Belgrade, Maine

Here in the heart of the most heavily forested state in the country, Hammond Lumber Co.'s Matt Masse worries whether there'll be any local timber available.

"That's our main concern," says Masse, Hammond's operations and purchasing manager. "If property has been held for a long time, [we wonder] whether the new breed of owner will want to leave it that way."

You can hear variations of Masse's concerns from lumber people coast to coast. In the South, the worries focus on urbanization. Out West, it's continued restrictions on public lands combined with changing priorities of big corporate interests. And here in Maine, it's a historic shift from viewing trees as an economic crop toward regarding them as a balm for urban blues.

GUARDED: Trees on federally owned land, such as this one in Olympic National Park, increasingly are off limits to loggers. Most U.S.-cut lumber comes from private tracts that are threatened by urban development, changing owner expectations, and moves to use forests for tourism and the environment. Photo: Craig Webb As a result, the future of wood depends on what the interests who own the forests want to do with that land. "We have people saying 'We'd rather write a check to have our trees fight pollution and then let in that wood from other places,' " says Paul Winistorfer, who heads the Virginia Tech Department of Wood Science and Forest Products in Blacksburg, Va.

The number of forested acres in the United States has grown by 22 million acres–an area bigger than South Carolina–since 1987, to total about 770 million acres. Roughly 44% of all private forests are in the South, while 33% of the public lands are in the Rocky Mountain region, according to the Kenner, La.-based Southern Forest Products Association (SFPA).

In Maine, 95% of the forests are in private hands, and nearly half of those private owners are timber companies. But even here, it's getting harder to cut the trees. Locals report growing interest by private owners in leaving the woods uncut to promote tourism, or selling lands to conservation trusts and other groups that value trees as devourers of carbon dioxide–tools in the fight against global warming.

Down South, "the greatest threat to our forests isn't logging, or beetles, or fire. It's urban sprawl," SFPA's forest resources director Eric Gee says. The University of Florida estimates the Sunshine State loses 40,000 acres of forestland each year to urbanization, while Gee sees pressure to sell private timberlands anywhere near the Interstate 85 corridor. "It passes the point where you can get more for the dirt than from selling trees," he says.

Out West, two trends prevail. The first is the continued limits on logging of public lands, many of which have been severely restricted since court rulings came down a generation ago. Meanwhile, the West's big private landowners don't view wood like their predecessors did.

"Before, it was owned by integrated companies that turned the trees into products," says Brian Luoma, vice president and general manager for engineered products at LP in Nashville, Tenn. "Now, there's a separation."

Much of the old private timberlands now are owned by TIMOs, or timber investment management operations. Insurance and pension plans hold most of them, says Thomas McLain, head of Oregon State University's Department of Wood Science and Engineering in Corvallis, Ore. TIMOs turn over ownership every 10 to 12 years, so they want quick and steady returns. That attitude is expected to lead to an increased preference for engineered woods, which can be made out of younger trees.

Seattle's Plum Creek is an example of how things have changed. It still cuts logs and mills lumber, but it also recently sold 320,000 acres to The Nature Conservancy, and is seeking to develop properties in Maine and Montana as recreational and vacation-home sites. Both states face opposition from people who want this tree-cutting company to leave those trees where they are.

About the sole place where one can be confident of continued ownership is in Western Canada, where just about all the forests are government-owned "crown lands." British Columbia has more than 230,000 square miles of forest land, an area 90% as big as all of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho put together. The provincial government permits only about 1% of its forests to be harvested each year.

–Craig Webb