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Why "Going Paperless" Is Not the Way to Save N.A. Forests

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A news blog article this past week by Phil Riebel for Two Sides North America, Chicago, Ill., USA, presented five key reasons why going paperless will not save North American forests. The five reasons are:
 
     1.Our forests are growing due to sustainable forestry practices. In North America we grow many more trees than we harvest. In the U.S., between 1953 and 2012, the net area occupied by forests increased from about 300 to 310 million hectares and the net volume of growing stock (which takes into account the number of trees and their size) rose about 60%. In Canada, forest area remained stable over the past two decades at about 350 million hectares and less than 0.5% of the resource is harvested annually and must be regenerated. 

     2.Paper production is not a main cause of forest loss (deforestation). Deforestation means the permanent or long-term conversion of forest lands to other land uses due to urban expansion, industrial development, resource extraction, or agricultural development. Worldwide, by far the most significant cause of deforestation is the expansion of agriculture. In the U.S., the main causes are development of cropland, pasture and urban areas (particularly the southern regions) and in Canada it is the expansion of agriculture and the oil and gas industry. Although woodland roads are a cause of deforestation, they make up a small percentage of overall forest loss and they do offer many positive recreational benefits for thousands of outdoor enthusiasts across North America (ex: mountain biking, hiking, bird-watching, fishing, hunting).

     3.Most trees don’t go into pulp and paper. In North America, the majority of wood fiber for papermaking comes from sawmill residues and recycled paper products. Only 36% of the U.S. roundwood harvest (trees) is used each year in manufacturing paper and paperboard. In Canada, 13% of the wood fiber to make paper comes from roundwood. The main product made from trees harvested in the U.S. and Canada is lumber and it is the sawmill chips (by-products of the lumber process) that are a key raw material for pulp manufacture and eventually papermaking.

     4.Forest products provide an incentive for forest owners to keep land as forest. Most pulpwood harvested in the U.S. (89%) comes from private land. Landowners receive income from the trees grown on their land which is an important incentive to maintain, sustainably manage, and renew this valuable resource. This is especially important where landowners are facing economic pressure to convert forestland to non-forest uses such as residential housing. Continued use of paper and other wood products may therefore be a key factor in maintaining a forested landscape for future generations.

     5.Paper is one of many products from sustainably managed forests. Due to its inherent sustainable features (renewability, recyclability, carbon uptake, and storage), wood is a highly valued raw material for numerous products. In fact, the University of Kentucky—College of Agriculture has compiled a thorough list of hundreds of products made from wood.
 
As paper use declines in mature markets such as North America, there may be temporary decreases in wood harvesting in some regions, until markets recover or new markets develop. These economic slow-downs are not necessarily good for privately owned forests since forest owners lose income and may sell their forest land (see item 4 above).  

However, as our industry undergoes its transformation into innovative forest products and new markets, wood used for papermaking is being diverted to other uses such as dissolving pulp for textiles and consumer goods, biomass for energy use, and even biodiesel that you can put in your car gas tank. 

So, how do we protect forests? Riebel notes that, in his opinion, there are a few priorities:
  • Provide incentives to keep forestland and continually improve sustainable forest management since most forest across North America are not under conservation agreements or easements, and many are privately owned.
  • Continue efforts to protect valuable forest areas. Today only about 10% of forests are under conservation.
  • Try to minimize losses of growing stock from natural disasters such as fire, insects and disease. In 2011 in the U.S., more than 8.7 million acres of forest burned and there were more than 74,000 fires. In 2012 in Canada, more than 20 million acres were damaged by insects. These statistics far exceed the amount of wood harvested for forest products.
The full article, with data references, is available online.
 

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