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.

Changing Planet