Forests and National Prosperity
A Reappraisal of the Forest Situation in the United States


Sound Policy Calls for Abundant Growth

Forestry is a long-time undertaking. While the country's annual cut may vary somewhat with the play of economic forces, the rate of annual growth does not change appreciably from one year to the next. Once the forest resources have deteriorated as they now have done, it requires years of effort and additional investment to greatly increase the volume of cut that can be sustained. It is therefore important to set up long-range goals or objectives of forest growth as a basis and guide for sound public policy and action.

The Forest Service believes, on the basis of careful study, that the United States should aim to grow 18 to 20 billion cubic feet of timber annually, including 65 to 72 billion board feet of saw timber, which should be largely of good species and quality. These goals, as will be shown later, cannot be attained for several decades.

Obviously there must be a large element of judgment in formulating a reasonable objective when it involves looking many years into the future. The goal here proposed for saw timber is more than the 59.4 billion board feet of annual drain during the prosperous years 1925-29. But the whole economy is now running at a much higher level than in that period, and there is every reason why it should continue to do so. The goal likewise is more than the peak wartime drain which was also about 60 billion board feet. But during the war we were unable to keep abreast of the demand. Stocks of lumber were reduced to the vanishing point and civilian needs were largely neglected.

The proposed goals are formulated with the conviction that national well-being will continue to call for a larger output of goods and services than was ever known in peacetime. Natural resources will be a vital factor in such a high-level economy. There is no evident reason why this country should not take advantage of the potential productivity of its forest resource, one of the most important of all resources and one which, unlike minerals, is renewable.

The United States has been the greatest consumer of wood in the world. Wood is a basic, if not indispensable, element in the daily lives of our people. While some uses for wood decline, new uses are continually being found for it. The timber products industries are an important element in the support of many communities, both large and small. The Nation needs ample, dependable timber supplies to sustain and expand the supply of consumer goods and the industry and employment that are based on wood. Furthermore, as dramatically demonstrated by the recent war, an ample timber supply is a vital aspect of national security. Beyond these considerations is the world shortage of softwood timber. If its large potential forest yield were developed this country could safely help to meet world timber needs in years to come, and so contribute to international peace and well-being.

The proposed goals for timber growth take all of these potentialities into account.

Domestic Requirements

The principal element in the growth goal is timber for domestic use. How much this country will use in years to come will depend in large part upon available supply and economic conditions.

But it is not a function of this report to forecast economic conditions. As a sounder guide for public policy, this part of the growth goals is based on "potential requirements," which means the amount of timber a prosperous Nation might use if the supply were sufficient to keep forest products of suitable kind and quality available at reasonable prices. [17] Such requirements will almost certainly be higher than past consumption. Our population was much smaller in the years when the supply was still ample. Then for a decade consumption was held down by business depression. With wartime prosperity, output was hampered by shortage of men and equipment. And now one factor handicapping use is timber shortage. Prices of lumber have risen much faster than those of other construction materials, [18] and in 1947 were more than three times as high as in 1936.

To aim at less than potential requirements as defined here would be to sell America short.

In the aggregate, the estimate of potential requirements corresponds to an annual drain of 61 billion board feet from saw-timber trees:

Potential requirements
(1950-55) in terms of
annual drain

(billion cu. ft.) (billion bd. ft.)
Timber product:
   Fuel wood1.83.1
   Veneer logs and bolts.62.8
   All other1.8

Projecting these estimates several decades ahead results in some modifications of individual items but no significant change in total.

Lumber will continue to account for the bulk of timber use. Housing needs, unmet for the past 15 years, will constitute a heavy demand for lumber during the next 5 or 10 years at least. Today's shortage, precipitated by the return of servicemen to civilian life, has been in the making since the depression cut down normal construction in the early 1930's. In 1946 the National Housing Agency estimated that more than 3 million families lacked housing of their own and were "doubled up" with others. More than 7 million families, not including those on farms, were living in substandard houses. A program to build 12-1/2 million nonfarm residential units in the next 10 years was envisioned. [19] This is a high goal.

In addition to housing, the high level of industrial activity contemplated in potential requirements implies a larger volume of general construction than before the war. Construction of all sorts is an important feature of our industrial economy; it has sometimes been viewed as the balance wheel. An expanding volume of construction offsetting a trend toward use of proportionately less wood will tend to keep the demand for lumber high.

Similarly, a 200-billion-dollar economy will call for more lumber for shipping purposes than was used before the war. It will also mean a larger demand for lumber used in manufacture. An era of home building means a heavy demand for furniture. And the demand for many other manufactured articles tends to rise with consumers spending power.

