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


Goals are suggested in the preceding section as a basis for sound national policy. To achieve these goals saw-timber growth will have to be doubled. As things are going now there is no prospect that this will be accomplished in the foreseeable future. But if positive measures to maintain and build forest productivity were promptly and generally applied throughout the Nation, this goal could be attained, although it would take time. The size of the task can be clarified by inquiring how much growing stock will be required and by outlining broadly a feasible course of physical progress toward the objective.

What Growing Stock Is Needed To Double Saw-Timber Growth?

As previously pointed out, sustained yield requires a reasonable balance of age classes, from seedlings up to the age at which the more exacting products can best be obtained. Since growing stock is the sum of the volumes in all age classes, the growing stock needed to sustain a given annual yield will depend largely upon the cutting age for the final crop harvested. For saw timber of desirable size in the various forest types and regions this ranges from 60 to 140 years. To a lesser extent growing stock will depend upon the proportion of the total harvest that can be obtained from thinnings or improvement cuttings. Fast-growing species require less growing stock than slow-growing species because they attain a size suitable for a given product at an earlier age. Conversely, adverse climate and soil increase the amount of growing stock required because they limit the growth rate.

In the South, where growth is generally rapid and an appreciable part of the harvest may be taken from thinnings or other intermediate cutting, only 16 to 18 board feet should be needed as growing stock for each board foot of annual drain. At the other extreme, in the South Rocky Mountain region, because of slow growth and less favorable markets for small trees, the saw-timber growing stock will need to be 50 times the annual drain.

The growing stock needed to yield 72 billion board feet of annual growth allocated as suggested in the previous section appears to be 1,700 billion board feet (table 16). About 40 percent of this is allotted to the West and 60 percent to the East.

TABLE 16.—Minimum growing stock to sustain future growth goals

Section and
Volume Multiple
of present

bd. ft.
   New England871.50
   Middle Atlantic1282.06

   South Atlantic1271.31
   West Gulf210

   Pacific Northwest:
     Douglas-fir subregion3500.69
     Pine subregion70
   North Rocky Mtn.79.62
   South Rocky Mtn.45

United States1,7001.06

The North and South now have little more than half enough saw timber to sustain their suggested share of the growth goal (fig. 11). A 469-billion-board-foot deficit in these sections is partially offset by the fact that the West has 370 billion board feet more than is needed for its share of the goal. However, as previously noted, much of the western timber is inactive capital in the virgin stands. If only the second-growth saw timber there is considered, the active growing stock is 235 billion board feet or only 35 percent of what it would be necessary to develop by judicious selective cutting in the virgin stands and by establishing new stands on clear-cut areas.

FIGURE 11.—Present saw-timber stand, and growing stock needed to sustain the growth goals.

These estimates of the growing stock needed to realize the growth objectives assume a proper distribution of timber sizes. They assume also that the virgin timber will have been converted to active growing stock. To the extent that these assumptions are not fulfilled, the volume of growing stock would need to be higher. On the other hand, if more intensive forest management should increase the proportion of yield from thinnings and improvement cuttings, or if new utilization practices should reduce the cutting ages for final harvest, less growing stock would be required.

In any event, it is clear that the growing stock should be increased. However large the present stand looms in relation to current consumption, it is not enough to yield an annual crop of the size suggested in the goals. Indeed, with growing stock in the North and South so deficient it is doubly fortunate that there is some residue of virgin timber to supplement growth through the next few decades.

When Could the Growth Goal Be Reached?

A comprehensive program dealing adequately with all phases of a sustained timber supply would imply, for example, that all the forests would be well protected, that destructive cutting would be stopped, that at least 400 million acres would be managed so as to build up growing stock and output, that from 20 to 25 percent of the land would be under very intensive management, that planting of nonproductive lands would be undertaken on an unprecedented scale, and that access road construction in the West would be continued on a large scale. Assuming all these things, how much timber could be budgeted for harvesting each year, and how rapidly could the objectives in saw-timber growth be reached?

No hard and fast answer can be given. But enough is known about the condition of the forests and their potential growth capacity to give the theoretical limits of accomplishment if the Nation were to embark on a course such as that suggested above. Calculations of saw-timber growing stock in each region have been carried forward for 75 years, balancing the growth that might be realized under such a comprehensive forestry program against an assumed saw-timber drain, decade by decade. A major consideration was to keep the annual output as high as possible without precluding the possibility of reaching the regional growth goal in 75 years. The story is told graphically in figure 12.

FIGURE 12.—Theoretical course of annual saw-timber growth and drain in the United States under a comprehensive forestry program designed to achieve 72-billion-board-foot growth goal in 75 years with minimum reduction of output in the years immediately ahead.

