The Hartford Courant ran this front page story today about the beleaguered state of the forestry sector of Connecticut's economy. The fact that Connecticut still has a forestry sector to its economy was probably news to most of the paper's readership, let alone one that is valued at $500 million annually.
The article is quite good, as far as it goes, but despite its prominent column inches it really only scratches the surface of what is going on in our woodlands and with the market for forest products in southern New England. The part that really got me howling was the idea of our depressed oak market as a fashion victim:
"[I]n 2006, just as inventories peaked, global preferences for wood suddenly changed. Designers, furniture makers and home builders started shifting from the rich, dark grains of New England oak toward lighter, more subtle grains such as birch and maple. At the same time, world markets were flooded with inexpensive exports, such as Russian birch and bamboo and cork laminates from Latin America and China."
Actually, these are not isolated factors that just happened to coincide. All that cheap wood is - surprise - "lighter and more subtle grained", a market-based cause and effect. Although if there really is an Oscar de la Renta of the forest products industry, I want to meet that person. This could also explain why plaid is hot again this season.
Southern New England has been shipping whole logs out of the region for decades rather than milling them locally. In the last couple of years, the renewed market for firewood has been the one bright spot in an otherwise depressed hardwood market. There are sawmills in our area that are idle because firewood sells better than lumber. There are fewer and fewer people making a living in the state from forestry every year - much less than from farming, even with 58% of the surface area of Connecticut covered in trees. Needless to say, there is not a strong constituency to save family forests and small forestry operations the way there is for local agriculture.
The development value of the land far outweighs its timber value. The economic incentive for growing old, high quality trees is gone if there is no market for veneer quality wood, and so what forestry does occur will be on shorter rotations. The biological value of such woodlands will also be diminished, which is why the state of forestry should matter to conservationists in the state of Connecticut.