Society of American Foresters

Northwest Regions

A Role for Contemporary Forestry in the Quest for Sustainability

By Anthony S. Davis

I’m often asked, “Why do people cut down trees?”

The short answer is to address societal demands. Whether for fire safety, habitat management, or supply wood products, the question goes far beyond an economic explanation. Why do we cut down trees is a powerful question in an era where we speak daily of our quest for sustainability. We’ve seen bans on plastic bags or straws, developed electric cars, and certified buildings based on environmental standards. However, collectively, we haven’t carefully considered the role forestry can play in creating a sustainable society.

We interwove human settlement with the harvesting of trees as building materials or fuelwood, managing forests for habitat and food production, advancing societies, modern and ancient. As one can imagine, forest management practices have changed dramatically over the years and continue to do so. With discoveries and an increasing knowledge of the multiple values forests provide, it is incumbent on Oregon State University, the Oregon Forest Research Laboratory, and our peers to lead and deliver research, teaching, and outreach that furthers our ability to advance science-based management and conservation of forest ecosystems.

Globally, we use more wood now than ever before, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimating a 30% increase in wood production between 1977 and 2017. With population growth continuing, there is no indication that wood demand is going to decrease. People are resource consumers and, as such should be responsible for knowing how wood is used, produced, and where it came from. Contemporary forest management can provide for society's needs while maintaining ecosystem health and should be looked to as an alternative to simply increased steel and concrete consumption (~280% and ~400% over that same period).

Achieving this won't be easy, but we can accomplish this critical goal.

Accepting this responsibility starts with an engaged and informed dialogue about where wood supply comes from. Built into that dialogue are critical assessments of how our demand for wood products affects forest ecosystems, how we can reduce waste and increase value, and how forestry can be more socially just. We must bring constituents to the table who are willing to look at multi-generational impacts and consider the problematic idea that we cannot "have it all" by maximizing all values from the same parcels of land. Collaboration is critical to providing the desired benefits in balance.

Oregon is the ideal place to rise to this challenge, and the OSU College of Forestry aims to lead in demonstrating how multiple value management can meet society’s sustainable goals. Forests are the source of incalculable value. They deliver recreation opportunities, provide forest products, and influence where people choose to live. They support our rural communities and provide access to living and stable wages. They house a diversity of species and processes crucial to healthy ecosystems, inspire the most cherished stories, and evolve in response to shifts in land use and a changing climate. Forests drive the provision of clean air, water, and jobs, and support carbon balance. 

Figure 1.Changes in harvest over time. Oregon wood production
(Source: OFRI) and global wood production (source: FAO).

The shift in the management of Oregon's forests over the past fifty years is apparent by comparing global vs. Oregon's wood production (Figure 1). The transition through the Northwest Forest Plan resulted in significantly lower timber harvest than before. In exchange, non-timber values should continue to grow in the quantity produced. The concern I see is we failed to impact consumer behavior, and instead have been driven to look for materials that cost less to produce, which in turn results in an increase in harvesting in regions where such activities contribute to a loss of global forest cover and the conversion of forests to plantations of non-native tree species. We’ve outsourced supply to meet our demand with a giant “not in my backyard” approach. We should do better.

With the broad benefits of well-managed forests in mind and the known increasing demand for wood products, forest landscapes should provide a sustainable source of timber while supporting the non-timber values supplied in that same area. Through the stewardship of a landscape consisting of reserves, low-intensity managed forests, and tree-farm stands intended for timber production, we can sustain economies and ecosystems. Not every parcel of land provides all values, but with thoughtful management across diverse ownerships and objectives, the broader landscape will.

A landscape of this nature will allow cities to renew and grow in an ecologically sound manner. Innovation in timber construction provides a pathway for cities to build with wood, reaching new heights and uses previously unseen while also advancing earthquake resilience and aesthetics. Embracing a forest landscape that enables forests to deliver the workload of providing building materials of known environmental pedigree allows the “forest-to-frame” parallel with the “farm-to-table” movement of modern agriculture to grow. We are often worried about where the food we eat comes from, should we not be similarly concerned about the houses we live in?

Society stands at a point when sustainability is – or should be – a daily consideration and reflected in the choices each individual makes. Oregon can be a leader in advancing global forest management practices that reflect a commitment to supporting local economies and ecosystems. To do so will require the development of innovative forest management practices supported by research and tested, not just in small plots, but at a scale that requires partnerships across ownerships. We have a personal choice and an opportunity for meaningful actions to be informed by science and discoveries yet to be made. We can increase the economic value and potential use of every tree harvested.

These actions will show the world Oregon’s commitment to sustainable development, the ethical provision of wood, and dedication to multiple-use management practices. This approach requires that practices adapt as new information becomes available. In an era where the demand for wood products will continue to increase, it ensures that important decisions are made and consider the balance and trade-offs between conservation, timber production, and other forest uses. Contemporary forestry provides an opportunity to sustain local economies, support and conserve vital ecosystems, and improve the environmental footprint of built environments.

As a world-renowned institution dedicated to improving our forests, economies, and communities for all Oregonians, the OSU College of Forestry and the Oregon Forest Research Laboratory intend to rise and meet this grand challenge.