This page describes the sustainability of North American hardwoods and the current climate of "green" thinking in depth. For a less detailed overview, please see our "green" wood page.
Trees grow. Natural wood is the best raw material from an environmental viewpoint. Wood is renewable, recyclable, biodegradable and usually organically grown. The growing acres, both before and after harvesting, provide wildlife habitat, recreational opportunity, clean air and water, and jobs for American families. Wood uses less energy and makes less pollution than almost any other resource. Wood is wonderful. The managed forest provides the greatest benefits to people, wildlife and the ecosystem.
There are more forested acres in the U.S. today than 50 or 100 years ago. Most of the eastern forests have re-grown from abandoned pastureland. Harvesting in every state is below the growth rate, so there is more timber in today's forest than last year or the year before. In Vermont, harvesting is currently less than 50% of growth, which means that harvest levels could double and still be sustainable.
A huge benefit of using wood of any kind is that while trees are growing they take in carbon dioxide, lock that carbon up by converting it into wood, and generate oxygen. If trees are left to the "natural cycle" by allowing them to grow past maturity where they fall over and rot, or if we allow forests to be unmanaged so that they are susceptible to large scale forest fires, that carbon is re-released into the atmosphere. Cutting down trees and making them into durable goods takes the carbon out of the loop, leaving us with only the carbon dioxide removal and oxygen generation parts of the cycle. Whether global warming is a fact or an idea, reduction of the net increase of carbon dioxide condition we are currently in can only be a good thing.
According to Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace:
"If trees are the answer, you might ask, what is the question? I believe that trees are the answer to a lot of questions about our future. These include: How can we advance to a more sustainable economy based on renewable fuels and materials? How can we improve literacy and sanitation in developing countries while reversing deforestation and protecting wildlife at the same time? How can we reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere, carbon dioxide in particular? How can we increase the amount of land that will support a greater diversity of species? How can we help prevent soil erosion and provide clean air and water? How can we make this world more beautiful and green? The answer is, by growing more trees and then using more wood, both as a substitute for non-renewable fossil fuels and materials such as steel, concrete and plastic, and as paper products for printing, packaging and sanitation."
Natural wood products made from certified lumber are making the news and advertising pages of glossy magazines these days. Certifying that certain wood products have been sustainably produced began to influence the marketplace in the mid-'90s. It was a good idea, and several systems have become established that all compete for market share; on the one hand, in providing products with a recognized name and label, and on the other hand, in attracting millions of acres of landholdings to provide those products. The concept of "chain of custody", where each log is certified as from a well-managed forest, and kept in separate batches to a final product has proven expensive and unworkable. While some certification systems still advertise "chain of custody", it has been watered down to allow substitution of percents of other logs to help suppliers and be more practical. The end result is that a sawmill can buy 100,000 board feet of Certified pallet grade ash and 100,000 board feet of uncertified veneer grade cherry, and transfer the credits from the ash to the cherry, selling the cherry as certified.
Major timber industries, such as Weyerhaeuser, Plum Creek and Irving have undergone auditing to meet the approval of various certification systems. This is the good news. Timber harvesting and land management practices have made great strides in the past decades, with improvements in water quality protection, harvesting techniques and equipment technology, wildlife habitat enhancement, and reforestation. This has all been recognized by the certification process. In general, only these larger landholders can afford to be certified, as it is very expensive. Most of the money involved is spent on staff and advertising, not improving forest practices. The vast majority of the hardwood resource is owned and managed as small privately owned woodlots throughout the northeast. Vermont Hardwoods is right in the middle of the prime hardwood region for maple, oak and birch. We know the landowners, foresters, loggers and mills who work this land and their practices generally exceed the big timber companies, but certification is not practical for these woodlots at this time. They love the land, the forests and the wildlife, and all of our long-term success depends on the sustainable harvesting of the resource. We buy our lumber from a short list of the most reputable suppliers in each region to get the quality products you need. Our long-standing connection to the forest products industry convinces us that our products are sustainably produced. Hopefully in the future, certification systems will evolve to include the contribution of these small family woodlots in a cost effective manner.
Almost all of the timber harvesting in the northeastern US is done under the supervision of a professional forester. State and Federal lands are managed by teams of professionals under the highest levels of environmental scrutiny. Each state has a favorable property tax treatment (called Current Use) for private land that is committed to sound forestry practices, and very high proportions are enrolled. A map and detailed forestry plan is required, with each area scheduled for particular types of harvesting that are appropriate. State foresters approve the plans and inspect the properties periodically to maintain compliance. Silvicultural guides are published for each forest type, with recommendations for thinning, group cutting, and regeneration cutting when appropriate. Mature hardwood trees and "weed trees" are marked by professional foresters and marketed to sawmills around the region. "Weed trees" are removed for pulp, firewood or chips to allow growing room for the next generation of "crop trees".
One of the conundrums of sustainable forestry is that to grow the best quality timber, we need to "weed out the garden" to grow the best trees. So the largest majority of harvested wood never makes it to our shop. Firewood, pulp logs and fuel chips take the lowest quality wood, the weed trees and tree tops that are not suitable for lumber, at the lowest prices. Low grade logs are sawn for railroad ties, making pallets and crating, and other "non-appearance" uses. High quality logs are sawn at specialized mills; sorting out lengths, thicknesses and grades for a full range of end users. In one species, there are often two dozen sorts. Each hardwood log has a defect zone in the center, so even the prime logs produce low grade lumber. Some of this is cut up for usable pieces between the defects, for example: short furniture pieces like chair legs, or commercial short strip flooring or used for upholstered furniture. This leaves a small portion of the best quality wood, which is why quality is expensive. The price of quality timber sends a signal through the marketplace to reward the landowner for continuing to grow high-quality timber.
Some of our products demand straight "perfect" grain and color, especially our picture frame mouldings. Some of our customers prefer the uniformity of clear selected boards for other premium products. The natural variation in wood grains and color make for a beautiful product, but some defects are just unacceptable. We also offer "Country grade" flooring to make use of the natural variation with minor "appearance defects" that show the range of character, and make better use of our hardwood resource. We find it ironic that the customers who demand certified lumber often require the highest quality, without an understanding of the process involved.