A worker checks the diameter of selectively harvested hardwood at the timber yard of Vicksburg, Miss.-based Anderson-Tully. The company's operation is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as a well-managed forest. Photos courtesy of Anderson-Tully.
Being a part of the hardwood flooring business for as long as I have has been a very fulfilling experience. Over the past 17 years, I've actually witnessed the rebirth of an entire industry. While this has been very positive, there looms a major concern that seems to pop up from time to time -- namely, the environmental impacts associated with hardwood flooring.

This growing industry depends on being able to tap into our nation's vast natural resources. Furthermore, raw material requirements have increased every year since 1982, as has demand for more product. Can our supply of resources keep pace with demand? Is the hardwood floor industry an environmental demon? The facts will surprise you!

When my currently college-aged son was in the 7th grade, he and I frequently got into heated debates about the industry "killing our trees." He had serious concerns about the environmental impact that the harvesting of hardwood trees would have on his generation and others to come. He was most concerned that this resource eventually might be depleted.

It became quite obvious to me that the secret to ameliorating these concerns would be to present a bit of forestry education in the classroom. I was shocked to discover how much inaccurate information was being taught to those 7th graders. In that light, it was no wonder that my son had such concerns about how his dad made a living.

For example, his teacher had no idea that more than 2.5 million people manage and care for forests throughout the United States and Canada. These people were environmentalists long before the word was invented.

For tens of thousands of years, our forests have been subject to periodic damage caused by fires, windstorms, insects, and diseases. Even so, they have survived because they are a self-renewing resource. Every acorn that falls from an oak tree is a seed that can germinate into a new tree. All it needs is soil, water and sunlight. When an old tree dies and falls to the ground, it allows sunlight and water to reach the seedlings on the forest floor so that they can be nourished to achieve their full growth potential. This is the natural cycle of life in the forest. This same process applies when a forest is selectively cut to harvest hardwood trees for economic reasons.

There are so many myths about the supply of hardwood trees in the United States and Canada. Technically, hardwood floor species - like oak, cherry, maple, and ash - come from broad-leafed trees that shed their leaves each autumn. A common perception among most people is the notion that we are running out of trees. But how does this perception compare with reality? The facts, according to the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), are as follows:

1. We still have 70% of the forests that existed here in 1600. In the United States alone, that amounts to 737 million acres of forest.

2. Approximately 247 million acres of forest are reserved from harvest by law, or are slow-growing woodlands unsuitable for timber production.

3. At least 490 million acres are designated as timberlands, which are forests that can produce more than 20 cubic feet of wood per acre annually. It so happens that forestry professionals are cultivating more trees today than 40 years ago! (See chart.)

4. U.S. timberlands now contain 28% MORE standing timber volume than in 1952.

5. Canada has more than 1 BILLION acres of forests - 263 million acres more than the United States.

6. From 1986-1989, only 1.2% of Canada's 576 million acres of timberlands were harvested.

7. In its Forest Resources of the United States, 1992, the National Forest Products Association reported that, in the United States, we are growing far more hardwoods each year than the number that's annually harvested or lost to fire, insect and disease.

8. In 1991, for example, growth exceeded harvest and mortality by 19%.

Today, timber owners and forest management companies vie to be designated a Certified Well-Managed Forest, a designation conferred by Scientific Certifications Systems (SCS), a neutral third-party testing and certification organization. These owners and managers employ licensed, professional foresters who adhere to SCS's guidelines to attain their certified sustainable forest status. They have imported Scandinavian-style harvesting methods and machinery for the harvesting process. Some use Silvicultural systems (a term used to describe the various approaches used in harvesting, replenishing and growing forests) that rely on natural regeneration of native species to replenish the forest.

A felled tree is moved to Anderson-Tully's loading area in advance of further processing. The company's forests are self-renewing. When a tree is chosen for harvest and removed, another is not planted in its place. Rather, new trees germinate and mature naturally without artificial assistance from man.
All of these efforts have been adopted to ensure proper management of our great hardwood natural resources. It will only get better as more and more forest management companies attain their Well-Managed Forest certification.

From a marketing prospective, these companies are beginning to explore strategies to better promote hardwood flooring made from timber grown in Certified Well-Managed Forests. Already, flooring distributors and dealers in the environmentally aware state of California are demonstrating significant interest in these products.

So, the big question is: what are the long-term marketing prospects for hardwood flooring manufactured from trees that were grown in a Certified Well-Managed Forest? Certainly, the flooring manufacturers in this country need sufficient motivation to procure certified forest lumber, which most likely will be more expensive than non-certified lumber. But they definitely understand the environmental responsibilities associated with being a member of the hardwood forest industry.

Unfortunately, sawmills don't necessarily want to pay a premium to the land owners for logs, and manufacturers don't want to pay a premium to the saw mills for their lumber - unless the wood floor marketplace allows them to recoup these additional costs. Interestingly, a few large timber owners are vertically integrated for harvesting logs and cutting them into rough lumber in their own sawmills. In seeking new ways to add more value for their logs, they are taking a serious look at getting into the hardwood flooring business. Wouldn't that be interesting?

My research thus far shows some resistance in the marketplace to paying a premium for hardwood flooring made from Certified Well-Managed Forest material. To overcome this resistance, consumer awareness needs to be raised, and people need to be educated about the vast forest resources available for commercial harvesting.

The next generation of homeowners in this country will certainly be more environmentally aware than those that preceded them. It is not beyond the realm of possibilities that they may, in fact, demand that their hardwood flooring be made from Certified Well-Managed Forest material.

Are consumers ready and willing to pay a premium for "certified" hardwood flooring? Maybe not today, but I'm betting they will tomorrow.