How Information Technology and DNA Testing Are Boosting Sustainable Forestry

Trimble Connected Forests

We treasure our forests as wildlife habitats and peaceful, technology-free refuges where we can submerse ourselves in nature and forget the industrialized world outside. But not all technology is invasive, and some forms of it can actually help us preserve forests for generations to come.

We’ve already reported on how organizations like the Nature Conservancy are using new digital tools to make life much easier for timber managers, conservationists, park services and fire control to keep forests alive and thriving. Now, everyone from lumber producers to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations are using open-source information technology systems to achieve zero-deforestation supply chains, and experts predict that IT will continue to be a powerful driver in sustainable forest management in years to come.

According to a press release by the Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), these technologies could enable detection of illegal logging operations and unchecked deforestation, and prevent the deprivation of sustainable livelihood opportunities for smallholders and local communities.

One example is the Connected Forest system by Trimble Forestry, which offers solutions for collecting, communicating and analyzing real-time information across and throughout the forestry business. Functions include harvest logistics, streamlined timber receiving at mill gates, the ability to analyze data from disparate mill sources, simplified financial transactions and management of the entire raw materials lifecycle from planning and planting to transporting and processing.

Researchers are also creating reference libraries of tree DNA that can confirm the true origin of timber that’s ready for export, ensuring that it wasn’t illegally harvested. Similar libraries could be created using other types of technology, like “automated wood anatomy,” which works like facial recognition for trees. Cracking down on illegal logging is an essential component of fighting deforestation and safekeeping sustainable, legal timber business.

“We have already seen the proliferation of technology in the tracing and validation of legality in forest-derived commodities,” says Kavickumar Muruganathan of Halycon Agri. “Scaling up and integrating the various technologies into existing forest certification systems would be the next step that all stakeholders in the forestry sector should collectively work towards.”

Image by Trimble Forestry

Nolla Cabin: This Minimalist Modern Holiday Home is Bursting with Sustainable Style

Nolla Cabin

Who needs wifi and electricity when you’ve got views like this? The Nolla cabin on the island of Vallisaari off the coast of Helsinki might be simple and small in stature, but it’s a beautiful setting for a nature-centric getaway that focuses on nature, togetherness and the power of temporary disconnection from modern life. Made primarily of pine and perched directly on the rocky shoreline, the Nolla Cabin features an elegant A-frame shape with a glass facade to take in a wide expanse of sea.

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Designer Robin Falck wanted the experience of staying in this holiday home – which is available for rent on Airbnb, but currently fully booked – to focus on sustainable lifestyles. Visitors arrive via boat from the mainland, walk a short distance to the solar-powered cabin and begin what Falck hopes will be a zero-waste vacation. All guests are encouraged to pack lightly and bring no disposable items when possible.

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The cabin itself highlights the beauty of the wood, with ornamental details kept at a minimum. It’s built to be easily transported and assembled without the need for heavy equipment, and no screws are used to put it together. The pieces fit together like a puzzle. The legs of the cabin are adjustable so it can sit on uneven terrain.

Inside, you’ll find minimalist pine furniture, two single beds and a special stove by Finnish company Neste that runs on renewable diesel made of 100% waste. Falck hopes that the experience of staying here will encourage guests to think about how they could cut back on waste and simplify their lives year-round.

Domestic vs. Imported Wood: Is Your Floor Made of Illegally Logged Timber?

illegal logging

Rosewood, mahogany, ipe, 800-year-old cedar: there’s no doubt that these tropical species and old-growth trees found deep within protected forests can produce beautiful wood products, but at what cost? Customers might only be thinking of the gleaming floors that will soon be installed in their homes when they purchase ‘exotic’ lumber products, but despite the 2008 passage of a law aimed at reducing U.S. imports of products from illegal logging, the problem hasn’t disappeared, and the effects can be devastating.

A two-year investigation by Global Witness, an international non-profit, found that U.S. customers are unknowingly purchasing illegally logged products from Papua New Guinea’s tropical forests, revealing that companies aren’t doing enough to ensure the legality of what they’re selling.

Papua New Guinea is home to the world’s third-largest tropical rainforest, and more than eight million acres of its land has been leased to foreign interests that illegally harvest old-growth trees on indigenous territory, where forests are protected. Approximately 8.2 million cubic yards of tuan wood, also known as Pacific mahogany, was illegally clear-cut between 2009 and 2016.

China, the world’s top furniture and flooring maker, is one of those foreign interests, and funnels a lot of that illegal wood into its own manufacturing. It then sells these products to large retailers around the world, including the United States. In April 2017, Global Witness informed ten U.S. companies about the findings in its report, but not all of them responded or took action. (The Home Depot has taken taun wood off its shelves.)

Of course, the Amazon is another troubling source of illegally logged wood, where rampant, unchecked clear cutting destroys the forests that have been home to indigenous tribes for many generations. Again, it’s almost impossible to tell whether species like Brazilian Ipe were logged legitimately or not, and the resulting products are sold all over the world. Customers in the United States may have no idea that their contractors are using wood violently torn from indigenous land in Peru, for example.

