If you think timber operations and paper mills cause deforestation, consider this finding from a new U.S. Forest Service study of Southern forests: “Strong timber markets encourage retaining forests rather than converting them to other land uses.”
“Strong timber markets have encouraged forest landowners to keep their forests and forest cover rather than convert them to other uses. Our forecast suggests that the strongest timber markets lead to the least forest losses,” David Wear, a Forest Service economist, said last week at a press conference announcing the findings of the Southern Forest Futures Project. Wear co-led the team of 40 scientists and analysts that produced the report.
“The South’s timber harvesting expanded faster than the Nation’s from the 1950s to 1990s” because of "a technology-driven shift toward outdoor use of treated southern pine lumber,” growth in paper manufacturing, and restrictions on harvesting from public lands in the West, the report says.
The states of the former Confederacy produce 60% of the nation’s timber harvest, according to the report. If the South were considered a separate country (as a few old fellas still insist), it would be the largest timber producer in the world.
“From the 1960s to the 1990s, the period in which timber harvesting more than doubled, the biomass in southern forests also grew steadily, reflecting high growth rates,” according to the report. The increase in biomass has slowed in recent years as timber harvesting declined slightly.
“Under most futures [scenarios] considered, the carbon fixed in the South’s forests and their soils reaches a maximum between 2020 and 2030 and then declines through 2060. Futures with stronger timber markets yield somewhat more carbon but fail to completely offset the carbon losses dominated by land use changes.”
Those “land-use changes” mostly have to do with the effects of spreading urbanization. Home building causes deforestation not so much from the trees cut to make 2-by-4s as from the trees cleared to make way for new developments.
“Our results indicate that urbanization affects forest area but can be offset by market futures that place higher values on forest uses. This logic extends to any other source of forest values, including payments for nontimber forest products and crucial ecosystem services. Often cited examples are watershed protection, sequestration of atmospheric carbon, and habitat protection.”
There’s also a downside to strong timber markets: “Forest landowners have shown a strong propensity to convert naturally regenerated forests to planted pines after harvesting, especially in the Coastal Plain, an investment response that is strongly linked to the condition of forest product markets.”
Often referred to as tree plantations, land dedicated to planted pines constitutes 19% of Southern forests, a number that will rise to 24% to 36% by 2060, the report predicts. Wood-based bio-energy is more likely to cause the kind of demand leading to additional planted pine than are traditional timber and paper production, it adds.