Timber Industry

Timber Industry - Pile of freshly cut logs
Timber Industry - Pile of freshly cut logs

The timber industry comprises a diverse group of companies and organizations using wood and fiber harvested from forests in the production of solid wood products (such as furniture and lumber), reconstituted wood products (such as particle board), pulp and paper, and chemicals.

Globally, about 3.8 billion cubic meters of wood were used for human consumption in 1995. The rate was increasing by 2.3 percent per year, faster than the rate of population growth.

More than fifty thousand establishments in the United States are involved in the manufacture of forest products, and this industry contributed approximately 8 percent of the United States’ gross national product in 1980. In addition, many other commercial products are derived from forest resources, including types of fuel, medicine, and food, and specialty items such as Christmas trees.

Globally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated in 1992 that more than one half of all harvested wood is used for fuel and that the majority of energy needs in many developing countries is met by fuel wood.

The FAO found in 1995 that the global demand for wood was about 3.8 billion cubic meters per year and that this demand was increasing by about 86 million cubic meters per year.

Historical Significance

The development of the forest products industry parallels the development of Western civilization. From Robin Hood to Paul Bunyan, the utilization of forest products is ingrained in Western mythology and culture.

Development of the first forest management techniques in the Middle Ages was motivated by security interests related to the continued availability of wood for shipbuilding. In North America, the westward movement of European culture was accompanied by, and in some cases motivated by, the development of the forest products industry.

Eventually, first in Europe and then in North America, it was realized that natural forests could indeed be depleted and that it was necessary to develop techniques for regenerating and managing forest ecosystems to ensure a continued supply of wood products to meet human needs. This process is still occurring in many developing countries.

Old-Growth Forests

Old-Growth Forest
Old-Growth Forest

All ecosystems develop within the context of natural disturbance cycles. Whether the natural agent is fire, flooding, or wind storms, every hectare on the earth is subject to periodic disturbance even without the influence of human activity.

The disturbance intervals may be very long in some systems; forests consisting of late-successional species that have not been disturbed in an extended interval are commonly referred to as old-growth forests.

The forest products industry developed through the utilization of these natural forests. As they became scarcer, forest management techniques were developed to ensure the restoration of forests following utilization.

As old-growth forests containing large trees were depleted, manufacturing technology had to change to use smaller-sized material that could be harvested from second-growth forests. This led to the development of composite wood products such as oriented strand board, particle board, and laminated beams.

Sustained Yield

Humans obtained goods and services from natural forests for millennia before increasing population, the development of agriculture, and utilization technology begin to lead to the depletion of natural forests.

Fear of the depletion of natural forests and an impending timber famine led to development of the sustained yield concept, which holds that forests should be managed to produce wood products at a rate approximately equal to the natural rate of biological growth.

The development of the sustained yield concept was associated with the belief that properly managed forests could produce a continuous, never-ending flow of wood and fiber.

This concept is still evolving to include recognition that the continued survival of all species and the maintenance of ecosystem structure and function, as well as the production of goods and services, are of vital interest to human society.

Effects of Timber Harvesting

It is possible to harvest forest products in such a way as to mimic natural disturbance and to ensure the continued functioning and survival of all ecosystem components. Unfortunately, there are many examples of harvesting that have led to long-term disruption and alteration of ecological processes.

Nutrient loss, erosion, and species loss following poorly designed or implemented harvesting operations can result in the loss of biodiversity and a reduction in long-term productive capacity.

The removal of forest canopy trees, whether through harvesting or natural disturbance, leads to increased soil temperature, increased decomposition, increased leaching of nutrients and soil carbon, and, if extreme, a reversion to an early-successional plant community.

Removal of the canopy trees will usually lead to increased erosion, which, if harvesting is not properly implemented, can be severe and result in degradation of water quality and aquatic habitat.

Programs promoting fire protection in the twentieth century resulted in the interruption of natural disturbance cycles in many ecosystems. In these cases, artificial disturbance through harvesting may be the only way to ensure the continued presence of early-successional species in the landscape.

In many cases, these early-successional tree species are fast growing, straight, and relatively easy to artificially plant and regenerate. These early-successional forests are ideally suited for the production of pulp and paper, fuel wood, and such products as posts and poles.

The challenge to industrial and public land managers is to develop the appropriate mix of all successional stages in the landscape in order to ensure the continued survival of all species and the maintenance of ecosystem structure and function, while allowing for utilization to meet the needs of the globally expanding human population.