Sustainable Timber Harvesting in New England

Conor Cappe (Envirisci), Chris DeGrass (NRC), Jon Hardy-McCaulif (NRC)

One hundred feet tall and eighteen inches in diameter. That is the size of a tree that represents how much timber product is used annually by the average American. Paper products, wood for construction or fuel, and items like furniture or wood chips for a garden. It raises the question: Where does your tree come from? While this is a vastly oversimplified question, the source of wood products is just as important to know as the source of the food you are purchasing and eating.

New England is one of the most forested areas in the US, yet it remains a hugely imbalanced net wood importer. New England meets less than ten percent of its timber demands with wood harvested from within the region[Berlik, Kittredge, Foster 2001]. The problem with this net importation is that while we are preserving our forests at home, the damage is being outsourced to other parts of the country and the world, places where the forest may not be as resilient and environmental protection regulation and practices not as strong.

Causal Analysis

International policy regarding illegal timber harvesting is already present, but the ability to enforce them is near impossible. The United States has tariffs on illegally harvested timber, but the lack of infrastructure in Central and South American countries, and manipulation of the system in northern counties has made finding the source of these wood products impossible.


New England has a large appetite for wood products, but a low threshold for the sight of that wood being harvested. Because of this we have implemented policies to make harvesting more environmentally friendly, resulting in the region becoming a net importer of wood products. If we were to increase our local production to supplement the imports, it could have a huge impact on those countries affected by our need for wood by alleviating some of the pressure put on harvesters and law enforcement in those countries.

As trees grow they use CO2 to produce food and build cells. As they grow the carbon that they use to produce sugar and wood cells is fixed within the tree. Through this process “removal of anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere… [is] a major contribution towards off-setting the greenhouse effect” [Jarvis, 1996, p. 157]. Yet people still feel need to cut trees to produce lumber, paper, and firewood.  All of which release the stored CO2 back into the atmosphere and increasing the level of greenhouse gases. Looking at all the different uses of wood burning wood release the largest amount of CO2 and contributes to most of the overall greenhouse emissions.

The forest of New England has many pristine untouched areas. To keep these areas natural and beautiful they must be protected from logging. Before European settlers came to the Americas there were large majestic trees with an abundance of game animals. Over the centuries the face of the landscape has changed many times. Unlike in the last two hundred years these changes where natural. The change was caused by tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, and fire. These natural disturbances kept the forest healthy and created variety in the forest. Due to human interference in the last century the trees of your glories forests have taken the toll. There are many things that kill trees and change the face of the landscape, but it is through the exploitation of timber that has caused our forest to suffer the most.

We have identified several arguments against increased timber harvesting in New England. These arguments, though well intentioned, have serious holes upon further inspection. Each separate argument can be broken down with some simple research and reasoning, as we will demonstrate.

Cutting down a tree does result in a loss of CO2 into the atmosphere, through gas exchange and soil decomposition. [R. Lai, 2005]. The total immediate loss of CO2 plus that amount that is released from the soil due to accelerated decomposition processes is much greater than can be stored in the products from any tree. [R. Lai, 2005]. However, this argument loses steam when one looks at CO2 sequestration logistically and over the long term. The forest in New England is resilient, and will grow new trees, to sequester more carbon [Berlik,et al. 2001]. In New England, when a stand of trees is cut down, the area will return to being forested in just a few years. The climate in New England, coupled with the wide variety of plant species which fill a wide range niches, make it harder to keep an area deforested than to let it return to being forested. This is why we cannot simply look at the CO2 released from cutting a stand and the consequential CO2 released from the soil; we must also take into account that the forest will regrow and once again sequester more carbon. The other problem with this argument is that it completely disregards the CO2 from travelling lumber. If a tree cut in Montague Massachusetts, and only has to travel a few miles to Greenfield and then Amherst to be processed and sold respectively, by the time it reaches the sale floor it only traveled a few dozen miles. This low mileage wood would have a low carbon footprint because it would have spent a minimal amount of time riding on a log truck. Inversely, a tree cut in South America that has to travel to Canada and then to Amherst, to be processed and sold respectively, will have been on a log truck for thousands of miles. An average log truck is a diesel behemoth that gets roughly ten miles per gallon with a full load, on a good day. When we add this to the carbon footprint of our current wood practices, we see that locally harvested wood has a far smaller carbon footprint. [Berlik et al. 2002].

