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

EPDs and Forest Certification

The wood industry has been a leader in the development of environmental product declarations (EPDs). An EPD is a standardized, third-party-verified label that communicates the environmental performance of a product, is based on life-cycle assessment (LCA), and applicable worldwide.

An EPD includes information about both product attributes and production impacts and provides consistent and comparable information to industrial customers and end-use consumers regarding environmental impacts. The nature of EPDs also allows summation of environmental impacts along a product’s supply chain—a powerful feature that greatly enhances the utility of LCA-based information.

In the case of wood products, sustainable forest management certification complements the information in an EPD, providing a more complete picture by encompassing parameters not covered in an LCA—such as biodiversity conservation, soil and water quality, and the protection of wildlife habitat.


Forest sustainability was first described in the book Sylvicultura oeconomica by German author Hans Carl von Carlowitz, published in 1713—and, while our understanding of what constitutes sustainability has evolved significantly in 300 years, it has long been a cornerstone of forest management.14

Von Carlowitz’s work planted the seed for what we now know as sustainable development, defined in the landmark 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the ‘Brundtland Report’) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines sustainable forest management as “the stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way and at a rate that maintains their biological diversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality, and potential to fulfill, now and in the future, relevant ecological economic and social functions at local, national, and global levels, and that does not cause damage on other ecosystems.”

In the United States and Canada, forest sustainability is measured against criteria and indicators that represent the full range of forest values, including biodiversity, ecosystem condition and productivity, soil and water, global ecological cycles, economic and social benefits, and social responsibility. Sustainability criteria and indicators form the basis of individual country regulations as well as third-party sustainable forest certification programs.

The Art and Science of Forest Management

There is a good reason forestry is often described as a blending of art and science. Foresters must follow the laws, regulations, and best practices of forestry and apply forest science and the results of ongoing research. They must also nurture the art of recognizing the unique features of a specific forest and site and develop the management design that will meet diverse environmental, economic, and social interests, including the needs and objectives of the landowner.

The blending of art and science that occurs in forest management is similar to what occurs in a building project. Like the multidisciplinary team that designs and constructs buildings, sustainable forest management involves a team that includes foresters, engineers, biologists, hydrologists, surveyors, and loggers that plan and care for the forest. In both cases, members of the team must address the technical requirements and obligations of their profession while taking into consideration the tastes and desires of the project partners and owners. In the case of forestry, this includes caring for the forest while meeting the needs of landowners, the environment, and their community.

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Photo courtesy of the Oregon Forest Resources Institute

Shown is a Douglas fir working forest in Tillamook County, Oregon.

Planning Forests of The Future

Although approaches differ, effective multi-decade planning is a fundamental part of forest sustainability.

On national forests in the United States, for example, conformance with the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) requires the development of a comprehensive plan, utilizing substantial public involvement and sound science to guide management decisions.

In Canada, where most forests are publicly owned, integrated land-use planning seeks to balance the economic, social, and cultural opportunities in a forested area while maintaining the well-being of the forest. The public gets a say in decisions about how the land and its resources are managed; forest companies must solicit public input on their forest management plans, which must be approved by government agencies.

Through the use of diverse silviculture practices, foresters tend to the forest, ensuring regeneration, growth, and forest health and providing benefits that support a full range of forest values. For example, forest management practices are often selected to mimic natural disturbances and the cycles of nature that are associated with a specific region, forest type, or species. Natural disturbances, including windstorms, hurricanes, ice storms, forest fires, and insect or disease outbreaks, are a fact of life in the forest. To mimic these events, foresters may vary the size of the openings created by forest management, the intensity of management, the retention of wildlife reserve areas, and the frequency with which management occurs.

Forest Regeneration

Following harvest, forests can be regenerated either naturally or through planting or seeding. One is not inherently better than the other. Rather, the choice of method varies based on factors that include biology of the tree species, availability of on-site seed sources, site ecology, type of harvest system employed, and objectives for the site.

In Canada, where forest regeneration is required on public lands, just under half of the total harvest area is regenerated naturally and the rest through planting or seeding.15

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Planting and seeding is a significant component to ensuring healthy forest regeneration.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in December 2019