Sustaining Missouri’s Forests

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Private landowners have a big responsibility in the care of our natural resources. They own 93 percent of all land and 85 percent of the forest land in Missouri.

Western Civilization got its start in Mesopotamia, the "Fertile Crescent" of present day Iraq. History records that during periods of rapid population growth in those ancient lands, the value of wood was equal to the value of precious gems, stones and metals. The need for wood and other riches may have prompted Mesopotamia to conquer neighboring states.

To fuel their needs, the people of that time also cut excessive amounts of timber along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The increased erosion, siltation and salinity resulting from the denuded banks lowered the productivity of the land of these important rivers. Important crops failed, including barley, the staple of the empire. Facing starvation, great cities fell. By 2000 B.C., the last Mesopotamian empire had collapsed.

The late Bronze Age saw a great surge in the population and economic strength of Mycenaean Greece. In the thirteenth century B.C., citizens cleared large tracts of forests to accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing society. They used the wood for construction and to fire bronze furnaces. Livestock grazing the harvested land hampered natural regeneration of the forest. We can directly link the decline of ancient Greek civilization to deforestation and soil depletion.

The same pattern has repeated itself throughout history all over the world. Growing populations, excessive consumption, the use of wood for energy to process nonrenewable resources, deforestation, soil erosion and resulting famines have led to economic and social collapse. When societies fail to live sustainably they come crashing down, even the greatest ones.

Forests play a leading role in sustaining human populations and providing a good quality of life, a lesson we can learn from the ancient Mesopotamians and Greeks. Forests give us food, fuel, shelter, soil protection and clean air and water - all essentials for life. Using the products of forests in a sustainable matter has always been a challenge for civilizations, including ours.

Sustainable forestry is a modern concept and several definitions for it that are evolving. Some are quite lengthy, but one of the most succinct is, "The practice of managing dynamic forest ecosystems to provide ecological, economic, social and cultural benefits for present and future generations." It’s important to note that sustainable forestry includes humans in the equation and provides for the wise use of forest products.

In 1993, a Society of American Foresters task force published a report called "Sustaining Long-Term Forest Health and Productivity." The report concluded, "Foresters have a responsibility as professionals to sustain the long-term health and productivity of all forest-related resources, to ensure we meet the long-term goals of society." The task force identified criteria necessary to meet these goals:

  • Maintain the structural and functional integrity of the forest as an ecosystem.
  • Meet the diverse needs of the human community.
  • Commit the technological, financial and human resources needed for implementation.

But foresters can only do so much. Learning to live sustainably doesn’t start in the forest, it starts with consumers. There is little use talking about sustainable forestry or forest stewardship unless we understand the interdependent relationship we consumers have with the producers.

We create the demands for resources, which are then met by the producing industries. These industries cultivate our business with products and services that meet our needs.

Our needs for food, clothing, shelter, transportation and energy are met by transforming raw materials into useful products. We are constantly choosing between renewable and nonrenewable resources. Whenever possible we should choose renewable resources to make these products. We should also do everything possible to slow the depletion of nonrenewable resources.

Living sustainably suggests that we should obtain as many resources as possible in our own back yard, wherever that may be. Closing our own forests to wood production would not be a good idea if that meant obtaining wood from other places where the economic costs and environmental impacts would be much higher. We would fail to "think globally and act locally."

To help consumers make their choices, organizations are certifying some wood products as "green." Similar labels and tags provide information that helps us make good choices when buying food, clothing and many other products. Now the concept is being applied to wood and wood products.

The idea is to promote wood that is cut from sustainably managed forests. But when we go to the lumberyard or furniture store, how do we know which boards or chairs came from sustainable forests? The answer is certification.

Certification is a stamp of approval that says a given piece of wood comes from a "sustainable or well managed forest." One of the key features of certification is that it implies a harvest. Certification can also be a way to recognize companies that are doing a good job of forest stewardship.

There are some problems with certification. One is the cost of maintaining separate inventories of certified products. Another is something called "chain-of-custody." This means that any certified product must be traceable as it moves from a forest to the ultimate end user. Despite such obstacles, the concept of independent third-party certification continues to gain acceptance.