For the first 30 years, drain might remain higher than annual growth chiefly because of the large contribution virgin timber could make to the total cut in the early decades. From the outset, however, growth would be increasing and before the end of the century it might be some 10 billion board feet above the assumed annual drain.

Under a comprehensive forest program, timber growth might advance to about 64 billion board feet in 45 years. This is the level of estimated potential requirements plus losses, with no margin for security, export, new uses, or ineffective growth. If that amount should prove sufficient for all our needs, annual drain could then be increased to 64 billion board feet and annual growth would level off, as indicated by the light lines in figure 12. However, to attain a 72-billion-board-foot goal annual drain would have to remain below annual growth for 25 to 30 years longer, in order to build up more growing stock.

It is important to emphasize that the course of annual growth depicted here assumes widespread and prompt application of good forest practices. It is very improbable that this assumption will become a reality; hence the indicated course of annual growth is above what is likely to occur. These calculations, like the growth goals themselves, serve to give perspective but represent only one possible outcome. They visualize achieving the growth goals in 75 years with minimum disruption of forest industries and markets. Cutting more heavily than indicated, for any extended period, might delay or preclude the increase in annual growth envisioned for the North and South. It might lead to a protracted period of greatly reduced cut in the West, should the virgin timber be exhausted before new growth was ready to support the indicated sustained volume of output. On the other hand, several years of greatly reduced output in a depression like that of the thirties might result in building up growing stocks, and hence annual growth, faster than shown in figure 12. Protracted reduction of output resulting from disproportionately high prices for timber products would have a similar effect.

Where Shall We Get Timber Products in the Meantime?

The preceding discussion reveals the dilemma that the Nation's forest situation presents. The calculations of what can be safely cut if forest productivity is to be built up indicate that annual drain should be less than 50 billion board feet for perhaps 30 years (fig. 12). This is 4 billion feet below the 1944 drain. Yet there is an urgent need for greater output. To what extent will efforts to satisfy present needs further impair future productivity? If the Nation exercises sufficient restraint to avoid continued overcutting, would that mean permanent loss of markets for wood by forcing people to use other materials?

The possible output of the different sections of the country under the comprehensive forestry program visualized in the preceding discussion throws some light on these questions (fig. 13).

FIGURE 13.—Theoretical course of saw-timber drain in various parts of the United States under a comprehensive forestry program designed to achieve 72-billion-board-foot growth in 75 years with minimum reduction of output in the years immediately ahead. (click on image for a PDF version)

Eastern output cannot be maintained.—Sixty-three percent of the saw-timber drain, and a still larger part of all-timber drain, takes place in the North and South. Under the impact of this drain the already inadequate growing stock is diminishing; yet in the allocation of the saw-timber growth goal it was suggested that the forests of the North should support twice the 1944 drain and those in the South 50 percent more. To accomplish this will require that growing stock be built up, and that in turn can be done only by cutting less than is cut now. Indeed, it seems likely, because of growing-stock shortages, that output from the North and South will be forced down in the decade ahead. With good forest practices this decline need not go more than 5 billion board feet below the 1944 level, but there is little prospect that output could safely be boosted again for 20 or 30 years. Still, with economic activity continuing at a high level the depleted growing stock is going to be under constant pressure for overcutting, and it is very doubtful that as favorable a course as that suggested can be achieved.

Western development could help bridge the gap.—Obviously the West, which has 65 percent of the present saw-timber stand but accounts for only 37 percent of the drain, must supply a larger part of our national needs during the next few decades. But it should be recognized that the special values inherent in the high-quality virgin timber will never be replaced. The need to maintain output should be balanced against the desirability of making this high-quality virgin timber last just as long as possible. Dependent western communities should also be protected from excessive timber depletion that would rob them of the means of existence.

Fortunately a large part of the timber still awaiting access to market is on the national forests and other public land. With private timber playing out, the public forests are becoming more important in the current timber supply. For example, saw timber in public ownership in the Pacific Northwest rose from 54 percent of the total during the middle thirties to 63 percent in 1945. The increasing importance of public timber in the West places a new responsibility on public forest managers.

Between World Wars I and II the lumber industry was often in difficulty because its plant capacity exceeded the market for its products. With private timber under pressure to be cut and the industry in a generally shaky position, the sale of national-forest timber and the opening up of new units proceeded slowly. Furthermore, among private owners there was widespread opposition to the sale of public timber. But as timber shortage came to be widely felt, the Forest Service adopted a policy of obtaining from each forest the maximum possible output consistent with sustained-yield management. This involves a great expansion in timber survey and management plan work. It means taking every opportunity to cull decadent timber from otherwise vigorous stands and to make desirable thinnings in young stands. It calls for a far-flung road-building program to gain access to undeveloped areas.