The problem lies in the traceability of imported wood. Many companies don’t go far enough to verify the legitimacy of their supply chain, and even when they do, illegal operations can be convincingly camouflaged. While the Lacey Act has definitely reduced illegal imports in the United States, cases like Lumber Liquidator’s 2016 sentencing for illegally importing hardwood from forests that are home to endangered species prove that it still happens. And Canada has its own problems, particularly with old growth cedar.

So what’s to be done about it? Perhaps the biggest step builders, contractors and consumers can take to help is choosing wood products that have been sustainably grown and harvested within the United States. Not all logging operations in the U.S. are equal in their efforts to protect the environment, and it’s important to seek out wood products certified by third party organizations like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. But with domestic wood – and maybe even wood grown practically right in your own backyard, like Eastern White Pine – there’s a lot less opportunity for obfuscation.

Read more about how sustainable forestry differs from conventional forestry in the United States, how working forests support rural families, and why sustainable forestry is crucial to the future of wood.

Top photo: Signs of illegal logging in the Mt. Cagua area of the Philippines, via Wikimedia Creative Commons/RMB.

Tree Tower: Sustainable Timber High-Rise for Toronto Incorporates Living Plants

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Rising 18 stories from street level in Toronto, with each of its balconies augmented by verdant greenery, this sustainable structure shows off the capabilities of tall timber construction. Penda Architects teamed up with wood consulting firm Tmber to propose a modular high-rise tower built almost entirely from wood. Massive wood panels make up the main structural elements of the building, and the facade is clad in timber panels.

timber tower

Such extensive use of wood in a 200-foot-tall building will be a first for Toronto, and the architects hope it will help jump-start a trend of sustainable wooden architecture throughout the city. They joke that they’re growing the materials for future expansion of the building right on its own balconies in the form of living trees.

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“Our cities are an assembly of steel, concrete and glass,” says Penda. “If you walk through the city and suddenly see a tower made of wood and plants, it will create an interesting contrast. The warm, natural appearance of wood and the plants growing on its facade bring the building to life and could be a model for environmental friendly developments and sustainable extensions of our urban landscape.”

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The connection between the visible wooden construction of the building and the living trees “helps further develop a true ecological high rise, supplies its residents with fresher air and provides a lower carbon footprint,” says Mark Stein, CEO of Tmber. “The extensive use of wood will set ambitious sustainability targets and will be a catalyst for similar developments in Canada.”

The mixed-use building will contain residential units as well as public facilities like a community workshop, cafe and daycare center.

Rising Demand for Wood Leads to Forest Growth, According to New Report

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As appetite for lumber, paper, packaging, wood pellets and other forest products has grown, so have the nation’s forests, according to a new report. Forest2Market’s ‘Historical Perspective on the Relationship between Demand and Forest Productivity in the US South’ analyzed forest service data and other research to understand how changes in demand and supply have interacted over a period of nearly sixty years.

Key findings of the report include:

– Annual timber removals nearly doubled between 1953 and 1996 due to appetites for furniture, paper and packaging
– Forest product companies improved forest management practices and increased their productivity in turn
– Increased demand has not depleted forests, remaining stable while total inventory has doubled
– Increased demand is also associated with more acres, better growth and larger inventories
– Urbanization is a bigger threat to forests in the United States than demand for forest products

“Unfortunately, much of the discourse about the forest products industry’s impact on forests and carbon has focused on only one side of the story: harvesting trees,” says the report’s lead analyst and author, Hannah Jefferies. “This ignores one of the most basic tenets of forestry: grow trees.”

“At its core, this report shows that southern landowners do more than just harvest trees. Because those trees have value as a raw material, landowners regrow their trees and take steps to maximize the productivity of their timberlands,” Jefferies added.

Read the whole report at Forest2Market [PDF].

15,000 Free Eastern White Pine Seedlings Will Make Ontario Greener

EWP seedling

The government of Ontario will be giving away 15,000 free seed pods of Eastern White Pine – its official tree – to make the province greener and cleaner for future generations. Among North America’s most valuable trees, these pines are known for living as long as 500 years and growing to nearly 130 feet in height. The government hopes people will plant them in places where they can be enjoyed many years into the future.

“The Eastern White Pine is the official tree of the province of Ontario and we want to be able to re-green the province,” says Michael Gravelle, the Minister of Northern Development and Mines. “These can grow into incredible, beautiful trees in our conifer forest… In the 17 and 1800s these tall, sturdy, straight trees were constructed into ships’ masts and the best were stamped and claimed by the Crown for their Royal Navy vessels.”

Distributed at schools and community events across Ontario, the seed pods will add beauty to the natural landscapes along the highways and waterways as well as in neighborhoods and parks, says Gravelle. Participants can register the trees they plant on an interactive map at

We’re excited about this project initiated by our neighbors to the north – maybe some New England states will follow suit!

Image via Wikimedia Commons