This is an article from our special November timber issue.
North America’s lumber industry helped define what it means to build in the modern era. With the invention of the light balloon–frame, lumber became an indispensable resource to the quickly expanding United States in the 19th century. Over the past 150 years, the process and politics of wood have shaped a highly efficient industry that still provides the vast majority of the U.S.’s house-building material. With new technology, wood is pushing into new territories, and the lumber industry is bracing to respond to these demands.
The process of harvesting lumber has dramatically changed since the industry began to standardize and organize in the late 1800s. No longer will you find any teams of two-person saws felling ancient trees or a Paul Bunyan-esque worker swinging an axe. Most of the industry became highly mechanized in the 1970s with the invention of the harvester. Harvesters, invented in Scandinavia, are tree cutting, moving, and trimming vehicles that have drastically reduced the danger and time involved in lumber work. Crawling through the forest, harvesters reach out with an articulated arm, grab a tree by the base with its nimble claw, then cut, trim, and lift the bare log onto the back of a transport vehicle. This can all be done by one operator, and during the process the tree is measured and catalogued. This entire process has added efficiency and sustainability to an industry that carefully balances a fine line of production and conservation.
In North America and Europe, long gone are the days of clear-cutting forests and destroying an entire region’s ecology. While clear-cutting “slash and burn” operations still happen in parts of South America and Africa, they are due to the expanding, unregulated livestock and agriculture industries, not the timber industry. The careful regulation and scientific study of the lumber industry in the United States and Canada have led to a net increase of 1 percent of forested land over the last 50 years. That means the forests of North America are stable, with a slight increase, even as roughly 45.5 billion board feet of lumber are harvested in the United States in a single year. This is thanks to precise tree selection, sometimes using satellite imagery and GPS, and aggressive tree-growing programs.
While much of the harvesting techniques have been streamlined, the politics behind harvesting have been anything but. Most notably, the Canada-U.S. softwood lumber dispute is considered one of the greatest points of trade tension between the two countries. The disagreement is directly linked to how and where lumber is coming from. In the United States, most lumber comes from the property of 11 million private U.S. landowners. In Canada, most land dedicated to lumber harvesting is owned by the government. In the interest of maintaining a healthy economy, Canadian provincial governments subsidize the industry, effectively keeping the price of lumber low and stable. This is in direct conflict with the private-market-driven prices U.S. companies charge. Over the past 40 years, a number of lawsuits and agreements have been filed and disputed between the two countries over Canada’s subsidies and the movement of lumber over the border. While this dispute is currently at an uneasy truce, the potential of new wood technologies is promising to drive the demand for lumber to new heights.
Roughly 80 percent of all lumber harvested in the world is softwood. Despite its name, softwood, as opposed to hardwood, is not defined by its softness, but rather by the species of tree it comes from. Softwoods are generally conifers, such as pines, firs, and cedars, while hardwoods come from broad-leaved trees, such as oaks, maples, and hickories. Softwoods have long been used for light-frame construction, while hardwoods have been traditionally used for heavy timber construction, as well as fine woodworking due to its often-fine grain.
Although the lumber industry is confident it can handle an increase in demand, there are factors that will need to be addressed. As of yet, there are few standards for producing heavy timber, CLT in particular, and legal definitions are also lacking. The industry is developing so fast that local fire codes have not been established for the material. At the same time, architects, lumber producers, and manufacturers across North America are looking to Canada and Europe for a way forward, while innovating in their own right.