U.S. Depends on Forest Products Trade

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Several comments on this blog argue that the U.S. depends on forest products imports to satisfy its consumption. That’s half correct and misses the point.

In 2014, the U.S. bought forest products from other countries to the tune of $42 billion. We buy wood products from Canada, China, and the EU.

But, wait, there’s more! In 2014, the U.S. forest products industry also sold $41 billion of wood products to consumers in other countries — Canada, China, with the EU and Mexico tied for third. In other words, we buy as much wood stuff from other countries as we sell to other countries, and to and from the same countries, too.

It’s also worth noting that “Timber demands—not timber supplies—currently limit production growth in the United States” (quoting the abstract). The U.S. has seen a long-term decline in paper and pulp demand associated with decreasing manufacturing (less demand for cardboard boxes to package the stuff we aren’t making so much of) and increasing use of computers that replace paper to record and store information.

The U.S. forest products industry depends on trade. It depends on international trade agreements. It depends on interest rates, currency exchange rates, and other macroeconomic factors that serious people think about. Those people don’t care about national forest logging levels.

4 Comments

  1. Andy, I appreciate your analysis. However, I do not think you can accurately conclude, by lumping the entire forest products industry together, that national forest harvest levels do not matter. They may not matter on a national scale, but they matter quite a bit to individual mills, communities and regions in the West and those people do care a lot.

    What is true at a national level is not always true at a local level. And it is careless to disregard the lived experiences of people living in the rural west as if they don’t matter.

    At some point, I also believe that we need to have a national conversation about the impact of our consumer choices when it comes to wood products and whether it is more desirable-socially, environmentally–to source our wood products from a place we are familiar with and that has environmental regulations and labor laws in place.

    Is it not somewhat narrow-minded to bicker over relatively insignificant increases in harvest levels from national forests when we are consuming wood products from countries with little or no environmental regulations, impacting people and communities with very little political power?

    I look forward to your thoughts.

    • As Chelsea notes correctly, my post focused on the nation’s wood products economy, at which scale national forest logging levels are irrelevant. Chelsea poses a different question. Do national forest logging levels matter at a local scale? And, if so, are the fiscal and environmental trade-offs worth the local benefits?

      So what do I mean by fiscal trade-offs? For many western national forests (not all), the cost of producing a log isn’t worth the price purchasers are willing to pay for the wood. Granted, the Forest Service’s costs of production are high relative to other landowners, but even low-cost private landowners in much of the slow-growing West have a tough time competing with southeast timberland owners who can grow a merchantable product in half or less the time. For example, that’s why Idaho’s newest 12-employee lumber mill can’t compete nationally, but, by cutting its costs (e.g., labor and transportation) to the bone hopes to be competitive selling 2×6’s to local homebuilders. In addition to getting national forest timber at below-cost rates, the new mill also got a little government subsidy in the form of “tax-exempt financing on a $10 million bond.”

      As for whether we should lower our own environmental bar because countries we buy from have “little or no environmental regulations” and people with “very little political power,” I don’t think Canadians, our largest wood products trading partners, think of themselves as environmentally backwards or powerless.

  2. Andy

    In addition to Chelsea’s comments there are additional problems with your source. The implications that you seem to draw from that source seem short sighted to me and ignore the interconnections between the economics and forest health/stability.

    A) Economics:
    – 1) The Key Findings in your source totally ignores biomass for solid and liquid fuels. This market sector is in the early stages of its learning and market growth curves. As this market and other markets grow, there will be a significant compensation for the loss of paper demand (primarily in newsprint and writing papers) at the national level. If we get serious about keeping carbon currently stored underground in the ground, we will develop the promising future of wood in replacing those extracted chemicals to produce the plastics and other countless items that we currently use to make just about everything.
    – 2) The only thing that we know for sure about any economic forecast is that it is wrong. As “A-1” implies it is not very wise to throw one’s hands up in the air and say: “Timber demands—not timber supplies—currently limit production growth in the United States”. I can only take that to mean that you think that we don’t need to worry about increasing our harvest levels’. Otherwise, I can’t see why you would have brought it up. Demand can be increased by increases in supply at lower prices to reduce the costs of maintaining healthy, low risk forests. New technology leading to new markets for wood will also change the demand curve. A focus on “current” conditions is very short sighted especially when dealing with a long life cycle renewable resource that depends on varying degrees of management to insure sustainability at all stages of succession.

