What exactly does this mean?

To be human, it seems, is to be a hypocrite. We kill trees all the time, and have done so for thousands of years. Same with fish, chickens, goats, sheep, cows – you name it. Sure, we may call it harvesting or farming or some less emotional word than killing, but the end result is the same: we regularly kill other animals or living things to make our lives more comfortable.

We are rather delicate beings, though. There’s no way most of us will sever a chicken’s head or slash a goat’s throat – or murder a cow so we can enjoy a hamburger. We need other people to do that, preferably out-of-sight and out-of-mind. We don’t want to think about it. We just want our chicken, goat, or hamburger, and as soon as possible please.

It’s the same with trees and the products of trees. If we think about them at all (and mostly we don’t), trees provide us with the basic necessities of life: shelter, fire, and food. There are other, perhaps less obvious benefits such as reducing air pollution, preventing soil erosion, improving water quality by filtering out impurities, and providing a protective canopy for other plant and animal species to grow and flourish. And yes, they make us happy too! More importantly, however, trees act as one of the “lungs of the Earth, sucking in carbon dioxide and expelling oxygen. Without oxygen, we would not survive.

So, collectively we have a vested interest in preserving and maintaining a vibrant, sustainable, diverse, and renewable resource at the very same time that we are “killing it. The debate is where and how we strike a balance between the two, and why the emotional killing word is front and centre, joining the family of killing and saving whales, seals, Siberian tigers, polar bears, and so on. Each is portrayed as endangered and in need of rescue, and the emotional rally cry is the result. In the heat of the campaign, the facts often get mislaid, lost, distorted, obscured.

So, let’s accept the fact that we kill/harvest/farm trees for lumber and paper products. The real questions are: Which trees? How many of them? How do we kill them? And how do we replace them? And there are strong views on all sides of those questions.

How we are “killing” trees

The most common image of “killing” trees, of course, is the ugly clear-cut. This is used by environmental groups and competitors to the lumber and paper industries to portray forestry in a bad light and to convince people that there is a better way (a better way to harvest trees or not to harvest them at all, or “better alternatives such as steel, cement, plastic, or even wheat straw).

Foresters will tell you, however, that the clear-cutting method of harvesting mimics some of the natural disturbance dynamics of the forest, such as fire, wind blow-downs, and insect infestations. These don’t look so pretty either! According to the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, clear-cutting “allows regeneration and rapid growth of certain tree species’’ in some eco-systems. “It costs less, making forests more economically viable; (and) it produces safer working conditions for loggers.”[i]

Clear-cutting provides the full sunlight that’s needed for native pioneer species such as jack pine and aspen to regenerate naturally in Canada’s boreal forests. And the size and distribution of clear-cuts is determined by looking at past natural disturbance patterns. Streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands are protected by the creation of reserves within the harvested area, retaining natural variations and biodiversity.

A group of Canadian forest companies and leading environmental groups recently committed to move towards implementing a new clear-cutting harvesting technique called natural range of variation (NRV). It mimics the natural disturbance dynamics of the forest (fire, wind, and pests) and is currently being implemented across the boreal.

In a press release at the time, environmental group ForestEthics (now STAND.earth) was supportive, saying it was ‘’pleased to see steps being taken towards timber harvesting that more closely mimic nature.”[ii]  Despite its poor public image, then, clear-cutting is not the evil that some people portray it to be.  

 Which trees, and how many?

A key issue for the forest industry, landowners, governments, scientists, and environmental groups is which trees get to be harvested, and how many. These decisions are always site-specific, but the broad parameters include consideration of the ages of the trees, the species involved, the wood volume available, and the sustainable limit of the area to be logged.

Here we get into arguments about which forest areas and how much of them should forever be off-limits to logging and other extractive industries; how much needs to be protected and preserved to retain biodiversity; the implications for wildlife; what the carbon consequences of harvesting the forest are; and even debates about what the trees are used for.

This is all good and healthy. We should be open to debate. In Canada, unlike the United States where private ownership of forest is dominant, more than 90% of Canada’s forests are on publicly owned land. This has enabled governments to introduce extensive rules and regulations about what logging companies can and cannot do, all framed around the policy of sustainable forest management. 

Any forest area harvested, for example, must be successfully regenerated either naturally or artificially (through tree planting or seeding) after harvest, a fact that some activists conveniently neglect to mention when denouncing how many millions or billions of trees are being removed.

Canada was an early adopter of sustainable forest management and together with the United States and 10 other countries established what became known internationally as the Montreal Process whereby “a common set of science-based indicators (gives) government, industry, researchers and the public, a way to consistently define, assess, monitor and report progress on the sustainable management of 90% of the world’s boreal and temperate forests.” These sustainability indicators have been modified over the years and are designed to be comparable to those of other countries, and to be consistent with global forest reporting to the United Nations.[iii]

Independent third-party certification of sustainably managed forests is an important yardstick. And Canada can take some pride in the fact that more of its forest is independently certified than anywhere else in the world. A whopping 41% of the entire world’s certified forest is in Canada.[iv]

So, what about “saving” trees?

The problem here is that saving can be interpreted in so many different ways. First up, of course, is that we are not really saving trees (from death) if they are eventually going to die anyway. Saving, in effect, is really just postponing the inevitable.

