Why “going paperless” is not the way to save North American forests

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 11/28/2014

Two Sides North America Blog by Phil Riebel

Here are 5 key reasons why going paperless will not save North American forests.

1 – Our forests are growing due to sustainable forestry practices

In North America we grow many more trees than we harvest. In the U.S., between 1953 and 2012, the net area occupied by forests increased from about 300 to 310 million ha and the net volume of growing stock (which takes into account the number of trees and their size) rose about 60%[1]. In Canada forest area remained stable over the last 2 decades at about 350 million ha and less than 0.5% of the resource is harvested annually and must be regenerated.[2]

2 – Paper production is not a main cause of forest loss (deforestation)

Deforestation means the permanent or long-term conversion of forest lands to other land uses due to urban expansion, industrial development, resource extraction or agricultural development.   Worldwide by far the most significant cause of deforestation is the expansion of agriculture.[3] In the U.S., the main causes are development of cropland, pasture and urban areas (particularly the southern regions) and in Canada it is the expansion of agriculture and the oil and gas industry.[4]

Although woodland roads are a cause of deforestation, they make up a small percentage of overall forest loss and they do offer many positive recreational benefits for thousands of outdoor enthusiasts across North America (ex: mountain biking, hiking, bird-watching, fishing, hunting).

3 – Most trees don’t go into pulp and paper

In North America, the majority of wood fiber for papermaking comes from sawmill residues and recycled paper products.  Only 36% of the U.S. roundwood harvest (trees) is used each year in manufacturing paper and paperboard[5]. In Canada, 13% of the wood fiber to make paper comes from roundwood[6].  The main product made from trees harvested in the U.S. and Canada is lumber and it is the sawmill chips (by-products of the lumber process) that are a key raw material for pulp manufacture and eventually papermaking.

4 – Forest products provide an incentive for forest owners to keep land as forest

Most pulpwood harvested in the U.S. (89%) comes from private land[7].  Landowners receive income from the trees grown on their land which is an important incentive to maintain, sustainably manage and renew this valuable resource. This is especially important where landowners are facing economic pressure to convert forestland to non-forest uses such as residential housing[8].   Continued use of paper and other wood products may therefore be a key factor in maintaining a forested landscape for future generations.

5 – Paper is one of many products from sustainably managed forests

Due to its inherent sustainable features (renewability, recyclability, carbon uptake and storage), wood is a highly valued raw material for numerous products. In fact, the University of Kentucky - College of Agriculture has compiled a thorough list of hundreds of products made from wood.[9]

As paper use declines in mature markets such as North America, there may be temporary decreases in wood harvesting in some regions, until markets recover or new markets develop.  These economic slow-downs are not necessarily good for privately owned forests since forest owners lose income and may sell their forest land (see item 4 above).  

However, as our industry undergoes its transformation into innovative forest products and new markets, wood used for papermaking is being diverted to other uses such as dissolving pulp for textiles and consumer goods[10], biomass for energy use, and even biodiesel that you can put in your car gas tank.[11] 

So, how do we protect forests?  In my opinion there are a few priorities:

  1. Provide incentives to keep forestland and continually improve sustainable forest management since most forest across North America are not under conservation agreements or easements, and many are privately owned.
  2. Continue efforts to protect valuable forest areas.  Today only about 10% of forests are under conservation.
  3. Try to minimize losses of growing stock from natural disasters such as fire, insects and disease.  In 2011 in the U.S., over 8.7 million acres of forest burned and there were over 74,000 fires.[12]  In 2012 in Canada, over 20 million acres were damaged by insects.[13]  These statistics far exceed the amount of wood harvested for forest products.

I will leave you with this extract from “Tree-Free Paper:  A Path to Saving Trees and Forests?” by Dovetail Partners[14]:

“While saving trees and protecting forests is a widely shared goal, avoiding the use of wood is not necessarily the way to get there. It is precisely the areas of the world that consume the least wood that continue to experience the greatest forest loss….It may well be, then, that the very foundation of the tree-free movement is flawed. Counter intuitively, continued use of paper and other wood products may be a key factor in maintaining a forested landscape for future generations.”


[1] USDA Forest Inventory Analysis, 2012 Forest Resource Tables

[2] http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/environment/use-of-forest-resources.aspx  

[3] Covington, P., 2013.  Deforestation and the role of paper products.

[4] Two Sides Blog, 2014. Let's Get the Story Straight on the State of North American Forests and Deforestation.

[5] Dovetail Partners Inc., 2014. Tree-Free Paper:  A Path to Saving Trees and Forests?

[6] Forest Products Association of Canada, 2012  

[7] USDA Forest Inventory Analysis, 2012 Forest Resource Tables

[8] World Business Council for Sustainable Development and NCASI, 2007

[9] http://www.twosidesna.org/Products-Made-from-Wood---A-List-of-Hundreds-of-Items

[10] http://ppimagazine.com/mills/north-america/projects/conversion-boosts-sappi-cloquet-mill-growth-strategy

[11] http://www.upmbiofuels.com/Pages/default.aspx

[12] USDA Forest Inventory Analysis, 2012 Forest Resource Tables

[13] Natural Resources Canada, 2014.  The State of Canada’s Forests – Annual Report 2014.

[14] Dovetail Partners Inc., 2014. Tree-Free Paper:  A Path to Saving Trees and Forests?