires very little energy. For example, from raw material extraction to finished product, the energy input is 70 times higher for a ton of aluminum than for a ton of lumber; 17 times higher for steel and 3 times higher for brick and concrete. Wood is an environmentally preferable material because it is natural, organic, renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable.
If we care about the environment, we’ll encourage increases in responsible logging. By boosting logging, we will not only improve the environment, but we’ll help reduce both housing prices as well as conflagrations like the one in Show Low.