The Forest Products Laboratory: A Proud Legacy

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Forest Products Laboratory, Centennial Celebration
Madison, WI
— June 23, 2010

Good morning! It is a pleasure to be here to help celebrate the centennial of the Forest Products Laboratory and to help dedicate its new Centennial Research Facility.

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of visiting The Shack and the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center nearby. The Forest Products Lab and The Shack—at first glance, what a contrast!

One is a great government facility located in a large urban area. Its work affects hundreds of millions of people. It goes to the core of our industrial society, with our dependency on wood fiber in so many ways.

The other is a small private landownership far out in the countryside, not ever much as a farm but rich in many other ways. Its stories are local and modest, stories of sunrise and sunset, of summer and winter, of birds and flowers and trees—a Sand County Almanac.

Both are connected through the life and career of Aldo Leopold. Perhaps better than anyone else, Leopold understood the role of government in conservation, and he also understood its limits. In the next few minutes, I would like to reflect on the history of the Forest Products Lab in relation to both the role of government and its limits.

A History of Reducing Waste

What is the role of government here at the Lab? In 1928, at the end of his four-year career as associate director of the Lab, Leopold set forth his view of what the Lab can and should be doing to promote conservation. He did so in an essay called “The Home Builder Conserves.” It was published in American Forests and Life, a journal read by conservationists at the time.

At the time, the amount of waste was truly appalling. For every tree harvested, only one-third of the wood found its way into wood products. Two-thirds was totally wasted. The role of the Forest Service, especially here at the Forest Products Lab, was to help reduce that waste to a bare minimum—conservation through the wise utilization of forest products.

Throughout its hundred-year history, the Lab has done that job extremely well. So far, it has pursued at least 264 broad research and project goals. Areas of research have ranged from basic knowledge of wood, to wood processing, to the service life of wood products, to inventing new uses for wood, to technology transfer.

In every area, we can point to any number of breakthroughs. For example, the Lab has been enormously successful in developing engineered wood products. Glulam timber, wooden I-joists, oriented strandboard—today’s construction industry would be unthinkable without technologies such as these.

Imagine something as simple as cardboard boxes. The Lab was instrumental in developing the semichemical pulping process used to produce corrugating medium—that wavy fluted material in cardboard boxes. Today, corrugated boxes are used to ship over 90 percent of all goods in the United States.

A tremendous amount of wood was used to support our troops in both World Wars, not least in wood crates and other packaging. The Forest Products Lab developed standardized methods for testing package performance. The result was far better packaging for war materials and later for peacetime uses, optimizing wood use and extending the timber supply.

Maybe you’ve heard of the Forest Service’s role in developing peel-off postage stamps. It’s one of the Lab’s breakthroughs in recycling materials. In cooperation with the U.S. Postal Service, the Lab’s research led to the development of self-adhesive stamps that do not cause problems with recycling operations. This breakthrough has allowed an additional 20 million tons of mixed wastepaper to be recycled each year.

Less well known is the Lab’s role in developing computer-aided sawmill technology. It’s called best open face, or BOF. It was developed in the 1970s, just in time to help the industry switch from processing big logs to small logs. BOF technology helped to automate softwood dimension sawmills and prevent a total industry collapse. Each year, the United States saves about a billion board feet of lumber thanks to BOF technology.

Future Challenges

I could go on, but you get the idea. Wood fiber plays a central role in our society and our economy, and the Forest Products Lab has long supported both—not only for our nation, but also for the entire world.

Today’s global challenges are daunting. As the climate changes, America’s forests will face growing threats. Fire and fuels, invasive species, drought and water shortages, outbreaks of insects and disease—climate change will worsen these and other challenges.

As if climate change weren’t enough, think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the disaster in the Gulf. All this remind us of the horrendous risks and penalties associated with our national reliance on fossil fuels. It is time to kick the habit.

