Sustainable forestry is about stewardship and care—care for trees, naturally, but also for smaller plants, soil, wildlife and water. It’s a practice that creates a mutually supportive relationship between nature and people, through which we help sustain and renew the resources we depend on.
Sustainability has been the backbone of the U.S. paper industry for decades, and we couldn’t do what we do without it. Which is why the industry works with private landowners to develop and maintain purpose-grown healthy forests.
Today, U.S. forests grow nearly twice the tree volume that’s harvested every year. About one-third of the U.S. is forested, totaling nearly 766 million acres.
Sustainable forestry requires long-term planning, with an eye toward building a forest of trees at different stages of growth—some measured in months, some in decades. Working forests, those that are managed to support businesses like producing paper, typically have areas of trees that are young, middle-aged and mature.
Quick facts about sustainable forestry and paper makers:
Uneven-aged forests don’t just help mitigate climate change by capturing and storing different amounts of carbon at different speeds. They also offer habitats to a variety of wildlife species.
What Makes a Healthy, Sustainable Forest?
Foresters often create forests from scratch, as it were, reclaiming land that was clearcut generations ago for crops or pastureland. These young forests are changing rapidly as they grow and mature.
Traits of Young Forests
- Low, open and grassy, they’re subject to winds, floods and other disturbances.
- Their saplings, shrubs, brush and mast (the fruits, nuts and seeds of woody plants) offer cover and habitat for small animals and songbirds to roost, feed and nest.
- Of the 60 mammal species commonly found in the Northeast, 56 thrive in early-successional forests.
Once trees in a wooded area reach about 12 years old and 25 feet tall, foresters will remove slow-growing, diseased or poorly formed trees in a process called thinning to decrease competition for sunlight, water and nutrients.
Thinning is environmentally beneficial, promoting the health of an entire stand of trees and enhancing food production and quality for wildlife. The woody debris left on the forest floor from thinning also recycles nutrients and creates habitats for small animals and microhabitats for fungi and moss species. And thinned trees, of course, don’t go to waste—most are used to make wood pulp and fuel in the form of wood chips.
Forests reach the mid-successional growth stage at 12 to 20 years old.
Traits of Mid-Growth Forests
- Just like people their age, trees at this stage experience rapid growth. They may reach a 40-foot height and a foot-wide diameter.
- Mid-size animals such as wild turkeys, foxes, raccoons and skunks thrive in these woodlands, whose middle-aged trees have outgrown weaker ones.
- Birds like band-tailed pigeons and Cooper’s hawks make homes in their canopies.
Depending on the region, risks, data and local regulations, foresters might do a controlled burn on the floor of a middle-aged forest. This intervention reduces competing vegetation, fire hazards and the likelihood that diseases will spread quickly and have catastrophic effects.
After 20 to 25 years of growth, forests enter the late-successional stage.
Traits of Mature Forests
- These woodlands are home to large trees, shrubs and saplings that thrive in the shade of the forest canopy and some dead trees that are still standing.
- Birds like Vaux’s swifts and purple martins live in the snags, while nesting birds like wood ducks and western screech owls take advantage of the mature trees’ knotty cavities.
- Beneath these trees lives a vibrant array of megafauna, from white-tailed deer to bears.
Healthy Forest Ecosystems
Continued forest health requires a symbiotic relationship between people and all the living things that make up a forest, from the smallest rodents to the tallest trees. By practicing sustainable forestry, our industry can ensure that different generations of trees provide habitats for diverse wildlife and simultaneously benefit people—landowners, foresters, recreation seekers and more—for generations to come.