Every few years, I’m treated to a recurring dream, an archetypal dream that I’ve heard others describe as well. In it, I have just moved into a new house, and as I settle into my new place, I walk into a room and see a door I don’t remember. When I go through the door, I see a whole new room. Oh my god, I say to myself, I didn’t even know I had that, what incredibly good fortune. It gets even better – I keep going and I discover all sorts of new rooms. Sometimes there’s a hayloft in a barn, sometimes a roomy attic. It’s a wondrous dream, and I wake up full of a sense of possibility.

In the first few centuries that Europeans explored and settled North America, a dream like this pervaded the collective – and then national – consciousness. The pioneers kept going west, and they kept finding more: more forests full of timber and fuel, more rivers teeming with fish, more food, more goods in a land of plenty. Possibilities were limitless. This continent was a gold mine, a cornucopia, a land of infinite opportunity.

Though the continent was fully settled more than a century ago, we’ve only recently awakened from that dream, but rather than waking refreshed, it’s more like we have a hangover. We understand that the years of plenty are over, that limitless growth has consequences, that resources are not infinite. We’ve come to realize that our way of life may not be sustainable, particularly since the rest of the world wants to share our good fortune.

In the forestry world, I’ve been familiar with the term “sustainability” for as long as I’ve been covering forests and their uses. One of the green certification programs – the Sustainable Forestry Initiative – incorporates it in its name; all of them have it at their core.

The concern over forest sustainability is much older than this, of course. It dates back at least to Gifford Pinchot’s return from Europe in the late 19th century, where he’d gone to study forestry, since it didn’t yet exist in any curriculum in this country. He brought back the concept of sustained yield, which is the forestry version of conserving wealth by living off the interest and not touching the principal. The idea was that forests grow a certain amount of wood each year, and if we remove no more than that, our forests can sustain us far into the future.

From that beginning, our understanding has become more sophisticated over the years, and the study of ecology has evolved to focus on the interrelatedness of all elements in the larger system. Today, we don’t measure sustainability only in timber, because we recognize that the entire support system must be sustained as well.

A forest is a tremendously complex assemblage of plants, animals, and inorganic materials, some of them minuscule, like soil bacteria and scale insects, and some imposingly grand, like white pine and bull moose. We continue to study and marvel at the interactions among the parts in this living, breathing system, and many ecologists believe that our understanding is in its infancy. Still, if we look at the system purely through the very limited lens of the benefits it provides humans, it is spectacular.

Wood products are the most obvious: lumber, paper, fuel for heating and electricity. But the forest’s resources go far beyond those made of wood fiber. Trees breathe in nutrients (some of them pollutants) from the air and exhale oxygen, thereby cleaning the air we breathe. Forests absorb rainfall and release it slowly, reducing the frequency of damaging floods. This also filters the water, which gradually makes its way into our wells and water systems. In fact, the drinking water for our two largest cities, Boston and New York, requires little in the way of additional filtration, springing as it does in the midst of forests that surround the municipalities’ reservoirs.

Clean air and drinking water are not luxuries to be enjoyed by some but rather necessities for all. And there’s even more. Stunningly beautiful, forests provide us a place for spiritual or psychic renewal; or for those not on that kind of quest, there’s recreation: hiking, hunting, skiing, snowshoeing, and watching the animals that are integral to the system. And given the headlines we’re all growing accustomed to, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the forest’s great capacity to sequester carbon. As part of its respiratory system, a tree absorbs carbon dioxide and stores it, primarily in its limbs, bole, and root system. Carbon also remains sequestered when harvested trees have long-term uses, such as buildings and furniture.

These ecosystem services, as they’ve come to be known, are not coming to us through a public works project or a government program. The government doesn’t own this land. In fact, unlike the more recently settled West, our region has very little publicly owned land. Even in New York, with its two grand forest reserves in the Adirondacks and the Catskills, the government only owns 15 percent of the land. In the six states of New England, the government owns only 7 percent. All of these ancillary benefits come to us free of charge, compliments of the people who own the land.

In New England and New York combined, there are 450,000 people who own at least 10 acres of this forest, most of them living in or near their woodland holdings, sprinkled here and concentrated there. That means that for sustainability to be measured, social and cultural elements need to be considered as well.

