How the forest products industry helps family landowners and wildlife in the South

Tom MartinNext week marks National Forest Products Week, a time when we can recognize and appreciate the forest products industry. While at times, we hear concerns from some, about the forest products industry’s impact on our forests, this industry, is in fact, vital to restoring America’s forests.

Markets created by the forest products sector help pay for the practices that keep our forests healthy, such as removing dead trees, excising invasive species like kudzu, combating deadly bug outbreaks, making forests more fire resilient and replanting millions of tree seedlings. One place where this positive impact can be seen most clearly, is with the largest ownership group of forests, family forest owners, as they work to keep their forests producing all the benefits Americans count on – clean water, clean air and wildlife habitat.

The United States is 33 percent covered in forests. In the South in particular, which many refer to as the ‘woodbasket of America,’ it is nearly 50 percent forested. These Southern forests are some of the most productive lands for the forest products industry—supplying more wood for consumer products than any other place in the world. In fact, the industry in the South alone contributes more than $230 billion per year to the economy and supports more than 1.1 million jobs.

These same forests are also some of richest ecosystems, supporting some of the highest concentrations of wildlife species. But due to years of forest conversion to non-forest uses such as agricultural land and commercial development, as well as the overwhelming influx of invasive species, these wildlife are under pressure. In fact, there are 224 forest-dependent species listed as endangered or threatened today and an additional 293 candidate and petitioned species that could be listed in the near future.

While one might see wood supplies and wildlife as conflicting, a new report from the American Forest Foundation (AFF) found not only does the forest products industry coexist with wildlife conservation, it strengthens it.

According to AFF’s report, Southern landowners want to do the right thing and keep their forests healthy. In fact, 72% have already conducted one or more forest management practices for wildlife. And 73% want to or are considering conducting management practices for wildlife in the future.

What’s more, AFF’s report found that producing wood supplies and protecting wildlife go hand in hand: landowners who are harvesting are doing more for wildlife – 85% of those who have harvested have also implemented one or more other wildlife-improvement activities, compared to 62% of those who haven’t harvested.

This is the case because landowners who harvest or thin are working with foresters and professionals, and thus are receiving professional guidance on best management practices to address the range of issues our forests face: wildfires, invasive species, pests, a changing climate and more. They also have a source of income, thanks to the markets from the industry, allowing them to reinvest in more management of their land, often for what matters most to them: wildlife. Yet, only 40% of landowners are actively managing now, which presents a big opportunity for growth.

Keeping these markets robust is vital to this synergy between wood and wildlife, and encouraging more landowners to manage, because forest stewardship can be expensive. Thankfully, we are seeing rising interest in sustainable wood products. Consumers are not just demanding more products, they are calling for more environmentally-conscious companies and practices. Consumers want to know that products that come from forests also come from forests that provide for wildlife, keep water clean and will be there in the future.

New advancements in technology have helped make wood a popular building material. Tall wood buildings in particular are an emerging market that we must continue to grow. Forest products companies are developing unique mass timber products that are geared specifically towards housing and mid-rise construction. Today, some estimate that half the commercial buildings being built in the U.S., are being built to a green standard and wood is the greenest of building materials. More can be done, like passage of the Timber Innovation Act, a bill pending in Congress to encourage the growth of tall wood buildings in the U.S.

Ultimately, the forest products industry must continue to grow and thrive for the well-being of our forests. Robust markets will ultimately continue to keep our forests active, support family forest owners in stewardship and help protect our at-risk species for the future.