Eastern White Pine, a Sustainable Alternative to Plantation-Grown Pine Trees

eastern-white-pine-sizeAmerica’s most historic sustainable building material, Eastern White Pine is a large pine tree native to eastern North America. This tree species is renowned for its ability to grow to towering heights, and has been providing high-quality wood to American builders for centuries. Pinus strobus grows from northeast Georgia and Mississippi all the way up the Appalachians and the Great Lakes region into Newfoundland. Growing among hardwoods in mixed forests, white pine trees are allowed to reach an age of 80 to 100 years before they’re cut down, making them an important part of these forest ecosystems. In contrast, other types of pine, including radiata, are planted on single-species pine plantations.

The Problem with Pine Plantations

Forest plantations aren’t always unsustainable. When managed properly, they can be certified as environmentally friendly by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). However, studies have shown that pine plantations contribute to a rise in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. This problem arises when mixed hardwood and natural pine forests are chopped down to make way for planted pines. This reduces the oxygen-producing, carbon-storing ability of these forests. Researchers at Ohio State University predict that tens of millions of acres of natural forests will be turned into pine plantations in three Southern states alone by 2030, translating to roughly 700,000 tons more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year.

According to Ohio State University, most of the pine plantations currently located in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi were established on old and abandoned agricultural lands, but this  kind of land has become scarce. Pine plantation owners are increasingly choosing to chop down existing forests to plant Southern species of pine.

Eastern White Pine Sustainability

Benefits of Eastern White Pine

The largest pine in the United States, Eastern White Pine trees grow to staggering heights of over 200 feet and can have a lifespan of 400 years.  The tallest accurately measured tree in North America east of the Rocky Mountains is the “Boogerman Pine” in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was 207 feet tall before it lost its top in a hurricane. This size produces long, straight boards of superior quality, with few knots. In order to let these trees reach their full potential for lumber, Easter White Pine growers let them grow for many decades in natural forest environments.

Because hardwood forests have more organic matter in the form of leaves, branches and roots than do pine plantations, natural pine stands store more carbon. They also offer a healthier refuge for wildlife, with a variety of plant and tree species of various ages and sizes. Preserving mixed hardwood and natural Eastern White Pine forests can help maintain North America’s wildlife diversity, and slow the progress of climate change.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons 1 + 2

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