The Forest Service can help, partly by reducing our carbon footprint, and we are doing so through our Sustainable Operations initiative. The Lab can also make a huge contribution. Already, it is researching ways of utilizing the biomass and small-diameter trees we need to remove in order to restore healthy, resilient forests.

It’s a win/win solution: Healthy, resilient forests sequester and store more carbon, mitigating climate change. Each year, America’s forests take up more than 12 percent of the carbon dioxide that Americans emit. And through clean energy, including biofuels from forests, we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and build a stronger foundation for our economy in the 21st century.

The new Centennial Research Facility here at the Lab is part of that, helping to take us into a new century of forest products research. This new building was designed to meet qualifications for Silver LEED certification. It dovetails perfectly with our Sustainable Operations initiative, helping to reduce our environmental footprint, including our carbon footprint.

The new facility houses state-of-the-art equipment and laboratories for four major areas of research, all of which will be critical in the 21st century: wood preservation, durability, engineering mechanics, and composite sciences.

Wood preservation has been at the core of the Lab’s work since it began in 1910. Aldo Leopold chided the railroads and mines of his time for failing to use treated timber. He called it a “big leak in the national timber supply.” Over time, the use of preservative-treated wood has become nearly universal. But a key role for research remains—developing wood treatments without adversely affecting the environment.

A related field of research for the new facility will be promoting the durability of wood. Vulnerability to biodeterioration, moisture, and fire can raise serious safety concerns and lead to big economic losses. One of the surest ways to extend timber supplies is to improve the durability of the wood in use.

A third area of research at the new facility will be engineering mechanics. The new facility will conduct physical and mechanical tests on a wide range of materials and structures, from houses to transportation structures. Results will inform future building codes and structural design.

The fourth and final focus area for the new facility is composite sciences. Projects will be designed to enhance traditional wood composites, and researchers will also develop the next generation of biocomposites. Progress in this area will open new markets and further reduce the environmental impacts of utilizing wood.

Government Role—and Limits

I think Aldo Leopold would be proud. He left the Lab in 1928, and his pursuits led him in very different directions, ultimate to that shack in the woods we saw yesterday, where his thinking matured. He refined his philosophy into a land ethic—which, by the way, inspired the ecosystem-based approaches to land management that guide us today. In 1992, Chief Dale Robertson explicitly referred to Aldo Leopold in a memo he wrote to the regional foresters and station directors directing them to adopt ecosystem management.

But Leopold saw a much broader role for government in conservation than through land management alone. In 1942, he wrote an essay called “Land-Use and Democracy.” He referred to what he called “the real and indispensable functions of government in conservation”:

Government is the tester of fact vs. fiction, the umpire of bogus vs. genuine, the sponsor of research, the guardian of technical standards, and, I hasten to add, the proper custodian of land which, for one reason or another, is not suited to private husbandry.

The “tester of fact vs. fiction … umpire of bogus vs. genuine … sponsor of research … guardian of technical standards” … in all these ways, Leopold might have been writing, in part, about the Forest Products Laboratory. I believe he would write the same thing today. The Lab should be proud to have lived up to such an extraordinary legacy!

What, then, are the limits of government in conservation? Even back in 1928, while Leopold was still here at the Lab, the broad outlines of his thinking were clear. Here’s what he wrote at the time:

The long and short of the matter is that forest conservation depends in part on intelligent consumption, as well as intelligent production of lumber.

“Intelligent consumption”—to my knowledge, Aldo Leopold coined the phrase. Ultimately, the future of conservation lies less with government—although we have an undeniable role to play—than with the people we serve, the American citizens. It is up to them, through the things they value, through the purchases they make, through the lifestyles they lead—through all the choices they make in life—it is up to the American people to determine the future of conservation.

Our role at the Lab and throughout the Forest Service will be to do what we can to make sure that those choices are intelligent—to facilitate and support the choices of the American people on behalf of conservation.

Thank you.