Changing Planet

Vashon: Where Trees Can Be Cut Down—And It’s Okay

“Thou shalt not cut down trees” is pretty high up in the environmentalist handbook. Human development has done enough damage to the world, we often hear, leave the trees alone. And besides, they’re the ones dutifully soaking up the carbon dioxide and the floating particulates we pump into the air that can make us sick.

But there’s an uglier truth about wood. While we’re busy saving the trees in our back yard and our nature preserves, we’re not using any less wood. In fact, centuries after humans innovated beyond burning wood as the most efficient way to create energy, we’re using more than ever—nearly 4 billion cubic meters worth each year, in fact, or more than 50 percent of the Earth’s sustainable capacity, according to a report from the World Wildlife Fund. It’s in our floors, our walls, the furniture we sit on. Expensive wood is dense. Dense wood means its old.

So where does it come from? Not always the most feel-good places. Countries like China and Russia export a lot of the world’s wood, and its sourced from forests and farms that can have much more lax regulations than you’d find in places like the U.S. and Canada. Our verdant back yard looks nice, until you realize that for you to sit at your oak table means that someone else’s back yard had to be chopped down.

Dave Warren runs the Vashon Forest Stewards, a sustainable logging project on Washington's Vashon island.
Dave Warren runs the Vashon Forest Stewards, a sustainable logging project on Washington’s Vashon island.

That’s the idea that drives the Vashon Forest Stewards, a small band of tree enthusiasts we visited who are trying to take “sustainable logging” past simple marketing-speak. The group has a unique gift. On Vashon island, just a 15-minute ferry ride west of Seattle, the trees grow lush and fast. Sometimes, the group’s head Dave Warren told us, there are too many trees, a thickness that can stunt the growth of all trees as they battle for limited light and nutrients.

So Warren, a longtime environmentalist—and we actually found the group through Michael Laurie, one of Vashon’s top environmental advocates and consultants—is comfortable chopping down trees. Selectively, that is. And in hopes of selling the wood locally, right on the island. Last year, the group put together a wall for a nearby school and a picnic overhang in a park. The output isn’t huge (about 50,000 board feet a year, enough to build a handful of houses), but it’s local wood that never has to take a ferry on or off the island.

“Thinning these forests can actually make them healthier,” Warren told us, not long after he let me move around some logs. “It also makes us better stewards of our forests.” He’s right. Taking down some trees helps manage the health of other parts of the forest. Finding a use for that felled wood, it seems, is just an extra benefit.

The model isn’t one that can work everywhere. There aren’t many places where wood is more abundant than the green Pacific Northwest. But the key might be in not being overzealous about wood. In that sense, I think of Vashon as a kind of metaphor for the planet—only so big and with a finite number of resources. Getting people to think about using only what’s in their backyard means that other people’s back yards can stay healthier, too.

  • Kirk Francis

    It’s all about balance…. for too many years the pendulum has remained static on the side of “Thou shalt not cut any trees”, when in fact, in the U.S., we plant more trees every year than we harvest… and its been that way for quite awhile…. so we need to get used to saying: “It’s okay to cut down trees… in a very managed, responsible way”… let’s keep repeating that over and over again…..

  • Coniferae Tree Care

    That makes a lot of sense to be cutting down trees in overpopulated areas and try to minimize the amount. Responding to Kirk’s point re: there being more trees planted every year than harvested, ok yes that is the case, but an old, mature tree is much more beneficial to the environment than a newly planted, young one. Which is why well established trees are *usually* better left untouched rather than having a tree – or five – planted in its place. I’m an ISA-certified arborist for a living ( and I try to do my bit in my urban environment at least to educate homeowners and attempt to convince them not to have their trees cut down (unless of course it’s necessary). Planting an abundance of trees every year is great, but keeping as many healthy mature trees as possible is necessary.

  • Byron

    Coniferae is right…many of these big trees being cut down are 500-1000s of years old (in the Pacific NW, at least). So no matter how many new trees are planted in place, they’re not going to take the place of these bigger trees until they reach a significant age. The rate that we’re chopping these big trees compared to the rate these trees grow back is NOT sustainable.

    People are going to use wood no matter what. So yes, thinning is the *most responsible* way to do it… In limited areas. People who live in tree-less areas (I.e. Iowa) should not be using entirely wood to build houses. Why not strawbale houses? Just as effective, cheaper, & IBC approved. I think we should also look into farming redwood for lumber…grows 6 feet/yr & excellent wood.

    And for the record: There is no possible way that thinning forests or messing with forests in any way can make them “healthier”. All it does is give more sunlight to the bigger trees. What’s going on underneath is just as important. More sunlight could also mean the forest floor dries out quicker, and fallen trees provide mulch/compost & habitat for insects. Let’s not try to justify chopping trees by telling ourselves were actually “helping” the forest, eh? The forest is just fine w/o us…we are the ones dependent on the forest.

  • Byron

    By the way, see that stump slice he’s holding in the photo? That tree looks freshly cut & is probably a few thousand years old. Look how many slices they can get from that single stump…do you know how much a nice tabletop made from that slice would go for? A lot. I think this group has other incentives than just “helping” the forest. I honestly think it’s dishonest and wrong how they call themselves “stewards”.

  • Ed

    In reply to Byron’s comment on the tree slice, if you look at the growth rings that tree would be lucky if it is 100 years old. They grow good here in WA. Douglas-fir seldom get to 700 year old before they fall over. We have not been allowed to cut any old growth in Western Washington since the middle 90s so I don’t really know what you are talking about. For your own information the most diverse forests are the ones that have both vertical and horizontal heterogeneity. Even age highly dense stands do not have much diversity they shade out all the potential plants growing in the forest floor. The most diverse are pre forest successional stage and old growth with the young forest stage, up to 100 years, and the mature forest stage , up t 250 years old, not being very diverse. Diversity comes from heterogeneity not closed in forests. When we create openings and gaps in a Western moist forest we are mimicking nature and creating old growth conditions. Openings in forests happen naturally all the time, to protect every tree in the forest from anything is also mans influence on the forest.

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