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In North America, they can't see the wood for the trees

New Scientist February 6, 1999
SECTION: This Week, Pg. 11
HEADLINE: Chainsaw massacre
BYLINE: Fred Pearce
HIGHLIGHT: In North America, they can't see the wood for the trees

BODY: THE US and Canada have seriously overestimated how much timber they
can harvest without harming their forests, claims a leading international
science agency. Despite urging other countries to log sustainably, neither
country has reliable data on the size of its own  forests, how much timber
grows in them or how much can be removed before biodiversity suffers. The
US harvests more than 500 million cubic metres of timber a year.

The government's Forestry  Service says this amount could be increased by
more than 40 per cent by 2040. But a report published on the Internet this
week by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in
Austria concludes that this increase will be possible only if serious
environmental damage is done, or if protected areas are violated. For
example, the plan would lead to serious deforestation in southern states
such as Georgia and Mississippi. Both the US and Canada are urging other
countries to manage their  forests in a sustainable way, but they do not
have their own house in order," says Sten Nilsson, the author of the
report and one of the world's leading analysts of  forestry  data. The
problem, he says, is that national data on wood supplies take no account
of government commitments to maintain tree cover, protect against erosion
and sustain  biodiversity  in  forests. Forestry scientists simply work
out how much timber is growing and assume it can all be harvested.

Nilsson describes the situation in Canada as "desperate". Official
statistics still refer to a 1985 study of timber growth. He believes it
overestimates growth by as much as 40 per cent in some provinces and that
the rate of harvesting in Canada is now approaching twice the rate of
replanting. Nilsson also points out that while plundering its own forests,
Canada has been "a driving force in funding model forests in a number of
countries in order to illustrate how sustainable forest management should
be carried out".

Thomas Schmidt, a research scientist at the US Forest Service's
experimental station in St Paul, Minnesota, helped provide data for the
report. He admitted this week that US statistics on timber do not consider
many factors - such as economics, accessibility and environmental 
restrictions - that affect the amount available for harvest.

Schmidt told "New Scientist" that he expected "some anger" within the
agency about the findings. But they would be hard to contradict, he said,
since the authors had an excellent reputation and many of the figures used
in the report were the agency's own. "We need to raise our standards," he
says. Nilsson says his data also cast new doubt on the recent claim that
American  forests  are absorbing a large proportion of the carbon dioxide
emissions from the US (" Science", vol 282, p 442).

The report can be found at

For more science news see

   LANGUAGE: English
   TYPE: This Week
   LOAD-DATE: February 5, 1999

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