An even more uncertain future is on the horizon

john_englishCloning is a frightening concept. The first thought one has is of human cloning, which is currently in debate over ethical concerns related to reproduction and also embryonic stem cell issues. For woodworkers, cloning trees rather than humans is a lot less complicated.

Last April, an organization called Archangel Ancient Tree Archive released a collection of clones from the largest, healthiest coastal redwoods that ever lived. The seedlings were planted in nine locations around the world in an effort to rebuild the species. Those locations in Germany, Ireland, Wales, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, California and Oregon were selected because of one primary concern: climate change. According to the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, “declining rainfall and snowpack and higher temperatures are putting these trees under great stress in their native range. The worldwide locations were chosen as surrogates for the ideal type of climate projected for the future to give these trees a greater chance for long-term survival. This practice is known as assisted migration which allows, with human intervention, a species to relocate to a more favorable location in the face of our rapidly changing climate.”

Is this the face of forestry for this century?

Archangel’s biologists and nurserymen searched through the native range of the giant redwoods along the coasts of California and Oregon in an effort to collect genetic samples from both living trees and expired stumps and roots. These they packed up and hauled to their lab in Michigan, where they began the long process of creating exact genetic copies — clones — of the original giants. One of the consequences of success will be that these giant organisms could eventually be used on a massive scale to correct the carbon imbalance in our atmosphere. To that end, the team is also working with other species, including giant sequoias.

According to Cornell University’s Sugar Maple Research and Development Program (maple.dnr.cornell.edu), foresters have been cloning trees for generations. The traditional process begins with taking a cutting (or branch) from an existing tree and then grafting it onto the roots of another tree. Or they can be rooted themselves, which simply means encouraging the cuttings to develop their own roots by treating them with hormones. In fact, arboreal cloning has been part of gardening for so long that it’s mainstream.

But the work at Archangel is a little different. For one thing, it’s being conducted at a genetic level. And it’s also working with trees that have long since expired.

Ethical dilemmas

At Humboldt University in Berlin, a biologist named Kurt Zoglauer has been working on genetically engineering Christmas trees — more specifically, the Nordmann fir tree that is native to the Black Sea region. He expects to have commercially available stock by 2016 — trees that are perfect in shape and color and at the top of their market potential. If it can be done with Christmas trees, why not walnut, mahogany, rosewood or ebony? After all, Cornell is already working on maples.

So the big question that pops up is this: are there ethical concerns to cloning trees as a means to harvesting usable lumber? Yes, but most of them are related more to human social needs than to the plants themselves. For example, cloning on a large scale will change economic models. New industries will arise and where they are located and how they are managed are serious ethical concerns. In March 2010, the website fast-growing-trees.com ran a story about the way that new tree varieties can help fix Third World poverty. The focus of the piece was that these fast-growing trees could counter a huge deforestation issue in Haiti, while at the same time help with soil erosion and provide an income to impoverished farm families.

The ethical dilemma can present itself in other ways. For example, if we can grow genetically altered species of rare hardwoods in the United States and thereby deprive some undeveloped or underdeveloped society of their only export, should we? Simple question, complex answer.

The ethics of tree cloning also extend to the plant itself. For example, are we genetically engineering a superior subspecies that will eventually lead to the extinction of a natural variety of the same lumber species? And if so, should we?

Technology’s role

Beyond cloning, the lumber industry is moving in many other directions that portend fundamental changes. For example, our ability to actually “print” three-dimensional objects is going to affect how or whether we continue to include wood accents in everything from knife handles to custom car dashboards. If you’re unfamiliar with the technology, it’s essentially an inkjet printer that lays down hundreds or even thousands of layers of ink in a preprogrammed pattern to create 3-D objects. When these printers can eventually deliver a preformed part, complete with grain and color that is indistinguishable from natural wood — and do so in an economical fashion — why on Earth would a manufacturer sub out the work to a millwork shop? The printer does the job more precisely — without human involvement beyond programming — and does so in a single act. There is no need to plane, joint, shape, mold, sand, drill or even finish the part. The technology is still a decade away from being commercially viable, but it’s coming. And we’d better be able to explain to consumers why natural wood products are still better.

Another technological advancement that shop owners might want to research is the use of digitally printed designs on panels, rather than just solid or veneered wood panels in doors and components. Custom Cupboards in Wichita, Kan., is leading this field with their Facets custom cabinet line that “uses a proprietary process to digitally print designs and artwork directly on cabinet doors, drawer fronts, solid stock and paneling — opening the door to dramatic, custom designs.” The company describes its new option this way: “The Facets line gives anyone the ability to personalize their spaces to levels never seen before… whether it is adding artwork or a photo of a child or pet …” For more information, visit customcupboards.com and search their News & Media link.

On a macro scale, we have all seen the price of oriented strand board skyrocket and then drop like a carnival ride, much like gas did three or four years ago. The oil industry seems to have worked out some ways to minimize price volatility, mostly by developing new domestic sources of crude such as Canadian shale and the Bakken oilfield in North Dakota. They also seem to have improved their warehousing and distribution methods, including new pipelines, all of which allows them more control over the price at the pump. Should the lumber industry be learning something here? Through several years of serious recession, when the new-home construction industry fizzled to a mere shred of itself, the demand for hardwoods and sheet goods plummeted. Now that the industry is recovering, are there stockpiles of plywood sitting in strategic warehouses around the country ready to meet new demand? It seems not: on July 30, a 7/16” sheet of OSB at Lowe’s was retailing for $14.97. In 2003, it was less than half that price. With such dramatic swings in value, there’s a lot of talk in the industry about reassessing inventory procedures.

On the mend

Globally, the world of trees actually looks a little healthier than one might expect, considering decades of bad news about the Amazon River basin. In its most recent assessment of the industry worldwide, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations says that: “between 1990 and 2005… forest conversion to other land uses is most prevalent in the tropical climatic domain and, within this domain, in South America. Other climatic domains were remarkably stable in terms of net forest land-use change over the period 1990–2005.” Of course, the next report using data assembled up to 2010 (and scheduled to be released in 2015) might well change that perspective.

The report also notes that: “Total forest area in 2005 was 3.8 billion ha (hectares), which is approximately 30 percent of the global land area. There was a net reduction in the global forest area between 1990 and 2005 of 66.4 million ha, or 1.7 percent.” The reduction was partially offset by gains in forest area through afforestation and natural forest expansion of 6.8 million ha per year between 1990 and 2000 and 7.3 million ha per year between 2000 and 2005. So, between man and Mother Nature, the number of replacement trees is definitely expanding. It’s not quite enough yet to compensate for diminished global forestation, but it’s definitely headed in the right direction.

Whether it’s cloned hardwoods or exotics grown on U.S. soil, printers making wooden parts obsolete, digitally printed designs replacing wood grain, an industry that at least attempts to control price fluctuations or a turnabout in the deforestation of the planet, it looks like the woodshop industry is in for a bumpy ride.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.

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