Two certification programs are currently in operation. The Rainforest Alliance, an environmental organization, established Smart Wood. It certifies both sources (forests) and companies (manufacturers or distributors of wood products). Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) is a California firm that certifies forest products under the Green Cross label. The international Forest Stewardship Council, formed in 1993, serves as an impartial watchdog over the certification process.

An industry group called the American Forest and Paper Association has also developed what it calls the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Member companies, who produce most of the nation’s paper and construction lumber, must agree to a set of principles and standards that promote improved forest management and harvesting. Adherence to these principles and standards is verified through a voluntary audit performed by an independent auditing specialist.

For most Missouri forest owners, certification is probably not feasible at this time. Initial certification inspections can cost from 5 cents to more than a dollar per acre. Then there are the annual audit expenses of $1,000 to $4,000. However, there are programs through Smart Wood and the Scientific Certification System through which foresters can become certified. Many small landowners use a forester to assist with managing their forestland. Those foresters, by virtue of their own certification, gain Smart Wood or SCS endorsement for the products from their clients’ forests. Several landowners in an area, working collectively with a certified forester, could further reduce their costs.

Because of the costs involved in conducting the certification process, the prices of lumber and products certified as being from sustainable forests are usually higher than those of non-certified competitors. But a recent Purdue University survey found that 68 percent of those polled would be willing to pay more for furniture whose materials originated from a sustainably managed forest.

Dr. Robert Lee, professor of forest sociology at the University of Washington, teaches that for any forest policy to be sustainable it must be socially acceptable, economically feasible and biologically possible. Beyond this, Lee says, without some predictability in the future, there can be no conservation.

This is because managing forests means waiting for a future reward, probably a reward to be reaped by one’s children or grandchildren.

Forests grow in long rotations (60-150 years in Missouri). The forest owner needs to believe that his property rights are protected so that a long term management plan can be carried out. Reaching forest sustainability demands the incentive to manage for both current and future generations.

Although we’re still defining it, sustainable forestry is an admirable goal. As the Society of American Foresters Task Force points out, they "do not advocate preservation or the return to some ideal ‘natural state,’ but rather the maintenance of the integrity of the forest ecosystem and the production of goods and services." Intensive forest management can be included within this framework if it contributes to the goals for ecosystem management.

The final key to sustainability is education. People can only make informed choices when they understand the issues and options. All of our consumption and production options have strengths, weaknesses, risks and trade-offs. It is critical that the public is informed and educated on the issues and options of natural resource management. An uninformed public may be the greatest threat of all to implementing sustainable forest practices. One uninformed decision can undo what it has taken generations to accomplish.

Private landowners have a big responsibility in the care of our natural resources. They own 93 percent of all land and 85 percent of the forest land in Missouri. Private land is where nearly all of our wildlife and the bulk of our forest products are found. In Missouri, experts are available to help landowners make informed decisions about the stewardship of their property.

These professionals include foresters, wildlife and fisheries biologists, soil scientists and extension specialists - all of whom provide services free of charge. They can show you how to manage your property in a sustainable manner. Incentive programs can help offset expenses of management practices. Forests are a long-term investment, and owners should seek advice before making any decisions that might compromise the ability of future generations to use the forest.

Threats to our Forests

  • Wildfires were a threat to Missouri's forests 100 years ago and, to a certain extent, still are today. Wildfires burn more than 50,000 acres of forest and grassland each year. More than 99 percent of these fires are human-caused and preventable. Arsonists set 40 percent of our wildfires.
  • Livestock grazing in woodlands browse seedlings and destroy wildlife food and cover. Usually only undesirable tree species remain because they are unpalatable. Sharp hooves damage tree root systems and remove the protective leaf litter on the ground, resulting in accelerated soil erosion.
  • Missouri forests evolved with native insects and diseases and have developed defenses against them. Pests from other countries are a much more serious threat. The gypsy moth will reach the state early in the 21st century. Oaks are one of the gypsy moth's favorite foods, and considering the age and composition of our forests, its effects could be devastating. As global commerce continues to grow, we must guard against other harmful pests being introduced into the state.

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