Knowing that sustainability issues are my bread and butter, my teenaged niece recently chastised me for reading a printed magazine saying that I would save trees if I switched to an electronic tablet. While I enjoyed using her playful jab as a “teaching moment,” it was an all-too-common reminder how pervasive anti-paper and -print sentiment has become. We see the messages everywhere. Our banks, utilities and telecom providers tell us that going paperless saves trees. Some well-intentioned but misguided individuals and groups go much further, saying that paper use is destroying U.S forests.
So, how do we counter the claims that print and paper are the archenemies of the forest? With facts. And there’s no better resource for forest facts than the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The USFS uses the Montreal Process Criteria and Indicators (MP C&I), a common framework agreed to by 12 countries, to describe, monitor, assess and report on forest trends at the national level and on the progress being made toward U.S. sustainable forest management. I encourage you to read the most recent National Report on Sustainable Forests for a deeper understanding of this process and all the factors that influence the health of American forests. In the meantime, a few key findings from the report might come in handy if you’re faced with answering unsubstantiated claims about the relationship between paper-based communications and forest sustainability.
First, some context. Forest sustainability is a complex topic that can’t be adequately explored in a few brief paragraphs. However, on the whole, there is no evidence that we are “using up” U.S. forests, according to the USFS. In fact, total forested area has been stable at around 750 million acres for the last century despite a threefold increase in population during the same period, and the volume of wood found in U.S. forests is increasing because we grow more than we harvest.
With that said, there is cause for concern. There is substantial fragmentation and outright forest loss at the regional and local levels, due primarily to urban development. Widespread increases in insect infestation and other natural disturbances and the increasing demand for wood-based biofuels are also contributing factors. Add in the potential effects of climate change and the risks and uncertainties associated with these factors are compounded even further. But, contrary to the “go paperless, save trees” messages that suggest growing and harvesting forests to make paper is bad for the environment, the USFS says one of the most critical drivers negatively affecting forest sustainability is the of loss these “working forests.”
The fact is that active forest management – like the responsible practices used on U.S. lands to grow trees for papermaking – is needed for forests to stay healthy and sustainable, says the USFS. While short periods of benign neglect may not damage the long-term sustainability of some forests, driving forces like natural disturbance and climate change will lead to quicker, harsher changes in the health of forests without management.
In addition, the USFS reports that forest management and the revenue it generates serve as a hedge against the number one cause of forest fragmentation and loss – real estate development. In other words, the demand for products sourced from sustainably managed forests, including paper, provides a financial incentive for landowners to continue managing their land responsibly rather than selling it off for development or other non-forest uses. The report also cites a number of studies that show forest management for wood production can enhance biodiversity and other ecosystem services (Gustafson et al. 2007; Miller et al. 2009).
As advocates for the sustainability of paper and print, we should respond to the proliferation of simplistic “go paperless” slogans with what the too-often ignored scientific consensus tells us, because that’s our most powerful case. That consensus has never offered a shred of support for the idea that paper use destroys forests. In fact, the opposite is true. If the print and paper industry were to disappear today, we’d lose a major economic incentive – the kind so often recommended by the broader sustainability community – to channel market forces for real environmental benefit.
For more facts about the sustainability of print and paper, check out the Myths and Facts pages on the Two Sides website.
Kathi Rowzie is a guest blogger for Two Sides. She is a sustainability communications consultant with The Gagliardi Group in Memphis, Tennessee.