A knotty problem: timber rustling and you

A piece of Ecotimber's antique yellow pine.The company's not new, but it's got a new financial outlook.
Written by Harry Fuller on

A piece of Ecotimber's antique yellow pine.

The company's not new, but it's got a new financial outlook. Many of its products are far older than the company itself. And even though the CEO's been in the same industry for years, he displays an enthusiasm that can only be called fresh and intense. Definitely not old and shopworn. The company's Ecotimber. Founded in 1992 to sell sustainable wood products it was purchased by a private equity fund almost a year ago and now is expanding its business. The CEO is Lewis Buchner, a veteran of wood and forestry, and I spoke to him by phone at the company's San Rafael headquarters. If you techies want see some projects he helped hammer out, check the Apple and Oracle campuses in the Bay Area.

Old products? They can sell you yellow pine and oak lumber that is pre-used and fit for your new house or remodel.

But they aren't just another wood recycler. If you Google "reclaimed lumber" you'll get over 47-thousand links. Many are legitimate companies working to bring back old hickory, oak, pine, walnut, poplar and other historically used American woods to the current market. This re-used wood comes from old flooring, old barns, even old wine casks. If you want to know more about reclaimed wood in general, here's info from the Green Building Council.

Reclaimed wood is just one small portion of Ecotimber's business. They're primarily working to bring the American market wood grown legally and sustainably in current forests. That way local people get some of the cash and they value the forest as an economic asset. Too often forests have been seen as barriers to profitable agriculture. You know the pioneer with the ax and plow routine from your American history class. After the wood is legally cut down it's milled and finished in an ecologically sustainable way. No toxics, efficient use of energy, all Ecotimber woods meet the standards of the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC is working to prevent illegal logging and harmful agricultural practices that destroy forest around the world. Even the recent UN climate change conference in Bali took steps to stop deforestation which is seen as worsening global warming.

Mr. Buchner and Ecotimber buy and sell only FSC-approved lumber for flooring and other uses. The company has staffers permanently assigned to watch mills in Asia and elsewhere that deal with Ecotimbers. One of the goals of the FSC and Ecotimber is to completely avoid illegally logged trees. All over southeast Asia and Latin America timber rustling is common. It often takes the most valuable trees from "protected" lands and short-circuits the local economy. Thus the forest is not producing any legal local jobs so it's not valued. After the cash-crop trees are stolen, economic pressure often leads to clear-cutting so farm crops can be planted. Thus illegal logging speeds the process of deforestation. Coupled with the rise in prices for grain around the world and you have double pressure to cut forests and plant soybeans or some other cash crop. And lest you think timber-rustling is only going on in impoverished corrupt countries, here's a story about it happening right here in theoretically wealthy America. I leave the corruption question to you.

Right now, Buchner says, half the timber sold in America is illegally harvested. From some countries in Latin America and Asia the wood "exported" is 80% illegal. Next time you order a new desk or drop by that trendy furniture outlet check and see if they have any products that are FSC certified. This is starting to remind me of the scene in "Dr. Zhivago" where he tears apart a wooden fence to have firewood. We are tearing apart our planet for cheap furniture and floor boards? Illegal wood? Just say "NO."

Ecotimber makes engineered or laminate wood products as well. For these they use only non-toxic glues and finishes. You already know about the formaldehyde issue if you regularly read this blog. Buchner was happy to point to a trend that's catching up to Ecotimber. Next year California will raise its standards to eliminate much of the possibly toxic off-gassing that can happen from plywood, pressed wood and other engineered wood products today. Ecotimber uses no products containing formaldehyde. To prolong the life of their floor finishes they adda bit of aluminum oxide, the stuff used in fine grit sandpaper. Thus the floors wear out your shoes, not vice verse. Now we gotta find a way to make environmentally sustainable shoes.


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