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
Roxane Ward and Dave Patterson, RPF

Threats to Forest Sustainability

While North American forests have remained relatively stable for decades, they also face significant threats. Although by no means a comprehensive list, the following three were identified in the National Report on Sustainable Forests – 2010 as crucial:

The loss of forest lands and working forests – According to the report, “gross statistics on forest area mask substantial fragmentation and outright losses in forest land at the regional level, particularly in areas adjacent to growing urban areas or where recreational development is prominent. Fragmentation and loss is further compounded by the sale of forest lands to firms and individuals whose primary focus is not active forest management for timber production, forest conservation, or other purposes.” Where profitable, forest management and the revenues it generates can serve as an incentive to landowners to keep lands forested and not convert them to other uses.

Climate change – Although forests and wood products have a significant role to play in climate change mitigation, the report says “We are already seeing altered patterns of forest disturbance associated with changes in temperature, precipitation and insect activity. The resulting changes in the distribution of forest cover and species distribution will play out over the coming decades.” Climate change is already being incorporated into forest management planning with the objective of helping forests to remain resilient in the face of environmental stressors.24

Wildfire and insect infestation – Referred to in sustainability language as “changing disturbance patterns,” this category has included a three-fold increase in insect-induced tree mortality in the last decade and a “marked increase” in forest fires, especially on public lands in the West. “This increase is tied to a complex set of natural and human-induced dynamics involving fire suppression, increasing stand densities, aging of certain tree species and warming temperatures. The result has been a dramatic increase in the area of forest affected by bark beetle infestations in the pine forests of the interior West and a general increase in forest fuel loadings and fire susceptibility.

Young, healthy forests are carbon sinks because they’re actively absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow. As forests mature, the rate of carbon uptake slows.

Photo courtesy of Weyerhaeuser

Young, healthy forests are carbon sinks because they’re actively absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow. As forests mature, the rate of carbon uptake slows.

The Next 100 Years

The complexities associated with forests and their management don’t lend themselves to easy generalization. As this course has shown, North American forests have been stable for decades. Modern forestry involves teams of dedicated professionals who rely on science and their experience of the forest to plan for and protect a wide range of forest values. Forests and wood products have carbon benefits that exceed the benefits of natural forests alone and strong markets for wood products provide incentives for landowners to keep lands forested. There are also profound threats to future forest sustainability.

However, while the threats may seem insurmountable, a report from Dovetail Partners Inc., The Next 100 Years of Forests in the U.S. – Growing the Forests We Want and Need, offers an interesting perspective: “It may help to remember that previous generations were able to [meet their forest management challenges] during an era that included The Great Depression, WWI and WWII, global energy crises, and many other social and economic upheavals. Our history shows that if we want healthy, abundant forests, we can have them. We just need to choose a vision for the future that includes abundant forests and take appropriate action to secure them.


  1. A Synthesis of Research on Wood Products & Greenhouse Gas Impacts, 2010, FPInnovations
  2. National Report on Sustainable Forests – 2010, USDA Forest Service
  3. American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery, Douglas W. McCleary, 1997, Forest History Society
  4. The State of America’s Forests, 2007, Society of American Foresters; State of the World’s Forests, 2007, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
  5. Deforestation in Canada: What are the Facts, Natural Resources Canada; State of the World’s Forests, 2011, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO)
  6. Ince, Peter J., Global sustainable timber supply and demand: Sustainable development in the forest products industry, Chapter 2, Porto, Portugal : Universidade Fernando Pessoa, 2010
  7. State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2014, Natural Resources Canada
  9. A Guide to World Resources 2000-2001: People and ecosystems: The fraying web of life, Data Tables; United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme, World Bank and World Resources Institute, September 2000
  10. Forest Certification as it Contributes to Sustainable Forestry, National Association of State Foresters, 2013, NASF-2013-2,
  12. Natural Resources Canada; State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2014
  13. 2006-2007 Pesticide Market Estimates, United States Environmental Protection Agency
  14. National Report on Sustainable Forests – 2010, USDA Forest Service; Natural Resources Canada
  15. Extrapolated from FPInnovations research
  16. Estimates by the Wood Carbon Calculator for Buildings are based on research by Sarthre, R. and J. O’Connor, 2010, A Synthesis of Research on Wood Products and Greenhouse Gas Impacts, FPInnovations; references and notes are available at
  17. A Synthesis of Research on Wood Products & Greenhouse Gas Impacts, 2010, FPInnovations
  18. Industry Progress Report: Environment, Energy, Safety, American Wood Council; data applies to AWC member mills, which comprise more than 75% of the U.S. wood products industry
  19. The State of Canada’s Forests, 2012, Natural Resources Canada
  20. Managing Forests because Carbon Matters: Integrating Energy, Products, and Land Management Policy, Journal of Forestry, 2011, American Society of Foresters
  21. Impact of the global forest industry on atmospheric greenhouse gases, 2010, UNFAO
  22. Utilization of Harvested Wood by the North American Forest Products Industry, 2012, Dovetail Partners Inc.
  23. USDA Forest Service, Forests on the Edge project,

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Originally published in Architectural Record