Published December 10, 2012
WOODRUFF, Wis.-- They may seem like odd partners: the paper industry, which consumes trees to make its product, and environmental groups that fight to save the world's forests.
In fact, they are close allies.
As Wisconsin showed decades ago, the environmental and economic benefits of trees intersect.
Trees, of course, provide a refuge for wildlife and serve as giant carbon sponges. Replacing trees that are thinned by logging can keep a forest young and healthy, less susceptible to forest fires. The logging, in turn, gives the owner an incentive to keep the land undeveloped.
"If you lose that economic value, there's less incentive to keep those lands forested," said Paul Delong, chief forester for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Suddenly, the incentive to keep that habitat healthy goes down."
In northern Wisconsin, trucks and trains stacked with timber crisscross the region, an integral part of the economy. Mills often burn branches, bark, rotten timber and other woody "biomass" left over from logging operations to reduce energy costs. Some use hydropower, thanks to their position along the state's rivers.
Despite all that, logging remains unpopular and divisive.
The Northern Highland American Legion State Forest, in far northern Wisconsin, receives $4 million in revenue a year for the state through regulated logging.
"I'll be honest, this isn't pretty," said Steve Petersen, superintendent of the forest, while driving past piles of fresh cut timber alongside a logging road. "Many tourists come up and want it to be pretty."
Some environmentalists drive railroad spikes into trees that are due for harvest, hoping to break the chipping machines. Mills long ago turned to metal detectors to identify spiked logs.
"People think you are killing trees," said Jeff Landin, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council, a lobbying and trade group. "People just take as gospel that that's inherently bad."
To be sure, the world's forests are receding.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the planet lost a net 20,000 square miles of forest cover each year from 2000 to 2010, about a third the size of Wisconsin. If you subtract efforts to foster commercial plantations in developing nations, the annual deforestation figure comes to 50,000 square miles.
In recent years, Wisconsin paper and printing firms - like others in the United States and Europe - have tried to redefine the image of paper.
Domtar Corp., which still operates two mills on the Wisconsin River, has been running ads in National Geographic and The New York Times. One shows a lush natural forest and reads: "So long as this well managed forest is used to make paper, this will always be a forest - and never a parking lot."
Many paper and print advocates argue that giant server farms - the backbone of the Internet - are the fastest growing users of fossil fuel in the world. They now use 2% of all U.S. electrical demand, according to a study by Stanford University.
And they point to facts such as these: The carbon dioxide emissions produced by running a computer for 20 days is the same as that produced by an average American's use of office-type paper for a full year.
And: A 25-year-old acre of healthy forest in Wisconsin can absorb 6,529 pounds of carbon dioxide annually.
Even international environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council refer to "good wood."
"Trees and wood are still the world's best and proven way to capture and store carbon," the U.N. says in its world forestry report. "They hold significant potential to mitigate climate change."
Emily Yount of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.