Exploring Pennsylvania's Sustainable Forests

Feb. 1, 2003
Robert Nieminen

There's more to responsible forest management than meets the eye.

When you think of specifying "green" building materials for a commercial or residential project, American hardwoods may not be among the first things that come to mind. And with all the "greenwash" cropping up these days from companies that tout the environmental benefits of their products over others, it can be increasingly difficult to tell the forest for the trees, so to speak.However, one thing is certain: the vast majority of American hardwoods (oak, hickory, walnut, poplar, birch and maple, to name a few) that are grown in Pennsylvania's forests are, by definition, sustainable, given that they are growing at two times the rate at which they are being harvested, according to the Hardwood Manufacturers Association. With the largest inventory of hardwood in the United States (roughly 17 million acres), many of Pennsylvania's forests are a model of what responsible management and best practices can do to ensure that future generations will have the materials they need for building, the space they desire for recreation and the quality of air and water they deserve.What Is Sustainable Forestry?Much like the generally-accepted definition of "sustainability," the term, when applied to forest management, implies the same—caring for and managing forests to provide the natural resources, such as wood and clean water, we need now and in the future. But within that definition are shades of meaning as diverse as the species of trees found in the forest. According to Pennsylvania State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, people view sustainable forestry in a number of different ways. A landowner, for example, might see sustainability as earning an income from timber while passing on the land to his heirs in good condition—a legitimate concern in Pennsylvania, where almost 70 percent of its 17 million acres of forest land are privately owned. A logger, on the other hand, may view sustainable forestry as protecting the trees left in a forest for regeneration (ensuring future business) or constructing roads properly with culverts so as to prevent soil from washing into streams or wet areas, thereby protecting aquatic life. A forester might be concerned with protecting the forest from wildfire, pests and diseases, and preserving forests that are unique or special.What many people don't realize, however, is that sustainable forestry is being practiced far more so than is publicized. Most designers and architects look to independent certification organizations, such as FSC, SFI or American Tree Farm, to ensure that the wood they specify has been harvested responsibly. However, as Larry Wiseman, president of American Forest Foundation, a non-profit education and conservation organization, points out, the problem with certification marks is that while they certify that sustainable forestry is being practiced by people who grow the wood, "that does not mean that all the other people out there growing wood are not managing sustainably. Many of the best stewards of the forest choose not to gain certification because of cost, paperwork and the fact that it doesn't add to their pride or income stream." While that may present a dilemma for some in the design community, it speaks to the importance of education and knowing what questions to ask of manufacturers before specifying wood products (see sidebar below for a list of sample questions) to ensure that they have been harvested from responsibly managed forest lands.The Benefits of HardwoodsNo matter how you look at it, sustainable forest management makes good sense. And specifying hardwoods over other conventional building materials carries a number of benefits that make them a smart choice for the built environment. Susan Regan, executive vice president of the Hardwood Manufacturers Association, explains that aesthetics and environmental performance are just two of the benefits of hardwoods. "American hardwoods have warmth, beauty, versatility and variety. More importantly, they are sustainable, abundant, recyclable, reusable, biodegradable and require comparative less energy to produce, particularly when compared to petroleum-based products."Regan also notes that sawmills these days have found ways to make optimum use of trees and eliminate as much waste product as possible. "Any hardwood sawmill today uses advanced technology to get absolutely the greatest amount of wood out of a log to eliminate waste." Bark is converted to mulch; sawdust is used to fuel boilers to run their drying kilns, and also for particleboard production and animal bedding; waste wood is chipped and sent to the paper industry. At every stage in the process, from precision cutting to managing waste, these mills are practicing responsible use of material and resources, if not with sustainability in mind, then for economic reasons. "If you've paid a whole lot of money for logs," Regan explains, "it makes sense to get the most out of them that you possibly can."
Doing Your Part
Designers and architects can do their part to encourage responsible forest management just by specifying American hardwoods, Regan says. "If designers and architects specify [hardwoods], they're providing a market and value for our products—and that's all the encouragement we need to continue to meet that demand in the future." There are other ways, too. Wiseman adds: "There are many ways you can demonstrate your commitment as a designer or architect to sustainability. Certification is just one way. There are many others that are equally powerful—speaking out for sustainable forestry and against over-development; optimizing use of wood products; educating yourself about what goes on in our forests."The challenge of sustainable forestry is not an easy one, nor does the burden fall on one group or organization. As Wiseman explains, it is a shared responsibility. "If families can't pass on their heritage of stewardship to their children, that's the ultimate challenge to sustainability. Striking the balance between growth, sustainability and sustaining forests is a difficult challenge, shared by everybody—architects, designers, governments, forest owners and families."Asking the Right QuestionsWhen specifying wood products for your contract or residential project, looking for a
certification rating is one way to verify that the wood has been harvested in a sustainable fashion. However, as Larry Wiseman, president of American Forest Foundation, suggests, the lack of a certification rating does not mean that the wood has not been managed responsibly.

The following are a few questions you can ask manufacturers to ensure that the wood
products you specify have been harvested from sustainably-managed forests:
> Was the wood grown and harvested on company-owned or privately-owned land, and does the landowner comply with state laws regarding best practices for logging?

> Do the foresters practice "uneven aged management," carefully selecting which trees to harvest to ensure that there are sufficient natural seeds, seedlings and tree sprouts for regeneration of the forest land?

> Does the forester have a management plan in place to ensure prompt reforestation?

> Are steps taken to protect smaller plants, soils, wildlife and water so as to minimize the impact on the forest's ecosystem?

> Are roads carefully designed to minimize the damage that can occur during logging?

> Is the logging equipment (rubber-tired skidders, bulldozers, tractors) appropriately matched to site conditions?

> Are public reports available on harvesting techniques? If so, where can they be obtained?

Sponsored Recommendations

i+s Spotlights Those Giving Back for Thanksgiving

As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow, we’re applauding some of our industry’s greatest charitable initiatives.

KOVA’s Dan Sullivan Talks Optimization for Adaptive Reuse

What makes a building a prime candidate? And what technology advances are streamlining the process? Sullivan answers all this and more. Read, then listen...

What's That Sound? Exploring the Vital Role of Acoustics in Commercial Interiors

In this episode, we take a deep dive into the acoustics conversation with our friends at Fräsch.

Take a Tour of New St. Mary's Medical Center by EwingCole

Get an inside look at Essentia Health's new flagship hospital in Duluth, MN that redefines the continuum of care for patients.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!