The next argument, the killing of the forest, is one that is true for some landscapes, but not New England’s. The Boreal, Atlantic and Rain forests are all fragile ecosystems, which do not deal particularly well with disturbance, unlike New England’s forests. The flora and fauna that make up the Boreal and tropical forests are highly specialized, and ill-equipped to deal with changes. The environmental impacts on these unique ecosystems would be long-term and large-scale, for this reason they should be taken very seriously. [Berlik et. Al 2002]. The New England forest on the other hand, has proven itself to be quite well adapted to small and large scale disturbance. For thousands of years animals and people have been changing the landscape New England. [Gerhardt, Foster. 2002]. Beavers were once far more abundant than they are today, accordingly, there were once far more beaver dams than there are today. When settlers first came to New England it was for the fur trade, and the fur of choice was beaver. Voyageurs trapped beaver to the brink of extinction, and thus reduced the natural disturbance to the New England forest.[Gerhardt. 2002]. Later, settlers moved into New England and began to cut the forests for firewood, building material and to make room for agricultural and pasture land. Roughly 85-90% of New England was deforested by the early 1800’s. Anyone who has walked through the woods and stumbled upon a stone wall, seemingly in the middle of nowhere has actually been walking on abandoned farm land that has grown back into a forest. But our current forests have not been growing since the mid early 1800’s. In the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s there was one more massive clear-cutting of the New England forests. When the farmers abandoned their land, they left wide open fields of dry tilled soil, conditions perfect for white pine. New England was overrun with white pine, and white pine was a hot commodity. [Gerhardt et al. 2002]. Once the forests were again clear cut, our current forest began to grow. “New England… has become almost completely forested during the past 100-150 years and the modern landscape is a mosaic of primary and secondary woodlands surrounding a few, isolated open areas.” [Gerhardt et al p.1421, 2002]. This history of disturbance is also the reason the argument of New England being a “pristine wilderness” is inaccurate. The word pristine refers to something as being in its original condition, untouched or virginal. Given the history of New England, pristine is not the correct word to describe its forests. New England is not pristine, but it has proven itself to be resilient and capable of providing timber over many generations.

Sub Claims

Thousands of tourists flock to New England’s forests to see the beautiful foliage. Most New Englanders are quite proud of the beautiful landscape they get to view every day. Over many decades we have developed policies and guidelines for foresters and loggers to follow, to make sure our landscape stays beautiful. This is a good thing. The problem with these policies and guidelines is that they are not universal, and we have an insatiable appetite for raw materials. Because of our insatiable appetite, and our love of cheap goods, we have had to supplement our demand with massive amounts of importation. “Well-intentioned environmental activism may generate unanticipated environmental degradation if it fails to recognize that natural resource preservation is but an illusion if it only serves to shift the source of resources, especially to locations where extraction is less environmentally sound.” [Berlik et al. p.1560 2002]. Even though New England is predominantly forest, public sentiment and policy has made harvesting its forests troublesome and costly. The high cost of harvesting in the region is then passed onto the consumer, where the average Joe then has to decide between the $2.50 2×4 and the $3.75 2×4; two products, which to their eyes, are exactly the same. It is no wonder that New England has become a net importer of its wood products.

This shift toward importation has let the forest regenerate vigorously, resulting in the region being one of the most forested in the US. “Currently, average annual growth [In Massachusetts] is 99.9 million cubic feet, whereas annual removals average 52.3 million cubic feet.” [Berlik et al. p.1561 2002]. Just on annual growth alone with the current rate of harvest Massachusetts will see huge increases in forest area each year. While the forests of New England have been left to grow, our consumption rates have climbed and climbed, and other parts of the world have had to bear the brunt of our demands. The Boreal forest of Canada, and the tropical Rain and Atlantic forests of South America supplement our demand for wood products, while our forests grow fat. The autumn foliage of New England is not only a beautiful testament to our “progressive” guidelines and practices; it is also a monument to our cognitive dissonance and our moral detachment from our purchases.

Currently in Massachusetts, due to high property taxes, many landowners are looking for more lucrative ways to increase revenue from their land. Historically landowners would harvest the trees on their property and then sell them as some type of wood product. These trees were used to produce things such as lumber, from local sawmills, cordwood, and even charcoal. For some individuals and even entire families the revenue that they received from these forest products was the only source of  income for their family [G. Howard, personal communication April 18, 2013]. As times changed and public perception shifted from utilization to preservation. People had to abandon their family land and resort to selling off parcels to stay ahead of the rising cost associated with owning land. [Fleet et al., 2012]

Harvesting timber is a very labor intensive and costly venture.  It is difficult for loggers to sell harvested wood locally and make a profit from the cut logs.Often wood that is harvested in New England is sold to mills in Canada and then back to the U.S. Although it would be extremely difficult to build new paper and sawmills in many of the New England states, by subsiding wood products it would make local mills more competitive. This would eventually increase the amount of woodlands in the northeast by making sustainable wood harvesting profitable for landowners with little acreage.



The proposed solution to these problems comes in two general parts. They each relate to a different portion of New England. For the southern portion, Massachusetts and states south, the best hope of better forest utilization will likely be in biomass and its associated production. Northern sections of New England will have a greater focus on making the timber harvesting there more in line with goals of sustainability and long term forest management.