All together, under the assumed conditions of full employment and plentiful supply, potential lumber requirements a decade hence are placed at 44 billion board feet of timber as compared to 34 billion of lumber drain in 1944 and about 40 billion in 1947.

Looking farther ahead, estimated lumber requirements are somewhat less. For one thing, the trend toward smaller houses and less lumber per house, if continued, might more than offset the demand of a larger population for more dwelling units. But there is no reason for placing long-range lumber requirements at less than 40 billion board feet.

Pulpwood consumption has been expanding rapidly for 40 years. In recent years this has been due largely to increasing consumption of paper bags, cardboard boxes, and building boards. Consumption of paper and paperboard may reach 28 million tons in the next decade. This is the basis for an estimated requirement of 20 million cords of domestic pulpwood as compared with a cut of 15 million in 1944 and 17 million in 1946.

Long-range requirements, estimated from possible per-capita consumption with allowance for further improvement in manufacturing methods, are placed at 40 million cords of pulpwood to supply 21 million tons of paper and 23 million tons of paperboard. This estimate corresponds to more than double the 5 billion board feet of saw timber drain for pulpwood in 1944. Because rising standards of living in other parts of the world may add heavily to demands on the countries from which we are now importing paper, pulp, and pulpwood, the long-range estimate visualizes the United States becoming self-sufficient in these products.

Fuel-wood use is shrinking and may continue to do so. Most of the fuel is used on farms where, with better income, there is a strong trend toward more efficient heating and cooking equipment, greater use of coal, oil, and electricity, and a decrease in consumption of fuel wood. The decline may be partially offset by an increase in rural nonfarm population. Envisioning a reduction of 20 percent in fuel-wood consumption, the potential requirement is estimated at about 50 million cords. About half of this is considered to be primary forest drain, and the remainder waste in logging operations, sawmills, and other wood-using plants.

The use of veneer and plywood has expanded rapidly in recent years. Demand for container veneer will probably rise further. Likewise the need for veneer and plywood used in manufacture may also be greater, with a large increase in furniture output as a major stimulant. But the greatest increase is almost certain to be in plywood used for construction. This is likely to expand just about as fast and as far as the supply will permit without a great increase in price. It is conceivable that a quarter or a third of all lumber used in construction could be displaced by plywood. But the supply of logs suitable for construction plywood is far too restricted to permit any such development. Potential requirements for construction plywood are placed at 1.3 billion and for all veneer and plywood at 2.4 billion board feet. To place this estimate any higher would call for a corresponding decrease in the estimate for lumber because the two commodities are so largely interchangeable.

For other common uses, estimates of potential requirements must necessarily be more superficial. There is little prospect of an increase in the demand for wooden poles by the telephone and telegraph companies. A large market for poles will, however, come with expansion of rural electric light and power lines. Requirements are placed between 5 and 6 million poles, or at about the consumption reached in 1941.

The demand for piling will vary with the volume of commerce moving through the Nation's ports and also with the volume of construction. There is likely to be some further displacement of wood piling by concrete and steel, and more of the wood piling will be given longer life by preservative treatment. Nevertheless, the estimate of potential requirements is substantially higher than present consumption.

Estimates of potential requirements for fence posts, mine timbers, and hardwood distillation are in line with present consumption. Some increase may be expected in demand for logs and bolts for specialized industries. On the other hand, potential requirements for hewn railroad ties and cooperage stock are estimated at less than present consumption.


Growth goals should, of course, include allowance for unpreventable losses from fire, insect and disease epidemics, and other natural causes. For the years 1934-43, annual losses due to fire and other destructive agents were 1.5 billion cubic feet of all timber, including 4.2 billion board feet of saw timber. Widespread application of good forestry should cut the rate of unsalvaged losses per million feet of growing stock in half. But because attainment of a larger growth goal involves a substantial increase in the volume subject to loss in the East, it does not seem advisable to bank on losses being less than 1.3 billion cubic feet, including 3.2 billion board feet of saw timber.

Ineffective Growth

The goals allow for growth that will not be available for use. One example is growth on land that may be set aside as roadside strips, parks, and other scenic areas, and so withdrawn from commercial use. Another example is growth coming up on formerly cultivated lands that may be cleared again before the timber is mature. A further allowance is made for growth occurring on timber too scattered for economic operation, in isolated or inferior stands that may remain permanently inaccessible, or in residual trees of inferior species or poor quality that are lost if they are not marketed along with the better trees with which they are mixed.

