Last week was National Forest Products Week and Wednesday was National Bioenergy Day. While forest products had a brief moment in the sun earlier in the pandemic, back when toilet paper was flying from supermarket shelves across the country in preparation for lockdowns, it is all too often unclear to the general public what forest products actually are and what role they play in meeting the nation’s economic, environmental, and energy needs. So what is this industry that employs almost a million people and adds nearly $300 billion annually to GDP in the United States?
The USDA Forest Service (Forest Service) was founded by Congress in 1905, and its primary purpose was to provide water and timber for the nation. In fact, in the early days of the Forest Service, there was a policy of total fire suppression in order to protect standing timber. This legacy of fire suppression has had devastating consequences for the West, as wildfires explode year after year, in part thanks to the abundance of fuels. Under certain conditions, the country is now poised to potentially benefit from this abundance by thinning forests.
However, in many places across the West, the timber industry has declined. Reasons for this are complex and range from policy challenges to market forces, but since the Forest Service first began to market them over a hundred years ago, forest products themselves have moved far beyond timber.
Today, innovations in timber alone have led to mass timber and cross-laminated timber. Forest products have expanded to include new forms of bioenergy, and forests remain on the frontier of carbon markets. Mass timber is widely hailed as a solution to both an impending global housing crisis and climate change thanks to structural integrity on par with steel and concrete and the ability of wood to sequester carbon. Bioenergy, which was once limited to burning wood or charcoal to create heat, has progressed to the manufacture of wood pellets that burn cleaner, are easier to transport, and can be used to create electricity in addition to heat. While wood pellets are still more widely used outside the United States, foreign demand creates markets for domestic wood products, in some cases providing a crucial lifeline to an otherwise at-risk industry. Furthermore, trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it within their biomass. Forest carbon offsets are a relatively new forest product that allow Green House Gas-emitters to reduce or eliminate their net emissions by purchasing an equivalent offset. Carbon markets have been unevenly developed across forest ownerships in the United States, but progress is being made towards making them more accessible.
Policies are currently being explored for enabling forests to be monetized in increasingly diverse ways, including through participation in carbon markets. For example, The Rural Forests Markets Act, introduced in Congress earlier this year, aims to enable small, private forest landowners to participate in carbon markets. It would provide a federal loan guarantee to help nonprofits and companies support small forest landowners in creating and selling forest credits for carbon storage and other environmental benefits. This would incentivize forest management that also mitigates climate change as well as provides financial support to rural communities.
With increasing diversification and innovation, there is a vibrant future ahead for the forest products industry. The popularity of innovations ranging from new building materials to new sources of energy stand to benefit not only communities where livelihoods are tightly linked to natural resources but also private forest landowners and the world as a whole.