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Sustainable Countertops

We’ve all heard the alarming statistics and horrifying scenarios surrounding the timber industry around the world. So when I walk into a showroom or pull up a website that makes me salivate over the stunning wood countertops available for my new kitchen do I have to avert my eyes and hurry past? Are wood countertops sustainable countertops? Will I be driving a nail in the coffin of a rainforest community of wildlife and indigenous people if I just have to have a Brazilian Cherry island top? Even if I think domestic and settle on a lovely length of walnut I may be guilty of damaging our native forests. Or am I simply stuck in a dated mindset and due for some updating education?

Hardwoods have always been a favorite for countertops since the advent of modern kitchens. Irresponsible harvesting of these woods has led to countless nightmare situations and an ongoing struggle to preserve forest ecosystems and their rich diversity of plant and animal life against the relentless press of the loggers. So what’s the situation now? How are the timber companies faring and what if anything have they learned from the past?

Sustainability and sound reforestation programs are key to any and all successful timber operations. The reality of economics rules all industry and the loggers are no different. The harvesting of hardwoods all over the world has undergone a sea change in the past couple of decades. As in nearly all forms of agriculture, the timber business has shifted from lots of small operators to fewer but larger companies with the educated outlook that demands long term management of resources. Technology and information gained over the history of logging as well as borrowed from other industries has changed the face of logging from the destructive, opportunistic image it long held to one of the planet’s most carefully planned and orchestrated agribusinesses. After all, this is a crop that takes not a few weeks or months to mature but many, many years.

Island top made from Zebrawood, an African exotic hardwood.

Land that was previously harvested using the clear cut method where all the trees are taken has often been left to erode and/or lay unused. Reforesting this land has been a task taken on by modern timber companies. Much of the land used for this sort of plantation growth isn’t well suited to other crops. Use by the timber companies brings jobs to areas where subsistence farming was the primary way of life causing its own form of destruction to the forest. In many areas the reforesting of these lands has changed to dynamics of land use to the point that more virgin territory is being taken for industry and housing than is being timbered. Using the latest equipment designed especially for plantation growth and harvesting means as little damage as possible to the surrounding area including watersheds. Trees farmed in this way are given optimum growing conditions such as light and water which leads to much higher yields per acre than naturally growing forests can produce. Obviously, if more wood can be produced on less land its a win for the timber companies and the environment. Subsidiary industries of growing and planting seedlings to reestablish the clear-cut areas add another element to the economic well-being of the region.

In areas where trees are being selectively harvested, cut out from among others in a standing forest, high-tech equipment is being used to minimize the damage the area

.Timber Harvesting

Careful maintenance of, “seed trees,” left to repopulate the species guarantees a new crop of young trees to take the place of the harvest. Added light and air circulation allows for better overall health of the forest and many forms of wildlife.

All these factors along with the stringent national export and import regulations have created a business atmosphere that no longer favors the hit and run, slash and burn operators of the past. That’s not to say that there aren’t offenders. 100 % compliance is too much to hope for in nearly any industry, but the old ways just aren’t paying off in the global timber industry. As in so many areas of business those who don’t adapt don’t survive. This knowledge isn’t the sole property of upper management. The populations of the areas effected are being educated in ecological issues and are coming to realize that planning and care regarding their natural resources have to used if they’re to enjoy a better quality of life. In countries where the timbered land is held primarily by individuals education for land owners has resulted in much more responsible harvesting of trees. In the US it’s estimated that only 65 to 70% of the hardwood is harvested annually, leaving at least 30% as a standing inventory.

After researching this question I went on to check out other countertop choices. Wood and stone are the options I’m considering. Stone is a natural substance and there is plenty of it but the process required to quarry and transport many of the varieties makes it an ecological concern. Trees do take a long time to grow and harvesting and transport aren’t without a cost. Still, I’m satisfied that I can have the warm, glowing wood I love in my kitchen without feeling guilty. I hope that the caring management of this wonderful material will go a long way to righting some of the wrongs its early exploitation caused.

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