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  • Jessica Zimmer

How Greener Forestry Can Help Curb Climate Change

Increasing reliance on wood for building construction is good for the climate and forests, according to Dr. Edie Sonne Hall, founder and principal of Three Trees Consulting in Seattle. Sonne Hall, who has over 20 years experience in developing sustainable forestry strategies and policies, earned her Ph.D. in forest resources from the University of Washington.

forest, sky
Credit: Unsplash

“Wood is a green renewable resource, so managing a forest well creates far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than producing alternate building materials such as concrete. When the timber industry and mills work together effectively, a country can build more housing in a sustainable way than they would with other means,” said Sonne Hall.

The process starts with ensuring forests are managed in a way that protects them from insect outbreaks, fire, and invasive species.

“In the United States, most of the wood is grown in the southeastern states and the Pacific Northwest. There are 760 million acres of forest land in the U.S. Of those, 58% are privately owned. The largest percentage of privately owned forests are made up of small family landowners. Reaching out to these families is key,” said Sonne Hall.

Educating forest-owning families about the risks of climate change and long periods of fire suppression helps them care for their properties.

“With information, families who have not managed their forests better understand the concerns that arise from having a lot of trees that are small and crowded together. In addition, the government and the forestry industry can offer incentives to increase forest health, resilience, and productivity,” said Sonne Hall.

What changed during the pandemc

Wood framing has long been the dominant construction method for single-family homes in the U.S. Yet pandemic-period housing starts have swung high and low. Supply chain concerns and lower sales with higher mortgage rates pose concerns.

Homeowners and developers have been frustrated by the surge in wood prices. One of the reasons wood has come to be more in demand is residential renovations. These were up especially in the early months of the pandemic. New technologies in construction could help the industry meet homeowners’ and developers’ needs.

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“Building multi-story edifices with mass timber with a technique that typically involves gluing pieces of wood together (like 2 inch by 6 inch pieces) can create very strong panels. You can shape these into a building in any way. (The pieces) can be pre-cut at the manufacturing facility. This reduces waste and carbon emissions,” said Sonne Hall.

Criteria for certification

Increasing public awareness about the two methods of forest certification permits consumers to advocate for standards in forest management.

Worldwide, there are currently two certification systems for forests, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), which endorses regional standards such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and American Tree Farm System (ATFS). Both certification programs are run by international nonprofits.

Sonne Hall said the two programs accomplish roughly the same thing. They ensure that a forest remains biologically diverse, economically productive, and beneficial for local people and workers.

“FSC and PEFC/SFI have another set of fiber sourcing certification systems for mills. (These) ensure that all the wood coming into their mills, whether certified or not, is harvested according to best management practices,”said Sonne Hall.

Although climate change is slowly altering what species of trees can be grown in American forests, overall, planting more forests can improve air quality. The action also reduces the amount of greenhouse gasses.

“More trees in forests that are managed well takes carbon out of the atmosphere. Monitoring mill activities to optimize the best cuts of a log, chipping the remainder to pulp, and burning dust on site for energy help reduce waste and gas for transport,” said Sonne Hall.

Edie Sonne Hall
Dr. Edie Sonne Hall, founder and principal of Three Trees Consulting in Seattle. Credit: Edie Sonne Hall

Members of the public can learn more about the forestry industry by viewing purchasing wood as a way to address climate change.

“When workers, developers, and homeowners say, 'How can we use wood in a new home? How can we use wood in a non-residential multi-story building?' That’s the beginning of a conversation about planting forests, forest certification, and running mills. Discussions on all levels can then go in new directions. These could include identifying climate sensitive wood products and finding the best places to plant trees,” said Sonne Hall.

Consumer understanding that wood products from sustainably managed forests can help curb climate change allows people to feel good about using wood as a resource.

“The more demand you have for wood, the more productivity and the more involvement there can be with the natural landscape. Everyone taking a hands-on approach provides opportunities for dialogue, visits, increased visibility, and more transparency,” said Sonne Hall.


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