10 Questions with Sustainable Forestry Expert, Dr. Edie Sonne Hall

While the carbon-sequestering benefits of wood are well-known, architects and developers are increasingly conscious of mass timber’s impact on forests and sustainable forestry practices. Think Wood recently asked industry expert, Dr. Edie Sonne Hall, ten common questions about sustainable forestry and the built environment. Here’s what she had to say:

1) Most designers and builders understand wood contributes to lower carbon buildings, but how has wood use impacted the state of our forests?

Edie Sonne Hall: The amount of forest area in the United States has remained constant since about 1900, and U.S. forests have been net carbon sequesterers since the 1950s. During the same period, timber harvests have remained stable or in some cases, increased.1 While 67 percent of forest land is legally available for harvest, tree removal occurs on less than 2 percent of forest land per year. Contrast that with the nearly 3 percent disturbed by natural events like insects, disease and fire. If we balance harvesting with replanting efforts, we can provide a sustainable source of carbon-sequestering wood products from sustainable forests.2

2) Will increased wood product demand cause deforestation?

ESH: I know it’s counter-intuitive, but forest product demand can actually lead to more forests. In fact, in the U.S. and Canada there is “extremely low risk of deforestation.3” Demand provides revenue and policy incentives to invest in forest planting and management. Data shows that global regions with the highest levels of industrial timber harvest and forest product output are also regions with the lowest rates of deforestation.4 And we can see from empirical data that higher demand leads to more supply (growth).

3) Is using wood the best carbon mitigation pathway? Isn’t it better to let trees grow?

ESH: Wood products are one important climate solution because they take less energy/emissions to manufacture than other building materials, and store carbon through their useful lifetime. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, “Forestry for a Low Carbon Future,” lists six key strategies for integrating forests and wood products into climate change strategies:

  1. plant more trees
  2. increase carbon density/stocks in existing forests
  3. increase wood product carbon storage
  4. reduce deforestation and degradation
  5. use biomass for energy, replacing fossil fuel
  6. use wood products in construction materials, avoiding fossil fuel emissions in manufacturing products with higher combined emissions

4) How can we be assured that the wood we source is harvested sustainably?

ESH: We can be assured that timber is harvested sustainably through mechanisms like forest certification, responsible fiber sourcing standards and Best Management Practices (BMPs).

5) What is forest certification?

ESH: Forest certification assesses a landowner’s forest management against a series of agreed standards related to water quality, biodiversity, wildlife, and forests with exceptional conservation value.The highest level of sustainability assurance is third-partyforest certification. By the way, wood is one of the few building materials that has these certification programs in place.

6) Which third-party certification standards should I look for?

ESH: The four primary systems in North America are Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and American Tree Farm System (ATFS). SFI is a single-standard North American program. FSC is a global program with regional standards. CSA is the Canadian NationalForest Management Standard, and ATFS is geared toward smaller U.S. landowners. While you can debate the nuances, there is more assurance of sustainable forest management with any of them.

7) How many acres of certified forests are actually available in the U.S.?

ESH: There are about 96 million acres certified forests in the U.S., which is about 19% of total US timberland—above the global average of 11%. Given the cost of third-party verification, wide-scale certification is not feasible for small landowners that make up the largest percentage of landownership in the US (almost 290 million acres). U.S. federal timberlands are not certified but this does not mean they are not being sustainably managed. In 2007, the Pinchot Institute conducted a study of five national forests and found their management practices met many of the certification requirements in terms of forest planning, protection of threatened and endangered species and others.5

8) You mentioned fiber sourcing standards. What do those include?

ESH: Fiber sourcing is another type of certification aimed at the mills to limit the risk of fiber coming from undesirable sources such as high-conservation forests or illegally harvested forests. The three major responsible fiber sourcing standards are: PEFC Controlled Sources, FSC Controlled Wood, and SFI Fiber Sourcing.6

9) What are Best Management Practices (BMPs)?

ESH: Every US state has developed best management practices (BMPs) guidelines for water quality and other environmental concerns such as soil erosion and regeneration. Some of these are codified into state forest practice regulation and others are voluntary. Water quality BMPs, whether regulatory, quasi-regulatory, or non-regulatory, are tracked in the US and achieve above 90% compliance in all states.7 This is important because roughly 60% of drinking water is sourced from forests across the nation, up to 75% in the US West.8

10) Do the same certifications apply for imported wood products?

ESH: While the U.S. is the largest producer of industrial roundwood, not all of the wood products consumed in the U.S. are harvested domestically. Specifiers should still be aware of where their wood product comes from and take appropriate precautions if sourcing from areas with higher risk of sourcing controversial wood.

Sonne Hall has a Ph.D. in forestry from the University of Washington and specializes in forest carbon accounting and life cycle assessment. She brings over twenty years of experience developing sustainable forestry strategies and policies at the state, regional, national and international level.

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