Second, there is evidence to suggest that the notion of “saving paper to save trees is fundamentally flawed. Dr. Jim Bowyer and his colleagues at Dovetail Partners have tracked recent cases and trends where paper production was reduced:[v]

  • In the Southern United States, there has been a significant decline in paper consumption over the past two decades, especially in printing and writing paper, because of the shift to electronic formats; the 2007-2009 recession; and stiffer competition from Asia. Mill closures and lost capacity followed. Forest landowners (mostly individuals and families, investment groups, and forest companies) responded to the market signals and considered their options: convert the forest to agriculture because of higher commodity prices to be received there (deforestation); use the wood to produce pellets for energy production; or remove the forest for vacation homes or other urban development (deforestation again).
  • In northern New Brunswick, three large pulp mills closed over the past decade. But this has not meant fewer trees cut. Sawmills are accepting lower diameter logs (which would have gone to pulp); trees are being harvested for other purposes (mills in Atholville and Nackawic have been converted to make dissolving pulp, which is used to produce viscose rayon for the textile market in India); and logs are being used to manufacture oriented strand board and to supply a growing pellets-for-energy market.
  •  In Minnesota, the recent closure of several mills led to large blocks of forest land being divested. Several thousand acres of this land was subsequently cleared and converted to intensive agriculture, including potato production (deforestation).

Dr. Bowyer and his colleagues conclude that, counterintuitively, the continued use of paper and other wood products may, in fact, be an essential component in maintaining a forested landscape for future generations.

When it comes to saving trees or forest, much depends on what type of trees we are talking about, and where they are. If primary forest (forest basically untouched by humans so far) is the target, then it could be argued that those particular or specific forest areas are being saved by being protected. So here saving really means “protected,” perhaps being declared legally off-limits or incorporated into a wilderness area.

But if it is forest that has already been logged (and has since been restocked), are you really saving any trees? Without an operational definition (not an academic one) of exactly what a primary forest is or is not, this debate will likely continue.

Then there are the marketing claims by competing industries. Are we really saving trees by using steel and cement as building materials?[vi] Are we saving trees by using plastic shopping bags?[vii] Are we saving trees by using sugarcane (bagasse) or wheat straw? Corporations make unsubstantiated claims as well. In each case, the alternative material might very well be worse for the environment. We need life-cycle analyses that meet ISO 14040 standards, including publicly available independent third-party reviews, to help us with that. And in the meantime, the trees will still be growing, and dying.

We can certainly reduce how much wood and paper fibre we use when we extract it or convert it into a wood or paper product.[viii] This makes economic sense because it saves on production costs and perhaps wins over a client from a competitor. Whether this amounts to saving trees or not is a moot point. It’s certainly a marketing point.

With so many claims for saving trees from both customers and competitors, it was inevitable that the paper industry itself would get into the game. And when the sales and marketing types from the virgin mills claim paper from recycled mills is too weak compared to their sheet, it’s not surprising that the recycled mills quickly point out how many trees the virgin mills are killing, or even more disingenuously, suggest that they (the recycled mills) don’t kill any trees.[ix]

And then there are the eco-calculators that massage all sorts of numbers from supposedly soundly based scientific assumptions, calculations, and formulas to come up with exactly how many trees are allegedly being “saved” by buying this or that. It’s all a bit of a mess, really! Buyer beware!

This is an edited version of an excerpt from Little Green Lies and Other BS by ©John Mullinder (www.johnmullinder.ca).

[i] World Resources Institute and World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Sustainable Procurement of Wood and Paper-based Products, http://sustainableforestproducts.org/Sustainable_Forest_Management

[ii]“FPAC Commits to New Forest Management Approach to Mimic Elements of Nature,” (press release for Forest Products Association of Canada), Fastmarket’s RISI Technology Channels (online), January 14, 2016, Forest industry commits to new forest management approach to mimic elements of nature (newswire.ca)

[iii] Today, for example, Natural Resources Canada uses some 54 sustainability indicators to track the country’s progress. The indicators are wide-ranging: from biological diversity to eco-system productive capacity, health, and vitality; from the conservation of soil and water resources to the maintenance of the forest’s contribution to global carbon cycles; and from the maintenance and enhancement of long-term multiple socio-economic benefits to a legal, institutional and economic framework for forest conservation and sustainable management. Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, Criteria and Indicators, The Canadian Council of Forest Ministers’ framework of Criteria and Indicators of Sustainable Forest Management in Canada – Canadian Council of Forest Ministers (CCFM)

[iv] Certification Canada

[v] Dovetail Partners, “Contrary to Popular Thinking, Going Paperless Does Not Save Trees,” (white paper produced on behalf of Two Sides North America), February 8, 2016,

[vi] What does cement have to do with forestry? The Cement Association of Canada recently co-funded an environmental group’s highly critical study of Ontario logging practices. The association is lobbying against the greater use of engineered wood, a substitute for more emissions-intensive cement products in the building sector.

[vii] A plastic lobby group’s favourite slogan while campaigning against a possible plastic bag ban in Montreal recently was “Save a Tree.”

[viii] There are numerous examples of lower consumption of paper materials through light-weighting and right-sizing (smaller and lighter sheets, eliminating or reducing layers, reconfiguring box flaps, removing air space between the products and its packaging). One celebrated project by the Pqper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) reduced fibre consumption by an estimated 100,000 tonnes a year by amending the shipping rules on corrugated containers. See “Reduction: Making Do With Less” PPEC Factsheet 24-2019

[ix] While it is technically accurate that a 100% recycled mill does not “kill” any trees itself, it would not have any paper fibre to make products with unless someone else in the paper life cycle had “killed” a tree first. The paper life cycle requires an infusion of fresh virgin fibre as recycled fibres become progressively weaker. See John Mullinder, “Some Really Deep Thoughts on the Meaning of Life, and Paper,” PPEC, March 7, 2014. www.ppec-paper.com/some-really-deep-thoughts/