Need More Cheap Lumber? Learn to Conserve

The solution to high prices in the US is not to import more inexpensive, clear-cut Canadian timber

It's a rare day in the US when the largest American timber companies and the least compromising environmental groups agree on a forest issue. But when it comes to importing more inexpensive, clear-cut Canadian timber into the US to lower lumber prices, that's what happens.

Real estate developers recently took the Clinton administration to task for allowing the price of an average new home to increase by $2,000. In their minds, the culprit is a shortage of framing lumber, which caused prices to rise by one-third last year. Their solution: Get rid of import restrictions on cheaper, subsidized Canadian wood and use it to frame the bulk of our new homes.

Granted, the US needs safe, affordable housing, but we don't need to deforest Canada or eliminate American timber jobs to get it. Faced with the real cost of Canadian lumber in terms of human rights and environmental integrity, this ceases to be an attractive solution. We can learn to conserve wood, lessen our demand for lumber, and reduce the pressure on forests.

Generous government subsidies and weaker environmental laws make Canadian imports cheaper than American lumber. Most Canadian timber comes from the forests of British Columbia. These are the forests of travel-ad fame, where trees grow to be 1,700 years old, river otters and salmon swim in clear-running streams, and bald eagles fly overhead.

The forests are famous for their biological diversity and density, boasting the highest biomass of any on earth. And these forests also are known for their destruction: They are being clear-cut faster than any other in the world. Ninety-five percent of the timber logged in British Columbia comes from old-growth forests.

THE British Columbia government all but gives these forests away to a handful of powerful companies. Three giants control half of the coastal rain forest land. And logging fees are so low that even a recent 70 percent increase brought them up to only one-third of US levels, which are themselves below market value. Canada's new Endangered Species Act pertains to only 1.1 percent of British Columbia, so timber companies contribute less money to wildlife protection than their US counterparts.

While the cutting continues, the ownership of this valuable land is in dispute. The native peoples of British Columbia still have outstanding land claims over a vast majority of these forests. Unlike Native Americans south of the border, British Columbia's First Nations never lost their land in battle nor ceded it in treaty negotiations. The courts may give it back to them one day, minus the forests and the wildlife.

But no matter how much we may condemn Canadian forestry practices, our consumption patterns send another message. Americans use more wood than anyone else on earth, and this drives deforestation at home and abroad. We are catastrophically wasteful, throwing out 13.7 million tons of wood every year that could be used to make engineered lumber, furniture, and paper.

We build most of our houses using a construction method that has not been significantly improved in 100 years, despite advances in engineering knowledge. According to the National Association of Home Builders (a group that advocates increased Canadian lumber imports), builders can reduce the cost of an average home by 12 percent by using wood-efficient framing techniques and engineered lumber. Other estimates put the savings as high as 35 percent. In fact, the rising cost of dimensional lumber could be just the catalyst the housing industry needs to embrace these resource-efficient innovations.

Of course, no law of government or nature requires houses to be built of wood, although the timber industry spends millions of dollars each year trying to ensure that building officials, regulators, and consumers continue this practice. The most plentiful building materials in this country are earth and rock, which are used in many forms to provide safe and comfortable housing all over the world but are passively discouraged in the US by building codes. Our waste stream - from bales of straw to blocks of polystyrene - is another source of material that can be used to replace much of the wood in building.

THE most effective action we can take is to learn to live modestly, a point underscored recently by the distinguished conservative thinker William Bennett. In a National Press Club address, he asked, "Why, when we have so much material wealth, are Americans so cynical, so distressed, so angry with each other, so untrusting, so ticked off about so many things?" He noted that Americans consume twice as many goods and services as they did immediately after World War II, and the average home today is twice as large as it was then. He concluded, "We are making desires into needs, and are, as a result, not living at the center."

Mr. Bennett's remarks suggest the best way for Americans to avoid paying an extra $2,000 for a new house: Skip the three-car garage, the cathedral ceiling in the master bedroom, and the extra bathroom. Renovate an existing structure or build small. By cutting back our material consumption, we can improve the quality of our own lives and let the plants, animals, and native cultures of Canada keep what forests they have left.

Marc Evans is a forest campaigner for Greenpeace International, and Dana Harmon is the director of the Wood Reduction Clearinghouse in San Francisco.

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