July 25, 2010 | bfeldman | Extracurricular, Sustainability, Travel, Uncategorized

Thoughts about where the materials we specify come from….

I recently had the good fortune to visit the Pacific Northwest.  I spent about a week and a half in Olympic National Park and the areas surrounding the north and west sides of the park.  One of the reasons for visiting this area was to take in the incredible Spruce and Douglas Fir forests, including the Continental United State’s only temperate rainforest along the west side of the park.  Due to the unique weather conditions in this area these trees can grow very large and very tall.  I spent a week backpacking out in the wilderness areas of the park.  The trees, peaks, streams and lakes are incredible.  This is the home of several salmon species.  There are bears, elk, deer and cougars.  It’s an awesome sight.

Douglas Fir - this tree might be a couple of hundred years old
Douglas Fir - along with Spruce and Hemlock, the main species of trees found in the park

Outside the park, the timber industry is one of the major employers for the people who live in this area.  Logging has a long history in the area – it’s the industry that spawned the city of Seattle.  I would guess that a fair number of the wood framed buildings in the St. Louis area have wood from the Pacific Northwest within their walls.

As an architect, I am a big fan of using wood within our project.  Mostly we use veneer products but occasionally we specify dimensional lumber or composite products.  Architects and builders have a responsibility for what happens in our domestic timber industry.  That has caused me to think a lot about how timber is being harvested in the areas I visited.  Consider:

These trees can live for hundreds of years.  The forest thrives on diversity – older trees, young trees, decaying trees – the productivity of the soil – the trees and understory holding the soils in place, allowing the rain and snow runnoff to feed the streams flowing in the valleys.

When you get outside the park this is what you see: a variety of clearcuts as far as you can see: some mountains covered with trees maybe a couple of years old, next to large patches of trees maybe 20 years old, next to large patches 40 years old – and the occasional patch of mountain where every tree, shrub and plant has been scraped off, leaving nothing but loose rock and dirt exposed.  Wonder what happens to this when the rains come?

Clear cut at the top of a foothill near the town of Forks Washington
Clear cut at the top of a foothill near the town of Forks, Washington - we saw much larger clear cuts than this.

I don’t have a PhD in Forestry, but no matter – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know this isn’t a good thing.   I’m all for harvesting our timber resources, but there’s got to be a better way.  The Forest Stewardship Council has been working since the early 90’s to provide a better, more sustainable path to timber management.  From their website:

Forests provide us with clean water, fresh air and they even help combat global warming. They also provide food, medicine and important natural resources, such as timber and paper. If managed responsibly, forests and plantations benefit people – both people dependent on forests and the global community at large.

However, in some countries as much as 80% of the timber is harvested illegally, often involving the violation of human rights and destruction of protected forests. A key factor behind the threats faced by natural forests is the perception by many societies that they lack economic value. The extraordinary social and environmental value of forests in comparison to other land uses is often not considered. In other words, forests are often converted to other land uses which lack many of the social and environmental values of forest but promise higher economic returns.

FSC certification offers forest managers rewards for managing their forests the FSC way – following the highest social and environmental criteria there are. In some instances rewards can be in the form of price premiums. But increasingly, FSC certification is rewarded with improved access to environmentally sensitive markets. Also, more and more governments and leading businesses specify FSC certified materials in their purchasing programs.

This trip really impressed upon me my responsibility for understanding the issues surrounding Forestry.  Our efforts here in St. Louis have an effect on areas all over the US including the Pacific Northwest.  Some day I want to go up there to fish the salmon runs – I need to make sure the environment is protected, allowing both the fish and the local population survive.  Better forest management is the key.

Iconic image - Subaru with bikes on the roof following a logging truck: the tree on the back of this truck is probably a century old or older.
Iconic image - Subaru with bikes on the roof following a logging truck: the tree on the back of this truck is probably a century old or older.
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