ABOUT CLEARCUTTING (11/27/07)
Posted Nov 25, 2007
Last Updated Apr 10, 2008
Recently I heard clearcutting mentioned on the Charlie Rose show, more or less in passing, but with a deprecative tone. I don't recall who mentioned it, but by my lights, Charlie Rose is pretty moderate, and rational, on social issues. He's intelligent and asks penetrating questions, so his show is the default setting for my midnight snack time.
Whatever. At the moment I was either still rustling up my meal or cleaning up afterward, and the conversation wasn't engaging me. But I do remember thinking that, on environmental issues, clearcutting is a candidate for the most misunderstood. Right up there with logging in general.
I know a lot about forests. From 1947 to 1954, logging occupied much of my working life. By 1956 I picked up bachelor's and master's degrees in forestry, then prepared timber sales for the US Forest Service for two years, before going back to grad school for a PhD in forest ecology, and spending 17 years researching the ecology of forests. That stage of my life ended in 1977. A lot of research has been done since then, but I have the basics plus.
In fact, I've experienced the subject "up close up and personal" from three different, and more or less conflicting, viewpoints.
I've seen many clearcuts that were "disasters" ecologically, many others that were ecologically sound, and still others that were a mixed bag. In the summer of 1995 I revisited many of the clearcuts I'd known, from Upper Michigan to Washington state, Colorado, and Arizona. They'd all had decades to recover; in one case more than 80 years. Before visiting them, I made an educated guess at what I'd find. I was seriously mistaken in very few cases. In fact I knew pretty well what to expect. The knowledge, the ecological understanding, was available. Disasters had been largely avoidable; "didn't know" wasn't a valid excuse. "Had no choice," or "didn't care," or simple denial accounted for them.
On only one occasion were my preliminary understandingss seriously jolted — I mean big time! — which I'll get to later.
Obviously there are clearcuts and there are clearcuts. What made some of them "good" and some "poor?"
It depends partly on how they are logged and what's done to them afterward. And partly on the physical and biological environment. And very importantly on what species grow there. And finally, of course, what you regard as a disaster. That's why I put quotation marks around the word when I first used it here.
Lets get down to cases. If you have a forest of mature jack pine or lodgepole pine, and want to harvest it, replacing it with the same species, then you better clearcut it. Because young jack pine or lodgepole survive poorly and grow poorly in the midst of larger trees. And they don't require that seed trees be left. On these species the cones remain on the branches, and most of them don't open, or open only partially. (I'm generalizing here, but in the forest you can recognize the exceptions by simply looking. Also, coastal populations differ from those in the Rockies.) And the seed remains viable in the cones for upwards of ten years!
In fact, "in nature," lodgepole and jack pine depend on forest fire to reproduce. The stands ordinarily are dense, and if they burn, the fire rushes through the crowns quickly, killing the trees. But the cones? The resin that holds them shut is chemically changed by the heat, and after a day or so, those millions of cones open — dumping a decade's accumulation of seeds on the powdery ash. With any luck at all, four or five years later you're up to your knees in seedlings, ready to hit their stride in growing skyward.
The great Yellowstone Park fire of 1988 burned largely lodgepole pine forest, most of it old. (A jack pine equivalent was the Little Indian Sioux Fire of — what? 1963? — in Minnesota.) In the Yellowstone fire, much of the old lodgepole was severely infested with dwarfmistletoe, a debilitating parasite that in young forest deforms and stunts trees. A major after-effect of the fire included dense young forest that after a few years did what young lodgepole (and jack pine) forest normally does — it crowded out the forage species that also came in after the fire, and caused the deer and elk to feed elsewhere.
What foresters would generally prefer is to clearcut the mature jack pine or lodgepole, scrupulously not leaving any dwarfmistletoe trees. The slender tops of the harvested trees are in close proximity to the ground, which heats enough on sunny days that many of the cones open, and "voila!" A carpet of seedlings! But not always. So sometimes the logging slash is burned, or run over with tractors, or lopped and scattered, to increase the crop of seedlings. Which is, normally, what the forester wants. The logger may or may not give a darn. That's what logging contracts and logging administration is about: do the job right or be shut down.
On the other hand, the Engelmann spruce forests in Colorado and the Souhwest, when clearcut, rarely if ever reforest for many years. I visited scores of large spruce clearcuts from northern Colorado to eastern Arizona, decades after logging, and found not one of them recovering.
I was disappointed but not surprised; I'd rather have been wrong. They'd been converted from forest to meadows. So I hate to hear about plans for more clearcutting of Engelmann spruce in that region.
Why would anyone still want to clearcut Engelmann spruce in Colorado and the Southwest? Politics, mostly local or institutional, has been a factor. Livestock interests prefer meadows. Water interests mostly prefer meadows. Deer hunters and elk hunters tend to prefer meadows. Timber interests — with regard to public lands — tend to be focused on the very near future, and clearcutting is cheap and convenient. And loggers tend to deny the problem.
Another reason is often given — the susceptibility of old stands to being wiped out by the spruce bark beetle. Which seems undeniable, but...more later.
Clearcutting is not the whole story of logging, though it is a mighty big part of it.
What are the alternatives? One is to cut selected trees, leaving the ground forested at all times. And another is to use a lot less wood — which is easier said than done.
Some people parrot superficial simplicities, like "use paper substitutes!" Plastic grocery bags for instance? Hmm. What are plastic grocery bags made of? Oil. Plastics are generally petroleum products, polyethelene most commonly. I suppose plants, like soy beans, could substitute, but that would require much larger acreages of fertile farmland that could be producing food for a hungry world.
And stop using paper for publishing; go electronic! And what if the webworld were visited by a super computer virus? Hard copies are a good idea. As for cardboard, can you ship merchandise in electronic boxes? You can, of course, use other plants than trees for fiber: hemp is a commonly grown fiber species throughout most of the world, including Canada, but idiots in our U.S. government forbid it. The varieties grown for fiber contain an impractically small percentage of marijuana, but...but its first name is Cannabis, and to the Dubyas of the world — if you can't think, recite slogans. And cling to them as if they were truth.
And then there are wood-based construction materials: lumber, plywood, particle board... Build with bricks instead! And where do you get bricks? Don't tell me from building supplies companies. We need to look further back; bricks have to be manufactured. Aha! Find the right kind of clay, bulldoze the trees out of the way, and dig pits! Lots of pits for lots of clay! Then turn the clay into bricks in big ovens called brick kilns — using coal or oil or... See what I mean? And concrete comes from limestone quarries — more big holes — and has to be crushed and heated, requiring — guess what — large quantities of fuel! And commonly large quantities of rebar, made of steel, which requires...right again. Iron mines, lots of coal, lots of heat, lots of heavy duty transportation powered by oil...
Aha! Now we've got it! TANSTAAFL — an acronym coined by famed science fiction author Robert Heinlein. It means There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Someone pays, and whoever that someone is, in the final analysis the costs get spread around all through the economy, and inevitably society.
In fact, all those substitutes do reduce logging, but they have limitations of their own, of many sorts. And whatever its drawbacks, wood has the advantage of being renewable. As of course are soy and hemp and...
My personal problems with clearcutting are its misuse, about which, again, more later. Including the one big shock that widened my vision big-time And more on long-term prospects of future energy sources and "building materials."
(My but that was fun to write!)