    B) Plant Physiology and healthy Forest Ecosystems:
    – 1) If we are serious about protecting all desirable species, we must provide for fairly uniform sustainability at all stages of succession in our local forest ecosystems.
    – 2) If we agree with “B-1” then we must agree that risk of catastrophic loss must be reduced where possible. We must agree that huge acreages of loss threaten the very species that we claim to want to protect.
    – 3) If we agree with “B-2” then, in order to minimize risk, we must apply the fundamental laws of:
    — a) plant physiology dictating the impact of competition on plant health,
    — b) fire science dictating the physics of ignition and spread of fire and
    — c) insects and pathogens and their propensity to target based on proximity and their probability of success being inversely proportional to the health of the target.
    – 4) This document will show you some facts that you probably were unaware of:
    – Page 23 & 24 – Mortality is excessive in the west because of unhealthy overgrown federal stands. The total of mortality and removals in the west exceeds growth again. The whole idea of removals is to reduce mortality by utilizing a large proportion before it dies or is killed by catastrophic loss and to reestablish younger healthier stands that will provide for a continuum of all stages of succession with lower risk of loss. Increasing harvests in the west from 1952 through 1986 decreased mortality accordingly and then increased growth in ’86 & ’96 and then the reduction in harvests after 1990 led to an increase in mortality again and a decrease in growth from somewhere after 2000. Some of that is due to longer rotation ages and some may be acceptable as a trade off for truly old growth dependent species providing continuity of habitats can be maintained which I seriously doubt.

    C) If we agree with “B-3” then, as mentioned in “A-2”, we must consider the total enterprise economics to properly maintain our national forests as required by law. Alternatives must be compared based on the total costs of maintaining our national forests including the costs of administration, fire fighting, insect and disease control, non-commercial projects to restore unhealthy forests at high risk for non sustainability and any profit or cost reduction gained from commercial activities which help to achieve the objective. It seems to me that we have three alternatives to choose from:
    – 1) Steady as she goes. Continue to let convoluted laws and policies, (NEPA, Planning Act, MUSYA, NFMA & etc.) with internally conflicting dictates, result in high cost and high risk of non-sustainability for local landscape level forest ecosystems and their dependent species.
    – 2) Sustainable continuum at all stages of succession. Manage each forest for a sustainable continuum at all stages of succession for all desirable forest types/ecosystems. The resulting matrix of different stages of types (species and species mixes) at different densities and heights at different age classes will reduce the risk of catastrophic loss from fire, insects and disease and provide all of the niche habitats required. If endangered species depend on their nesting and foraging habitats, this approach provides their best chance of survival while eliminating all of the self contradictory components of current policy. Elimination of those contradictory items will in and of itself increase the chances of survival for endangered species by allowing management to more easily attain sound and more sustainable simplified goals.
    – 3) 50/50 split. Implement a national comparison of the two above preceding opposing alternatives. This approach would keep all presently reserved forests under current policies. All remaining lands would be split 50/50 with half being controlled by the “C-1 Steady as she goes” policies and the remaining would be controlled by “C-2 Sustainable continuum at all stages of succession”.

    If we do only “C-1” we have no chance to do the best for our national forests since we currently ignore much of the science mentioned in “B-3”. “C-3”, the 50/50 split is the only way to convince the public that science is better than emotions and wishful thinking. So “C-3” is the only hope for an improvement in the health of our national forests and those species that depend on them for the habitats that those forests create.

  3. Does anyone have any data on just how much wood is being consumed in the United States currently that comes from “countries with little or no environmental regulations?”

    I understand that some of these countries exist, but I also want to better understand how much of the U.S. wood consumption comes from such places.

    My organization, the WildWest Institute, was originally founded as the Native Forest Network, a global collective of forest activists and groups in 1992. In fact, the group wasn’t even originally founded in the U.S. but instead was founded in Tasmania, Australia at a place called Jackeys Marsh, at the base of the Great Western Tiers and the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

    Anyway, I didn’t get involved with the group until 1996, but the Native Forest Network did do quite a bit of work with forest activists and indigenous communities in various parts of the world, including Chile, Argentina, Russia, Cameroon, Mexico, Nicaragua, Poland, other EU countries and a bunch of countries I’m no doubt leaving out. The thing we heard time and time again from both forest activists and indigenous communities in these places when we asked what was the best thing we, as U.S. forest activists, could do to help them protect forests and wild areas in their own areas….and we were nearly always told that the U.S. could be leaders by protecting National Forests from the huge logging and roadbuilding projects that typified U.S. management during the era of the 1960s well into the 1990s. Even in these far-flung corners of the world, and long before the internet was even around, or of much use, the images and stories of how the U.S. had and was managing their own public forests was fairly common knowledge around the globe.

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