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Forestry and wood use are ignored or unfairly treated

Wink Sutton's Blog
Sunday, November 29, 2009

On a per capita basis the world’s human population currently uses a greater weight of wood than the combined total weight of at least 10 of the most common plant foods. Wood is our most versatile and our only major raw material that is renewable. Given wood’s environmental friendliness, its low energy requirements and its potential as a supplier of renewable energy, we should expect greater encouragement for forestry and the use of wood.

But this is not so. At the international level wood use and forestry are very largely ignored.

The principle aim of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit was Agenda 21 − the environmental blueprint for the 21st Century. Initially, forestry aspects were almost ignored. There were only two topics that were in any way related to forestry − combating desertification and preventing tropical deforestation. The world has Malaysia to thank for widening the discussion to include all of the world’s forests and New Zealand to thank for recognising the contribution of plantations or planted forests.

Now the international focus is on reducing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As they grow, forests sequester carbon and the use of wood either releases energy, effectively stored solar energy, or is a low energy and environmentally friendly raw material. In permanent structures wood continues to store carbon. Even if the carbon in wood is finally released into the atmosphere it is recycled as it re-sequestered by the growing forest. We would expect that this renewable and environmentally friendly recycling system should be given at least equal if not privileged treatment – again, not so.

Although forestry and wood use have much to offer in the reduction of greenhouse gases, the present Kyoto rules are hardly favourable to either forestry or wood use. Carbon credits can only be claimed for trees planted since 1989. When trees are harvested the forest owner has to repay those carbon credits unless the forest canopy remains intact. No credit can be claimed for any carbon stored in wood products. This is in striking contrast to how fossil fuels are treated. For fossil fuels there is no carbon penalty at extraction and all carbon penalties fall on the user.

Why is forestry and wood use so poorly treated when is has so much to contribute to the present aim of restricting the release of carbon into the atmosphere? Could it be because forestry departments world-wide are small and dominated by agriculture. Wood’s competitors are often the products of very large and powerful companies. In comparison, wood companies are small – the largest wood company in the world controls a little over two per cent of the world’s industrial wood.

Subsidies are being proposed for carbon polluters. Subsidies are great for carbon polluting companies as their carbon emitting products face no increase in price. The cost of their carbon pollution is transferred to the tax-payer. Rarely discussed are the marketing distortion effects of these subsidies. Without subsidies the carbon polluting products would be more expensive, and environmentally friendly wood products would be more price competitive. The demand for wood products would increase and forest establishment and management would be encouraged. Our present government has said it wants to encourage forest establishment but its proposal to introduce market distorting subsidies greatly undermines this forestry objective.

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The importance of experience

Wink Sutton's Blog
Sunday, August 30, 2009

Peter Koch was a most productive forest products scientist. His publications include a series on the southern pines and lodgepole pine – known as contorta pine in New Zealand. Although a forest products scientist Peter was always understanding of forest growers and had an in-depth knowledge of forest management. Peter and I exchanged letters and I met him on several occasions in North America. Our last meeting was in June 1997 when he told me he had terminal cancer and would soon die. After he died I wrote to his wife and she replied that before he passed away Peter had asked her to send me a book he had printed privately.

The book Elers Koch – forty years a forester soon arrived. What an insight. Being a forester’s son explains Peter’s interest in and knowledge of forest management as well as his sympathy with forest growers.

In 1899 Elers Koch aged 19 was working for the Bureau of Forestry when he met its chief, Gifford Pinchot, later to become the first chief of the newly created Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Pinchot’s magnetic personality and enthusiasm so influenced Elers that he took a masters degree in forestry at Yale. On graduating in 1903 he joined Gifford Pinchot as a forester and spent his whole career with the US Forest Service.This was mostly on forests in the western States but sometimes in the Washington DC head office. Retiring in 1944 he subsequently wrote this book which was only published privately by his son.

Elers was proud to be one of Gifford Pinchot’s ‘young men’. He wrote, ‘I often think what a wonderful thing it was to have a government bureau with nothing but young men in it.’ Yet in 1935 he published The passing of the Lola Trial. In this article Elers was very critical of the US Forest Service policy of fighting all forest fires.This was a policy undoubtedly first developed by the young foresters in the US Forest Service.

I took from Elers’ writings two important lessons. First is the importance of charismatic leadership in attracting competent staff. Secondly, for organisations to have a mix of young and old staff – the young keen to change things and the mature to balance the young enthusiasm with wisdom that is the result of experience.

This is in real contrast to the current thinking where government departments appear to exist to await directions from politicians. Have we learned so little of why there were so many policy successes in the past?

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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