New Uses

Technological advances promise new uses for wood in addition to those envisaged in the foregoing estimates. During the war many ways were found to use wood in place of other materials that were in short supply. Permanent scarcity of non renewable materials may increase the opportunity for wood use.

For one thing, wood is being adapted to many new construction uses. Laminated wood arches, for instance, have proved satisfactory in such wide-roofed buildings as gymnasiums and auditoriums. The range of wood use is also being extended by new methods of gluing, by improved connecting devices and structural design, and by wider use of plywood.

Just beginning to be understood are the commercial possibilities of new processes that change the physical characteristics of wood. By chemical treatment, heat, and pressure, wood may be converted into new materials of great utility and promise. It may be rendered impervious to moisture, acid, and other chemicals. It may be molded into a variety of shapes. Specific gravity can be varied from section to section of the same piece—a property of special significance for such items as airplane propellers. It can be given a variety of attractive and desirable finishes—including color, figured veneer, stencil designs, etc.—all incorporated in the material so as to be as durable and washable as the material itself.

Beyond this, the outlook is bright for wood as a chemical raw material. Under the stimulus of war, initial plant installations have been made for manufacturing industrial ethyl alcohol from saw mill and pulp-mill waste. Ethyl alcohol, in addition to supplying many other commercial demands, may be used in the manufacture of rubber. Associated with the manufacture of alcohol from wood are the possibilities of developing a highly efficient source of food protein by growing yeast on wood sugar. The Germans carried this process past the experimental stage during the war. Generation of other products in the fermentation of wood cellulose may also lead to an increase in wood use. The possibilities are revolutionary in their implications, and tonnage requirements are unpredictable.

Lignin, the wood constituent next in importance to cellulose, is now largely wasted because its chemical structure is obscure. But chemists have begun to penetrate its mysteries. Lignin has been found valuable as binding material for road surfaces, in reducing the amount of lead needed in storage batteries, as a dispersing agent for cement in making concrete, and in plastics. Once understood, this plentiful byproduct, which now pollutes some of our rivers, may find wide beneficial use.

To the extent that new chemical processes make use of waste, they would not increase forest drain. However, some of the new products may become sufficiently important to call for additional timber cutting operations. It is not feasible to make a specific estimate of potential requirements for such uses, but they merit consideration in setting long-range growth goals.

National Security

The war showed what it means not to have enough timber to go around. The Nation learned how essential its forests are for military operations.

Every phase of the war—every operation—depended in some measure upon wood. Every freighter that left port with war supplies carried some 10 carloads of dunnage to pack and stabilize its cargo. Army cantonment construction required about 1,500 board feet of lumber per man. For every man sent overseas, 300 board feet was needed to box and crate his initial supplies, and it took nearly 50 board feet a month thereafter to keep him supplied. Every 2-1/2-ton truck manufactured and shipped meant, on an average, the use of 1,000 feet of lumber. The smokeless powder in every 90,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, the paper in every lot of 4,200 weather-proof packages of blood plasma, took a cord of pulpwood. Furthermore, until lumber and other timber products themselves became difficult to obtain, the Nation looked to wood as a substitute for steel and other materials wherever possible.

The importance of adequate timber growth in national security is emphasized by prospective shortages of other strategic materials. Geologists predict exhaustion of domestic petroleum supplies in the foreseeable future. If abundant timber is at hand, alcohol made from wood could be used as fuel for internal-combustion engines. Furthermore, many of the byproducts of both coal and petroleum may be obtained also from wood. Dependence upon imports for such vital materials as rubber also affects national security. To the extent that such materials can be obtained from wood, the Nation could prepare to get along without imports by accumulating a backlog of accessible growing stock, which would not be drawn upon in time of peace.

To permit stock-piling of timber on the stump for emergency needs, annual timber growth should be higher than peacetime requirements.

Foreign Markets and Supplies

In setting long-range goals for the United States it is necessary to ask: will there be a world surplus of timber? If so, part of the United States' supply can continue to come from imports. Or will the rest of the world have less than it needs, so that there will be opportunity for larger export from this country?

The softwood forests of the North Temperate Zone, which comprise less than one-third of the world's forests, are by far the most important sources of the world's timber supply. Before the war almost 40 percent of the world's output of sawn timber was produced in the United States, and a little more than that in Europe. The rest of the world, mainly Canada and Japan, sawed only about 15 percent.

