Chainsaw logic

Richard Manning

February 26, 1993|By Richard Manning

LOLA, MONT. — Lola,Mont. -- THE timber industry is using rising lumber prices to lure us into an unsettling equation.

L We are told that expensive lumber makes houses unaffordable.

And we are told to blame environmental protection for these higher prices: How much are we willing to pay, the industry asks, to save a lesser species, the northern spotted owl?

Now that the Clinton administration has decided to take away the subsidies that help logging companies clear-cut public lands, timber industry spokesmen will make a parallel argument: Without the publicly financed incentives, expenses will go up and the cost will be passed along to the consumer.

(They will not mention that only about 15 percent of timber comes from federal lands or that most of that wood makes money for the government and will not be affected by a new policy.)

To determine the truth of their calculations, we have to look beyond the debate over supply and examine demand.

In the two centuries of deforestation of North America's ancient trees that are now down to final stumps, the timber industry always could depend on the complicity of consumers.

The surge in lumber prices results from higher demand more than lower supplies. Housing starts are up after a long recession. But a more interesting factor is house size.

In the 1980s, home-building became a rich person's game. The National Association of Homebuilders reports that in the last decade, the size of the median new house jumped about 25 percent, to 1,905 square feet. And bigger houses require more lumber.

Higher lumber costs will not curb this trend. I researched this notion in 1991 by building my own house amid Montana's logged ridges.

I learned that lumber-yard bills did less damage to my budget than sinks, wires, tiles, roofing and labor. A friend who is a builder says even a 100 percent increase in lumber costs would add only 7 percent to a house's price.

More important, houses are becoming progressively less dependent on lumber, especially from old-growth forests. Recently builders have devised many alternatives to the structural beams that have framed houses since the 1830s. For instance, rafters and floor joists, which required the biggest, straightest and strongest of planks sawed from old-growth trees, can be replaced with boards made of glued-together wood chips.

Because this product is as strong as its predecessors and is buried in ceilings and floors, it entails no compromise in quality or aesthetics.

I used them in my house. A contractor I know built a commodious suburban house using this technology. A conventionally built house of the same size would have required about 10,000 board feet of lumber, but his used about 3,000 board feet.

The timber industry itself created these alternative products as it became apparent that nature's high-quality old-growth wood was being exhausted and that carpenters regarded the second-growth trees as poor substitutes.

Since it is easier to clear-cut forests, the timber industry of the Northwest would rather do that and not talk about its breakthroughs on chipped and glued-together wood.

For a century, the timber industry has argued that it husbands a "renewable resource."

This was the basis of the social contract under which the corporations were allowed to proceed: the promise that their cutting of the forests would yield new stands indistinguishable from the old. The industry's clamoring for the old growth instead of relying on its second-growth tree farms proves otherwise.

Now, necessity has mothered methods to make the tree farms usable, and we can hold the industry to its original contract. The industry can harvest the resource it has spent all these years renewing and leave the last of nature's forests alone.

RF In other words, it gets to keep its word and the owl gets to live.

Richard Manning is author of "The Last Stand" and the forthcoming book "A Good House: Building a Life on the Land."

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