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Making Wood Products Sustainable

Black and white. Photo by Greg Westfall tree

Photo by Greg Westfall on / CC BY

Do you shy away from wood products, thinking they may not be sustainable? While this can be true, when managed properly it can be a much better choice than plastic and metals.

First, a Little History

Throughout the ages, people across the globe have used wood products for just about anything imaginable. Wood can be bent, shaped, carved, fused with glue and nailed, burned, preserved, petrified and even turned into clothing.

As one of the most versatile materials on earth, it has been used by civilizations throughout the ages. In the industrial period of the United States, vast swaths of forest land were cleared for development and to supply the needs of an expanding national population that was hungry for housing and heat.

Land Clearing with the Westward Expansion

Those cleared lands were in turn used for farms, and to the adventurous folks who dared head west to the edge of the frontier, our forests seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of material from which to take without consequence.

Farm Horse Photo by Brody Vissers Depletion During the Industrial Revolution

As more and more people across the country (and the world) began to accumulate wealth, industry and trade expanded, making timber a highly desirable commodity. American lumber companies were felling trees not only to provide for a domestic market for wood products but also to export overseas to places like to Europe, which had nearly exhausted its supply of marketable timber due to centuries of overharvesting.  

The Third Blow to Forests - the Railroad

Once the advent of rail transportation arrived, a new and rapidly expanding thirst for timber emerged. Not only were wood products being used more for heat and housing than ever, but they were also used to build the very rail systems used to transport them from forest to consumer. Mississippi for example, saw a huge growth in both lumber and rail industries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as forests near navigable waterways were depleted and rail companies began laying dummy tracks into forests for the sole purpose of extracting timber.

Clear Cut Foresst

Photo by talaakso on / CC BY

Clearcutting - A Tragic Practice

Cutting forests for use as wood products without replanting or leaving standing trees to reseed is known as clearcutting. This was the preferred method of our early industrialist ancestors. Whether they didn’t know the harm being caused or they just chose to ignore it can be debated. However, one thing is clear: cutting a large swath of forest down to the ground and walking away isn’t exactly the best way to promote a renewable resource

Enter the conservationist—a nature-loving and respecting outdoors person who understands that forests are, in fact, not inexhaustible and must be replaced. Fast forward a number of years, and we come to one of the first major attempts at turning wood into a sustainable resource: replanting.

Replanting - an Attempt at Sustainability

Replanting can be accomplished by letting existing seeds in the soil sprout, taking advantage of the bounty of sunlight now allowed to penetrate to the forest floor. It can also be accomplished by leaving some standing trees to drop seeds, or already growing seedlings can be planted to directly replace those trees taken in the harvest.

All of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages, but one thing is for sure—they are far better at promoting renewable resource generation than turning a forest into a farm, eliminating that land from wood production entirely.

No Sustainability without Diversity

Great. We cut forests down, we replant them, they grow, and we cut them again. That’s sustainable, right? Not exactly.  In order for something to be sustainable, it must have the properties of diversity (in order to overcome unpredicted changes in the environment) and indefinite productivity. Cutting down a mixed hardwood forest, complete with various trees, plants, animals, fungus and microorganism species and replacing it with one species of tree that are all the same age hardly preserves diversity.

Lack of Diversity Leaves Trees Vulnerable

Similarly, this monoculture cannot be expected to produce and reproduce infinitely because the lack of species diversity opens the forest up to attack from disease and pests (take a look at what a changing climate has caused in the vast stands of whitebark pine trees in Idaho, for example). Add human-introduced pests such as the emerald ash borer, and all of a sudden planting one tree species to replace a diverse forest doesn’t seem like such a good idea.

Tree Replanting in Tanzania One Tree PlantedLet’s review our path towards answering the question of sustainable wood products so far. Cutting trees and replacing with nothing or with farms is not sustainable. Cutting trees and letting them reseed themselves, or replanting with a single species is not exactly sustainable either. There's our answer, right? Wood products are not sustainable. Not exactly.

The true answer to the question of sustainability lies with how we perceive or value it and our goals embedded within those perceptions and values. If the value of sustainability comes from preserving (or perhaps even increasing) the number of trees on the earth, then we might be satisfied with where conservation principles have taken us thus far (don’t forget that humans are still cutting down and burning forests all over the globe without replacing them). If our goals are to preserve/increase the number of trees and their interconnected inhabitants, then we still have some work to do.

So what can we do to help bring wood products closer to a truly sustainable product? As consumers, there are a number of things we can do ranging from things as simple as recycling and product choice to planting our own small-scale regenerative wood product forests.

We have no doubt benefited ourselves and the earth with our ever-growing recycling programs and infrastructure across the globe (never mind the growing plastic seascape in our oceans). Many of us recycle, but how many of us know what and how to recycle when it comes to wood products?

Recycling and Reusing - Important Steps in Sustainability

First, check with your local waste management department to see what things can be normally recycled with municipal services (paper, corrugated cardboard, etc.). For wooden bowls, toys, and furniture, etc. that are still usable, donate them to your local Goodwill, Salvation Army or similar organization.

Grunge Sepia Recycling from larger items such as furniture, cabinets, and paneling, look to your local chapter of Habitat for Humanity to potentially reuse or to sell to fund builds. If you just don’t know where to start, try the website, started by the American and Canadian Wood Councils.

Planting Trees Just for Harvest

For those that have the longer term of sustainability in mind, there are other options. If you own enough land and plan to stay put for a while, you can plant your own wood product forest to harvest at a later date for heating or for profit.

Planting more than one woodlot at various times can give the benefit of large-scale crop rotation and constant output, similar to agricultural practices. For information on sustainable timber production for profit, check out this website from the University of West Virginia’s Appalachian Hardwood Center and this one from the Ontario Woodlot Association.

Other Ways to Get Involved

Don’t have the time or land for personal woodlot management? How about donating time or money to tree planting? You can find out how many trees it takes to offset your personal carbon footprint and donate to a worthy tree planting cause at the website.

You can also help get more trees planted through websites such as and This Earth Day, make the effort to help make wood products more sustainable. You will be glad you did, and our forests will be better off for it!


About the Author

Author Gabriel Burgi

Gabriel Burgi is a nature lover and conservation advocate currently serving on active duty as a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. He holds degrees in Fishery Resources (B.S., University of Idaho, 2005) and Natural Resources (M.S., Oregon State University, 2013).

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