Furthermore, the war taught the importance of accessibility—having timber of the right size and right kind available at the right place for immediate use. Spruce was cut and brought from Alaska because accessible supplies in the Pacific Northwest were insufficient; large timbers and piling that should have been available for use in the South were cut and shipped there from the Pacific Northwest. Railroad facilities, urgently needed to haul food, equipment, and other war material, were too often tied up in transporting from distant regions lumber and other forest products that might have been grown closer to the point of consumption.

The bulk of the world's timber output is consumed in the countries where it grows. Only about 15 percent of the industrial timber (mostly sawn) has ever been exported in any one year. In 1935-38 the annual volume of international trade in sawn timber was about 12 or 13 billion board feet, 90 percent of which was softwood. Although historically an exporter of sawn timber, the United States imported more than it exported during both world wars. Considering wood in all forms, including pulp, the United States has imported more than it exported for the last 30 years or more.

Timber for general construction purposes is scarce throughout most of the civilized world. The more densely populated foreign countries have no prospect of fully supplying their own needs. World demand for softwoods will increase as industrialization spreads and living standards are raised. There is no indication that tropical hardwoods can take the place of the softwood forests of the North Temperate Zone. They will continue to be used primarily as special-purpose woods. In this situation the United States can count on export markets in the future for as much surplus general-purpose timber as she may be able to grow, provided this is made available at prices that foreign buyers can pay. Conversely, it will not be safe to count on imports to the extent that we have in recent years.

Canada has been the chief source of imports by the United States. In Canada, as in this country, the supply of operable timber has been diminishing in volume and deteriorating in quality for many years. Nevertheless, her own timber needs are expanding and she may increase her output. The bulk of Canada's lumber export goes to the United Kingdom, but part of her surplus will doubtless come to the United States. Furthermore, for perhaps 20 years it should be possible to get somewhat more pulp and paper, especially newsprint, from Canada.

Some consumers in the United States have turned to Central and South America for timber, but shipments from this direction are not likely to be large and will be chiefly hardwood. Industrial development in Central and South America is sure to increase domestic markets for timber. Only Brazil, which has extensive forests of araucaria (Parana pine), and Mexico have much softwood timber to export. Brazil's export to her neighbors and to Europe and South Africa is likely to increase. But other countries to the south are likely to look to the United States for more softwood lumber than in the past. South America will, however, continue to export tropical woods for specialty uses.

Europe, which as a whole was self-sufficient in timber before the war, will need to import heavily for a long time. The needs for reconstruction are great and output on the whole is likely to be less than before the war. Sweden, Finland, and Russia are the only countries with resources to permit an increased cut. Sweden's output of logs and pulpwood was curtailed during the war by lack of shipping and the productive capacity of her forests was raised by increased cutting of fuel wood, chiefly in thinnings and improvement cuttings. The situation was similar in Finland, where prewar cut was less than sustained-yield capacity, but some of her forests suffered heavy war damage.

Although the forests of European Russia were generally being overcut before the war, and military operations destroyed much forest from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Russia is likely to increase her output. However, it is doubtful if she can produce enough to meet her own reconstruction needs. In the more distant future, growing domestic requirements are likely to keep pace with Russia's output and so hold down her export.

The countries most in need of imports are the United Kingdom, France and the Low Countries. The United Kingdom, which normally produces less than 5 percent of her timber consumption, had to fall back on her own forests during the war. More than two-thirds of the standing softwood timber and almost as large a proportion of the hardwoods were cut. Many of the forests of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands were heavily damaged. In all these countries the need for reconstruction is great. Germany and the Mediterranean countries are also in need of timber. However, Germany's growing stock was not greatly impaired by the war, and her forests should be able to take care of most of her reconstruction needs.

In Asia, the forests of the U. S. S. R. are largely undeveloped. A growing population and industrial development are creating a large domestic demand for wood. Any surplus in the Urals and Western Siberia probably would go to European Russia. The extensive forests of Eastern Siberia can produce much more than is likely to be required locally. This will help take care of the needs of China, Korea, and Japan, which should be the natural markets for it. On the other hand, the vast interior forests of Siberia, thousands of miles from good seaports and mostly lacking railroads, seem unlikely to provide much timber for export.

China will need large quantities of timber. Some of this may be supplied from Siberia, the Netherlands East Indies, and the Philippines. But China will doubtless continue to seek imports from western Canada and the United States.

Before the war Japan's forests furnished 90 percent of the timber she used, but cutting has been heavy since 1932. Her requirements to rebuild demolished cities and shipping will be great. Unless her standard of living is to remain permanently much below the prewar level, Japan will need fairly large timber imports.

