The Forest's PrimeEvil (Archive)
Ever since the hatchet gave way to the chainsaw, the timber industry has been an unsustainable and environmentally reckless undertaking. The efficiency of the capital markets and the self-destructive nature of mankind have proved to be a fatal combination. So lethal, in fact, that only 22% of the world’s original forests remain.
The fate of these forests, home to more than 200 million indigenous people and ninety percent of the planet’s remaining animal species, is closely tied to the health of the planet. How to manage the forests and for whose benefit defines the debate today.
Demand remains the biggest threat to the world’s forests. Timber is sought after by the world’s wealthy (houses, paneling, flooring, knick-knacks etc.) and poor (fuel) alike. Neither group, for very different reasons, has demonstrated a preference for how they get their wood as long as they get it. This leaves the protection of the forests in the hands of the very groups that previously conspired to destroy them: timber companies, governments, capitalists and consumers.
Unfortunately, the remaining Old Growth Forests (which have never been industrially logged and have the highest level of bio-diversity and conservation value) lay largely in the developing world where the pressure to exploit natural resources is the greatest, and protection the weakest. Based on human history, we know how vulnerable they are. Primeval forests, for example, once lent shade to the birthplace of western civilization in Ancient Greece. Today, it is illegal to cut down a tree in Athens because so few remain.
America’s story is no different. In a memoir written in 1874, Atlanta resident Absalom H. Chappell described forests which spread out in “unmarred primeval grandeur and beauty, a vast towering woodland scene.” Chappell’s wooded Atlanta was reduced to a moonscape in a matter of decades. Today, the only old growth wood left in Atlanta is on the shelves of Atlanta-based home improvement giant The Home Depot. As it turns out, however, The Home Depot is trying to change that, and in the process, has thrown its weight behind one of the most promising models to protect but still utilize – forests worldwide.
In August of 1999, The Home Depot announced plans to increase the sale of “certified” wood in its stores. Certified wood is monitored from forest to final product to ensure that it is harvested in a way that limits damage to bio-diversity and indigenous culture. The final product bears a seal ensuring this process. At The Home Depot, consumers will see the well-established Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) seal among others. The sheer size of The Home Depot, the world largest seller of timber, creates a huge market for certified timber. Since their announcement, home building giant Kaufman and Broad and America’s number two home improvement retailer Lowe’s, have announced similar commitments.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Price Waterhouse estimates that the market for certified wood will grow between 100% and 150% per year. It is also not surprising that many fear this demand will put pressure on the integrity of the certification process. Many environmentalists, for example, feel an Old Growth Forest should never be logged. To meet the demands of the market, this will not be possible – even with FSC certification.
Ironically, the leaders in creating a marketplace for certified wood are feeding the inferno of demand. Both The Home Depot and Lowe’s are adding stores at a furious pace. The Home Depot has gone from 500 to 1000 stores over the past four years and plans to hit 2000 over the next four years. Lowe’s, already with 589 stores per week, is currently in the midst of a $2 billion expansion to add more than one new store per week. This means that despite the evolving policies at these large retailers, more old growth wood will be sold in the next few years than ever before in history.
So the move toward certified wood, in itself, is not a panacea to balance the appetite of the world’s consumers with the conservation of the world’s forests. Corporate and consumer behavior must continue to improve and the needs of the poor in the developing world must be met. Certification is part of the solution. Complacency is not. To put it in perspective, it would take at least a thousand years to add to the world’s Old Growth forests. By most estimates, it will only take about twenty to wipe out what we have left.