Ancient forests are one of the earth's most spectacular natural wonders, yet after years of logging, most old growth forests have been destroyed. As consumer demand controls the market for wood, public pressure can make all the difference in saving this irreplaceable world treasure. To preserve our last unprotected ancient forests while ensuring a supply of lumber for future generations, we have to support sustainable harvesting methods and use sustainable alternatives.
How to Identify Old Growth Wood
Biologists define "old growth" as coming from trees which have been growing for approximately 200 years or longer. The lumber industry defines trees by lumber grades, not age. As old-growth wood provides the highest quality lumber, it accounts for much of the "upper" or "architectural" grade wood.
Other "Common" or "Garden" grades of old growth lumber include "Construction" and "Merchantable" grade lumber, either heartwood or sapwood. The primary difference between the upper and lower grades are appearance, number of knots, size of growth rings, and structural strength. The common grades probably do not come from old-growth trees, but may come from clearcut forests.
Certified Sustainably Harvested Wood
Around the world, hundreds of private landowners, forest managers, manufacturers, and retailers now produce and supply wood products from well-managed forests. They are supported by a network of independent certification organizations that assess their management practices under a stringent set of environmental and social criteria. Producers and manufacturers who satisfy these criteria may apply the certifier's label to their product. So, forest product certification provides a "chain of custody" to allow consumer tracking of products from forest to market, ensuring accountability of producers and cultivating trust among buyers. Certified harvested wood is competitively priced with non-certified wood. With all of these precautionary measures being taken on by the industry, there is absolutely no reason that old growth forests should continue to be destroyed.
For non-weight-bearing features (window framing and decks, for example) consider reclaimed or recycled lumber. Reclaimed lumber, from houses, railroad tracks, and other sources, helps reduce waste while taking a burden off the forests of the world. It is cheaper than certified lumber, but can be harder to find.
The term "composite" lumber does not describe one specific product, but rather a broad range of materials with various qualities and characteristics. In general it is made from recycled plastics and wood although the amount of recycled content may vary widely. Competitively priced, it does not require finishing or sealing, will not rot, and is widely available.
Along with using certified, recycled, or composite lumber there is a growing list of non-wood options. The market for high quality lumber and paper products is growing and is increasing the demand for newer and better non-wood alternatives.
In construction, lumber may be replaced with other materials such as concrete, stone, or straw bale as structural components. Homosote is a building material that is made out of recycled material that is chemical free and can be used for many structural materials ranging from exterior structural board to interior paneling. Earthen building techniques and other ecologically friendly technologies are continually being refined.
One alternative to virgin fiber paper is paper products that have 100 percent recycled paper content or are produced using alternative fibers, such as agricultural residue. For more information on how to actively reduce consumption of tree-based products, such as paper, wood and paper bags, and convince others to do the same, please go to the Smart Paper Project.
When considering alternatives to wood in paper, there are many options as well. A fibrous African plant called kenaf is an excellent wood replacement. It produces several times more paper per acre than tree farms and requires less chemical processing. Hemp and agricultural waste also produce high quality paper that is competitively priced. Reconsidering our habits of consumption and lifestyle can open up many new and creative choices to help improve our world and the world of our children.