Our forests, as they have developed over the last few centuries, have our fingerprints all over them. We live in them, work in them, recreate in them. The region’s wealth is spread among the landowners and the people who work in the woods and in the mills and factories where wood is turned into products we all use. The forest is the primary rural economic engine, even though the industry’s presence might seem invisible to someone flying over the Northeast’s forests. Spread throughout the region, mostly in relatively small facilities, forest-based manufacturing in New York and northern New England contributes $14.4 billion to the economy, according to a 2007 report by the Northeast State Foresters Association. The same report estimates that landowners were paid $557 million annually in stumpage payments for trees cut from their woods.

Over the years, people have realized that all of that economic activity – logging, trucking, burning, manufacturing – can adversely affect the system. Today, mills and factories are taking significant measures to avoid polluting the air and water. In working in the woods, loggers are more careful to protect the soil and the water.

These improvements have resulted largely from pressure from environmental activists and conservationists. Their justifiable outrage at some of the most egregious violations has pushed those who want to stay in business to be ever more accountable to the public. And while the certification systems that sprang up 15 years ago – Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) – have still not put significantly more money in the hands of people whose work has been certified, they have contributed to a wholesale improvement in the management of the woods, from silvicultural prescriptions (choice of trees to cut) to harvesting operations (how the work is accomplished).

So doesn’t it seem that we are on the right road and that everything is going in the right direction? There’s one problem, and, unfortunately, it’s a large one. That economic engine, the recently robust $14.4 billion engine, has stalled. 

Prices paid today for stumpage are half what they were three years ago. Hardwood and softwood sawmills are selling much less lumber, and what they manage to sell leaves the yard at prices last seen in 1996. The housing slump that began in 2006 reduced demand for lumber at a time when the wood business was already struggling to compete with an emerging industry in Asia. Doug Britton, who owns a white pine sawmill in Fairlee, Vermont, said, “Every board we saw, we lose money on. The more we produce, the more we lose.” Despite that, he has kept his mill operating at nearly full capacity, largely in order to keep his work force employed. His company, like all of those who have survived thus far, is counting on the cycle coming around again. If they’re right, they will be in position to supply lumber to a hungry market. If they’re wrong, the consequences will be dire – not only for them but for the sustainability of the forest system.

If the forest industry fails, there’s nothing standing in the way of a wholesale sell-off of forestland. Think back to that $557 million in stumpage payments parceled out to landowners across the region. Those payments helped people pay their property taxes, helped them to make improvements or repairs, helped them to justify the cost of holding onto their land. It turns out my dream of endless possibilities does not pertain to potential sources of revenue from the land. If the lumber business dries up, then the only remaining source of income for most landowners is the land itself.

It’s a time-honored rural tradition to sell off a building lot when the going gets tough, because land is often a person’s only savings account. The trend toward smaller parcel size has seemed inexorable as families or individuals sell or bequeath parts of their holdings when life circumstances change: four siblings inherit the family farm and divide the land, or a daughter is given a 10-acre lot so she and her new husband can build a house.

This ordinary rate of parcelization, however, will progress geometrically if we all lose the opportunity to sell timber. Parcelization is a cause, and fragmentation is the effect. As parcels are developed, driveways and dwellings fragment the natural system. All of the ecosystem services that accrue in an intact forest are compromised in a fragmented landscape that becomes not rural but suburban. The process would also quicken the erosion of the culture and backwoods ethos that is cherished by those born here and has been a drawing card for many who’ve moved here.

Bit by bit, as we learn how interconnected all of the parts of the system are, we come to an ever-expanding definition of sustainability. It’s not really a paradox – though you’d be forgiven if you thought it one – that the people who cut down trees and turn them into products are the single most important and effective means for keeping this forest intact.

  1. John Rajala → in Bigfork, Minnesota
    Jan 09, 2010


    I enjoyed your article.  We in the Lake States are bound to you in New England by a common forest resource, a common desire for our industries to survive, and most importantly a common to desire to achieve real sustainability.

    Thank you for your thoughts…they are spot on.

  2. Steve Long → in Corinth, Vermont
    Jan 12, 2010

    I tried to email John Rajala back to continue the discussion and couldn’t find a way to do that. I went to his blog, which is terrific. Click on his name above and you’ll go there. All sorts of great info, and really nice writing and photos of his work with wood and Minnesota’s forests. Thanks for participating, John.

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