Financing of access-road construction, given impetus during the war and assumed in part by the National Housing Agency in 1947, has subsequently fallen far below what is needed. Extending roads rapidly into undeveloped localities helps spin out the old growth by making it possible to spread the cut over a wider area. It permits salvaging of bug-killed timber before it rots. It enables marketing of a large volume of inferior species hitherto untouched. It facilitates selective cutting in types adapted to it, thus adding to the effective annual growth.

Although the volume of virgin timber in the West is substantial, the opportunities for greater output are limited. The national-forest cut is already more than double what it was before the war and may eventually be doubled again. The cut from other public lands may also be increased. But this is sure to be offset, in part, by a decline in the cut from private lands. The situation in most of the older lumber-producing localities is precarious. Lack of stumpage has caused many mills to shut down in recent years and this process is likely to be accelerated.

In the Pacific Northwest, depletion has already progressed so far that there is little hope of substantial increase in saw-timber cut (fig. 13). New opportunities for large-scale operation, generally dependent upon construction of access roads, are confined largely to southwestern Oregon, where sawmill capacity has already reached the sustained-yield capacity of the forest. It is doubtful whether increased output from southwestern Oregon can offset the inevitable decline in the older localities farther north. Indeed, considering the region as a whole, operation for a few decades at the present rate would so reduce the timber supply that output would need to taper off, perhaps, to some 3 billion feet below the 1944 level. This would bring it down to the level suggested in the allocation of the growth goals.

In the North Rocky Mountains, more access roads and utilization of the less-favored species may increase the cut almost 1 billion board feet annually for 30 to 40 years. But after that, output might taper off again to somewhere near the 1944 levels. Similarly, if economic conditions permit, the output of the South Rocky Mountain region could be doubled. But that would represent a gain of only 0.5 billion board feet. Increasing the cut in these regions is not simple. Much of of the timber is of little-used species and in light stands. A good part of it is on rough, rocky ground where logging will involve more expense than is usual at present.

California—in spite of prospective shortages in several of its producing centers, and operating conditions often as difficult as in the Rocky Mountain regions—seems to have the timber to permit, with good forestry, increased output in the years ahead. If access roads were built to open up the remaining virgin areas in the course of 30 to 40 years, and if partial cutting were generally applied, the effective annual growth would soon assume large proportions. Drain, reported at 3.1 billion board feet in 1944, could increase to 5 billion board feet 20 years hence. However, after the virgin stands had all been worked over, output would need to drop again, probably to somewhat below the 1944 figure.

Summing up the situation nationally, the calculations indicate that for the next 30 years the largest feasible output from the West under a constructive program of forestry will not fully offset the necessary reduction of output in the East. The indicated drain of about 50 billion board feet would ordinarily include a lumber output of 30 to 31 billion board feet, which is less than current consumption, to say nothing of the goal.

Alaska can contribute pulpwood.—Alaskan timber resources. have not yet been tapped on a large scale. The accessible timber occurs in a narrow fringe of the national forests along the tidewater of southeastern Alaska. It is chiefly valuable as pulpwood. The bulk of it is western hemlock, intermixed on the better sites with Sitka spruce—often of large size and high quality—and some cedar.

Forest Service policy calls for the establishment of pulp mills in Alaska as the foundation for integrated industries making effective use of all the timber. Such an undertaking would entail a heavy investment. The pulp plants would have to be large and self-contained, and transportation costs might present some obstacles in getting the output of the supplementary industries to markets in the States. Output of the territory may well be the equivalent of 1.5 million cords of wood annually or about 7 percent of the potential pulp wood requirements.

Import prospects are limited.—As indicated in a previous section, there is less opportunity to increase imports than might be supposed. All in all, there is a world shortage as well as a domestic shortage of timber. So it will be wise to adopt a program that would eventually enable this country to be self-sufficient and also to contribute to the needs of other nations.

The Job Is a Big One

Although the preceding calculations are hypothetical, they make it clear that if the goals are to be achieved, the Nation has a tremendous job to do. It will take decades of good forestry, going far beyond what has been accomplished in the past, to develop a well-balanced growing stock that will meet future timber needs.

Adequate protection against fire, insects, and disease will reduce the losses of merchantable timber and save for future timber production millions of seedlings and saplings now destroyed each year. Planting a substantial part of the 75 million acres now denuded or only poorly stocked with seedlings and saplings would lay the foundation for additional timber growth in the future. But improved forest practices applied to the timber now standing are the surest and quickest means of increasing annual growth. To provide the security of an adequate timber supply, the Nation must have a more dynamic national policy which will prevent unsatisfactory forest practices and obtain a much wider application of sustained-yield management. Some of the land now in private ownership will need to be shifted to public ownership. All of these things take time to get under way; and once under way, they require more time to achieve their purpose. There is no easy way out.

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Last Updated: 17-Mar-2010