Southern New England has plenty of timber. Massachusetts in particular is heavily wooded, with over sixty percent of the state covered by areas considered to be forests [Berlik, 2001, p. 12]. What is lacking in the region are sawmills and paper mills, most of which have migrated out of the southern area of New England as environmental regulations reduced profitability and public opinion has shifted against the industry. This means that no matter how much is harvested in the region, it still has to be shipped elsewhere to be turned into lumber of paper products.

Even if subsidies were offered to mills, or regulations relaxed, or many other policies enacted or reversed, the likelihood of the mills returning is minimal. This leaves another significant option, which is biomass harvesting. These operations, usually referred to as whole tree chipping, are already underway in New England, including the southern regions. Instead of sectioning trees into lumber and leaving

Biomass is harvested to fuel electric generators and heating units which power and warm buildings. This technology is already available and being successfully implemented. Two examples of this locally are the Schiller Station power plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the Wachusett Regional High School.  The Schiller Station is a three-boiler power plant which can produce 150 megawatts at maximum output. Each boiler can produce 50 megawatts, and one of them was converted in 2006 to burn biomass in the form of woodchips (PSNH, 2014). Several logging companies already ship biomass from their whole tree shipping operations in Massachusetts to the Schiller Station. Wachusett Regional High School also runs a biomass boiler for heating the the school in winter.

Biomass could provide a solution for southern New England by offsetting our demand for imported timber while also reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. If their use were encouraged through subsidies provided through the state, much like current ones for solar power, it would create a demand for timber harvested for biomass, and would create markets for loggers to utilize. These generators could also be used in state and municipal buildings, much like the Wachusett High School, and this steady demand from an official source would help develop a steady supply.

Unfortunately, biomass generation does get some criticism for the amount of carbon-dioxide released through its burning, which can exceed that of some fossil fuels. This is offset however by the fact that timber requires drastically less energy and effort to harvest and utilize, much less processing, and if harvested locally it would require less fuel consumption from transport. The other significant point is that the biomass is not permanently sequestered underground, and is still active in the carbon cycle as it is released when the tree decomposes or is consumed in a forest fire. This means that burning it does not offset the balance of the carbon cycle. It is also renewable, and as it does so it continues to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Overall it is a much more balanced and environmentally friendly option than fossil fuels.

Biomass may also be a part of the solution proposed for northern New England, but the more important solution for that region is to enact more policies to protect and responsibly manage the forests of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Currently there aren’t many mandatory regulations that limit what can and cannot be done in a timber harvest. To bring current timber harvesting, and the proposed increase in future harvesting, into the realm of being sustainable, environmentally and forest conscious policies and practices need to be implemented in the northern states of New England.

Many states maintain what are known as Best Management Practices. These are established guidelines of how timber harvesting jobs should be done to responsibly manage and maintain the forest ecosystems from which they are harvesting. They include recommended ways of crossing streams to maintain water quality, what percentage of trees to leave standing to protect wetlands, how wide buffer strips near roads and streams should be, and many other important practices. In most states, including most of New England, these Best Management Practices are not mandatory or enforced by the state government. Massachusetts is the exception to this rule, and the state enforces Best Management Practices through its Service Foresters. These foresters physically visit each harvest site to monitor and inspect the operation. They become familiar with different loggers and consulting foresters in their district, and have the responsible management of forests as their goal. Other states also have their own foresters, but these lack the same powers of enforcement and regulation that Massachusetts ones do.

To create more effective Best Management Practices in the northern New England states, Best Management Practices should be made mandatory, following the example of Massachusetts. This raises the costs of logging however, which would reduce the amount of timber harvesting overall and defeat efforts to encourage local timber harvesting. A more effective plan would be to balance a few critical Best Management Practices becoming mandatory combined with incentives offered to loggers who voluntarily comply with the rest of the non-mandatory practices. These incentives could be in the form of tax breaks or even some small subsidies.

All of these proposed solutions cost money, which has been and continues to be an obstacle to their implementation. In a conversation with David Kittredge, a professor and extension forester at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the idea of a small addition to current gasoline taxes was proposed. Professor Kittredge stated that an addition of just one cent could generate yearly revenue in the millions of dollars, which could be put to use in the development of more biomass energy sources or increased regulation and incentive [personal communication, April 9, 2014].


The problems posed by a lack of local and sustainable timber harvesting primarily relate to the destruction of forests abroad where timber harvesting is less regulated and more damaging, and the increase of our carbon output through fossil fuel use and long distance transportation of timber. By increasing local forest resource utilization in a sustainable manner, New England can offset the damage it’s timber demand is doing elsewhere, while increasing its natural resource and energy independence. Increased regulation and monitoring in the northern New England states will ensure that harvesting is sustainable, and will help maintain good management as utilization increases. The creation of a demand for biomass in the southern region will also create a market for local wood that will reduce timber importation for the purpose by increasing a local supply, and will help New England take a significant step towards renewable energy independence. While popular opinion may hold that logging is a threat to forests and the environment, when properly conducted it can have the opposite effect. Local timber harvesting is as important as local produce and farm products, and should receive the same applause and attention.