The Impact of Wood Use on North American Forests

Can specifying wood for buildings contribute to forest sustainability?
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Sponsored by Think Wood
By Roxane Ward and Dave Patterson, RPF

Learning Objectives:

  1. Evaluate the use of wood as a construction material in the context of long-term forest sustainability as well as attributes such as low embodied energy and light carbon footprint.
  2. Discuss forest sustainability measures such as biodiversity, soil and water quality, and harvest versus net growth.
  3. Examine the concept that using wood in buildings provides an incentive to landowners to keep forested lands forested instead of converting them to uses such as urban development.
  4. Compare the carbon benefits of an unmanaged forest versus a managed forest where timber is used for wood buildings. K2209P


1 GBCI CE Hour
AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines
AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour
MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
This course can be self-reported to the NLAA.
This course can be self-reported to the NSAA
NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
OAA 1 Learning Hour
SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning
This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.
This course is approved as a Structured Course
This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines
Approved for structured learning
Approved for Core Learning
This course can be self-reported to the NLAA
Course may qualify for Learning Hours with NWTAA
Course eligible for OAA Learning Hours
This course is approved as a core course
This course can be self-reported for Learning Units to the Architectural Institute of British Columbia

As green building has evolved beyond its initial emphasis on energy efficiency, greater attention has been given to the choice of structural materials and the degree to which they influence a building’s environmental footprint. Increasingly, wood from sustainably managed forests is viewed as a responsible choice—for a number of reasons. Wood grows naturally by harnessing energy from the sun, absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. It is renewable and a carbon sink, and it outperforms other materials in terms of embodied energy, air and water pollution, and other impact indicators.1

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But what about the forest? The benefits above notwithstanding, how can building designers be sure that specifying wood does not negatively impact the North American forest resource?

As this course will demonstrate, the answer to that question has several elements. On one hand, North American forest practices are among the world’s best, and the amount of forested land, in both the United States and Canada, has been stable for decades. On the other, there are threats—such as climate change, increased wildfire, insect infestation and disease, and deforestation due to urban development—which are broader than the forest industry and must be addressed at a societal level. Drawing from a wide range of research publications, the following pages will examine the current state of North American forests, modern forest practices, and criteria for sustainability, and consider some of the challenges that could profoundly impact the future of the forest resource. In this context, the course will also discuss why strong markets for wood products provide an incentive for landowners, not only to invest in forest management but also to keep forested land forested even though greater profit can often be made by converting it to other uses.

Is North America Running Out of Forests?

According to the National Report on Sustainable Forests–2010, “On the whole, no evidence suggests that we are using up our forests. In fact, the total area of forests has been stable and the volume of wood on them increasing.”2

Deforestation is the permanent conversion of forest land to non-forest land uses. Around the world, it is a major issue and contributor to global warming. In the United States and Canada, the rate of deforestation has been virtually zero for decades; however, the value of forest land in agriculture and real estate maintains pressure to convert.6

Until the early 1900s, settlers coming to North America cleared an average of 2.1 acres of forest per person to survive and grow food.3Since then, the establishment of industrial agriculture and other changes in land use have mitigated the need for forest clearing, and forest acreage has been stable for close to a century.

The United States reported an annual increase in forest area of 0.12 percent in the 1990s and 0.05 percent from 2000 to 2005, while Canada had no change, and twice as much wood is being grown each year as is harvested.4 In both countries, responsible forest management has resulted in more than 50 consecutive years of net forest growth that exceeds annual forest harvests.

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Photo courtesy of Plum Creek©/Frank Rosenstein; Source: and as of March 2019

Shown is a second-growth working forest in Oregon.

United States

The United States has approximately 765 million acres of forest area, which is about one-third of the country’s total land area.5 According to the National Report on Sustainable Forests–2010, “This stability is in spite of a nearly three-fold increase in population over the same period and is in marked contrast with many countries where wide-scale deforestation remains a pressing concern.”

Forty-two percent of U.S. forests are owned by entities such as national, state, and local governments; the rest are owned by private landowners, including more than 22 million family forest owners.5 The fact that net forest growth has outpaced the amount of wood harvested for decades supports the idea that landowners who depend economically on the resource have a strong incentive for their sustainable management for the long term. This aligns with global forest data, which indicates that forest products and industrial roundwood demands provide the revenue and policy incentives to support sustainable forest management.7

However, with urban development and other uses increasingly vying for land, an issue going forward will be making sure that landowners continue to have reasons to keep forested lands forested.


Canada has 857 million acres of forestland, which is about 90 percent of the forested area it had before European settlement. 8, 9 Ninety-four percent of the forest is publicly owned and managed by provincial, federal, and territorial governments. The remaining 6 percent is on private property belonging to more than 450,000 private landowners.

Wood supply is the term used to describe the estimated volume of timber that can be harvested from an area while meeting environmental, economic, and social objectives. Governments regulate harvest levels on public lands by specifying an annual allowable cut.

Tools for Accountability

Although types of ownership vary, forest management in the United States and Canada operates under layers of federal, state/provincial, and local regulations and guidelines that foresters and harvesting professionals must follow to protect water quality, wildlife habitat, soil, and other resources. Laws addressing safety and workers’ rights also govern forestry activities. Training, continuing education, and certification for loggers and foresters support continuous improvement as well as the use of forestry best management practices (BMPs). Government agencies monitor forest management activities for compliance with regulations.

Forest Certification

While sustainable forest management is defined by the regulations and guidelines that consider environmental, economic, and social values for that particular area and ownership, sustainably managed land does not have to be certified. Forest companies can turn to voluntary forest certification to have their practices independently assessed against sustainability standards to provide additional assurance to customers, backing up their claims that their wood products come from legal, responsible sources.

Wood is the only building material that has third-party certification programs in place to demonstrate that products being sold have come from a responsibly managed resource. As of March 2019, more than 584 million acres of forest in the United States and Canada were certified under one of the four internationally recognized programs used in North America: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canadian Standards Association’s Sustainable Forest Management Standards (CSA), and American Tree Farm System (ATFS). This represents almost half of the world’s certified forests.10

According to the National Association of State Foresters, “Credible forest certification programs include the following fundamental elements: independent governance, multi-stakeholder standard, independent certification, complaints/appeals process, open participation, and transparency. While in different manners, the ATFS, FSC, and SFI systems include the fundamental elements of credibility and make positive contributions to forest sustainability.”11 Similarly, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development released a statement supporting an inclusive approach that recognizes these programs as well as CSA (and others).12

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Certification bodies conduct forest management audits as part of the third-party certification process.

The FSC, SFI, CSA, and ATFS programs all depend on third-party audits, where independent auditors measure the planning, procedures, systems, and performance of on-the-ground forest operations against the predetermined standard. The audits, performed by experienced, independent foresters, biologists, socio-economists, or other professionals, are conducted by certification bodies accredited to award certificates under each of the programs. A certificate is issued if a forest operation is found to be in conformance with the specified forest certification standard.13


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in December 2019