India and the other countries of southeastern Asia, except Burma and Siam, may need to import timber if they develop industrially. The East Indies and the Philippines have large undeveloped forests which contain much valuable timber. These countries should be able to help supply the growing demands of China and southeastern Asia. Their exports to Europe and the United States are likely to be chiefly high-grade specialty woods.

Australia and New Zealand have never exported much lumber, except to each other, and are not likely to do so. Both import much softwood from western United States and Canada. Extensive planting of conifers may eventually enable them to become self-sufficient.

The countries of northern, eastern, and southern Africa can never furnish large quantities of timber. Their own needs are likely to increase and they will probably always need to import. Western and central Africa, however, have large tropical forests and may eventually export from half a billion to a billion board feet of hardwood to Europe and America.

With the world's timber situation as it is, the United States has much to gain from building up its resources to the point where it will have a substantial margin for export. This may even be viewed as a moral obligation, for by making its full contribution to the world's timber needs the United States will be working for peace in an important way.

Goal Is To Double Saw-Timber Growth

It has been feasible to make quantitative estimates only for potential requirements and for losses from fire, insects, diseases, and other natural causes. Between the sum of these estimates and the upper range of the proposed goal (p. 33), the margin for ineffective growth, new uses, national security, and export is about 4 billion cubic feet, or 8 billion board feet:

Goals for annual growth

All timber
(billion cu. ft.)
Saw timber
(billion bd. ft.)
   Timber products14.661.0

The Forest Service regards this as a reasonable allowance, and hence has made its calculations on the basis of the upper range.

A quantitative growth goal is suggested with full realization of the uncertainties involved, but with the conviction that this is needed to give point and perspective to the forest situation. Some students, of the situation may prefer to set up as the objective the bringing of all commercial forest lands to full productivity. This would mean setting higher figures and would require a longer time for achievement. Others may prefer a lower goal—for example, the lower range of 18 billion cubic feet and 65 billion board feet mentioned on p. 33. This of course involves reducing either the figure for potential requirements or the margin for unestimated factors. This lower goal could be reached sooner, but when everything is taken into consideration, the character and magnitude of needed action for the next several decades would be about the same.

To achieve the goal suggested means increasing all-timber growth 50 percent and doubling saw-timber growth.

The importance of having plenty of saw timber in the growth goal can hardly be overemphasized. A large part of our timber need is, and probably always will be, for the kind of material that comes from big trees. Moreover, one way to keep logging costs down is to manage forests so that the bulk of the crop can be cut from trees of saw-timber size. Even for products like pulpwood, for which trees of saw-timber size are not essential, large trees are generally less expensive to handle.

The significance of the growth goals in relation to current growth can be clarified by considering the situation by regions. The allocation of growth goals to regions suggested in table 15 is in no sense a forecast. It is intended only as a reasonable illustration of how the various regions might participate in the national goals, taking into account the acreage of commercial forest land, the potential rate of growth in the principal types, local accessibility, ease of management, and position with respect to consuming markets.

TABLE 15.—Growth goals and current annual timber growth by regions

and region
All timber
Saw timber

cu. ft.
cu. ft.
bd. ft.
bd. ft.
   New England1.140.904.01.8
   Middle Atlantic1.641.405.82.7

   South Atlantic2.141.767.86.1
   West Gulf3.20

   Pacific Northwest:
     Douglas-fir subregion2.171.0210.03.7
     Pine subregion.
   North Rocky Mtn..65.541.91.3
   South Rocky Mtn..24

United States20.0013.3772.035.3

About half of the goal is assigned to the South, which has some 40 percent of the commercial forest land, very favorable growing conditions, and easy access to important consuming regions.

The increase in growth of all timber suggested for the South is almost 60 percent; for the North it is about 25 percent. The suggested increase is only about 20 percent in the Rocky Mountain regions but about 100 percent for California and the Pacific Northwest.

To meet the suggested allocation of saw-timber goals, growth will need to be almost doubled in the South, more than doubled in the North, and increased to 2-1/2 times its present volume in the West.

These goals present a real challenge to forestry in this country. Certainly we need not fear timber surplus. The goals would not be vitiated if demand should fall below annual growth in periods of economic depression. The resulting increase in growing stock would simply put the country in position to achieve the goals sooner.

Finally, goals that call for keeping the land well-stocked and for maintaining a large volume of saw timber will best promote other forest values. In general, the better the cover the better the watershed protection; and the bigger the timber the more attractive the forest to the people.

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Last Updated: 17-Mar-2010