Home > Ecology > Forest Ecology >
Posted Aug 17, 2007
Last Updated Mar 19, 2008
PART ONE: THE BASICS
OVERVIEW OF THE ISSUES
Think of public issues as matters that have gained wide attention and become controversial.
The real-world phenomena behind the forest issues existed before they became issues. They became issues when enough people grew concerned. In 1951, as young forestry students taking a beginning course in forest ecology, we learned about some of what are now issues, but at that time received little public attention. Some years later, as a graduate student in ecology, my major professor made me very much aware of them, but still they were not public issues. The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, and other interest groups were already well aware of them, but the media and the public paid little attention.
Then, in 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published, describing effects of DDT on birds, and painting a future that was genuinely awful. This received wide media and public attention, and activism and militancy began to grow. A nationally recognized forest issue had arisen: the use of chemical pesticides in forest management. It was the pioneering issue, breaking the ground, and was followed by numerous others.
What are those forest issues? In presumed, approximate order of public attention, the major issues can be listed as:
2. Wilderness preservation
3. Endangered species
4. Large predators as a functional element of the planetary ecology
5. Water from, and on, forest watersheds
6. Preservation of virgin and other old-growth forests
7. The use of chemicals in forest management
9. Forest burning
10. Salvage logging
11. Regulation of forest practices on private land
They are more or less interrelated, and their relative importance as issues varies not only from place to place but from time to time. On top of that, they are more or less connected to issues outside forest ecology, issues such as air quality protection, international trade agreements and restrictions, and legal restrictions on owner uses of private land.
In this chapter we'll examine the issues briefly. We'll look at them more thoroughly later, after we've taken a good look at American forests, the condition they're in, how they got that way, and how they respond to changes in their environment, including disturbance by humans.
Clearcutting, or more often cutting that approached clearcutting, has been practiced in America for a long time. On the National Forests, however, it was infrequent until the building boom that followed World War Two. After the war, clearcutting was encouraged by greatly expanded markets for the wood of small trees, and trees of otherwise lower quality. (To clearcut forests in which most of the trees are unusable, is usually uneconomical).
But with rapidly increasing demands, and new materials technology, clearcutting became common on the National Forests, including those in the West.
Some activist organizations have given other issues their main attention, but clearcutting has become the banner issue. Clearcuts, conspicuous and often unsightly, especially early on, tend to produce an emotional response. They present a clashing contrast to the uncut forest that preceded and surrounds them.
Furthermore, clearcutting has more than aesthetic effects. It has various ecological impacts desirable or undesirable. On the plus side, logging provides building materials, paper products, and other commodities, and unlike iron ore, cement, and petroleum, trees can be replaced without waiting through geological epochs. And commonly, though not always, clearcuts provide those commodities relatively cheaply, in terms of logging, road building, and adminstrative costs. Also, unless the site is converted to other uses — a subdivision, farm, or reservoir site perhaps — clearcuts usually reforest within a few years, either naturally or through planting. (Sometimes, though, it can take decades. In some specific, marginal conditions, they may not reforest in any forseeable future.) Timber companies, of course, emphasize the products and renewability, the beauty of young, second-growth stands, and (temporarily) increased forage for deer, elk, or moose.
Wilderness PreservationThough they are shrinking, there still are vast areas of forest wilderness in the world, primarily in Siberia, the Tropics, and Canada -- areas in which roads may be hundreds of miles apart. Areas that, superficially at least, seem unaffected by humans, except for scattered groups living by hunting, fishing, gathering, and perhaps reindeer herding.
But large parts of the world retain no wilderness at all. In the United States east of the Great Plains, there are only small fragments.
Many people -- entire cultures -- feel no need to preserve wilderness. As a movement, wilderness preservation began as an American phenomenon, though it has spread. Its supporters justify it as ecologically and spiritually important. Its detractors say it's an impractical waste of resources.
The fossil record indicates that new species of plants and animals have been arising for a very long time, with old ones dying out for about as long, many of them more or less gradually. Almost surely, more than 99 percent of the species that ever existed were extinct before humankind first flaked a stone tool or kindled fire. From time to time, in the long history of life on Earth, some very drastic event, for example an ice age, or collision with a comet or asteroid, has caused more or less abrupt, large-scale extinctions, followed by a burgeoning of new life forms from survivors. Between cataclysm- driven cycles, extinctions and the evolution of new species appear to be more gradual.
Recently, human activities have been speeding extinctions. Some people think "so what?", others see it as a threat to the world and its ecology. Some are concerned only when the endangered species is a -- call it a charismatic life form they appreciate. Like the tiger or rhinoceros, the blue whale or American chestnut or bull trout. Most would welcome the extinction of the viruses causing influenza, AIDS, and the common cold.
Large Predators as a Part of WildernessA hundred years ago, crocodiles and tigers were important causes of human deaths in India, and wolves were an important killer of cattle in western North America. Not so great as disease or famine, but important. And dramatic! Where large predators were widespread and numerous, they were always a source of concern and fear.
Today they've been eradicated from large parts of their previous range, and reduced in most of the rest. Many people would like to have them returned, not to all their old territory — some things really are incompatible: tigers prowling the streets of New Delhi, wolf packs plundering dairy herds in New York's Otsego County — but to the larger wild areas.
Reasons are given, ranging from sentimental to spiritual to ecological. Others call it all liberal foolishness, and foresee serious problems if large predators are encouraged. "Let them survive in zoos; let people pay admission to see them."
Water From, and On, Forest Watersheds
Obviously it rains and snows on forests, and something happens to all that water. Some of it evaporates from wetter surfaces, but most of it trickles into the soil, and plants then absorb much of it through their roots, to use it in physiological processes, transpiring surpluses back into the air.
Or it evaporates from wetted forest surfaces, or sublimates from snow.
But much of it flows downslope, through or over the soil, to feed streams, lakes, bogs. And provide habitat for fish and other animals, including breeding sites for insects. Evaporation from free water surfaces — lakes, streams, pools, reservoirs — returns more water to the air. The rest flows downstream to the sea — unless it's diverted for human use.
Areas of forest land have been flooded by dams, built to supply cities with water, farm districts with irrigation, and whole regions with cheap, pollution-free electricity. Few people have paused to consider how much such reservoirs contribute to our standard of living. Including air quality by supplying pollution-free, non-radioactive electricity (with costs of its own).
Meanwhile, back in the forest, logging, including road construction, the burning of logging debris, and damage to soils, have muddied streams, degrading water supplies and fisheries. Some say the remedy is to keep the forest pristine. Others consider that in most terrain, the problems can be kept unimportant by intelligent care in logging and in building logging roads. The kicker there is that care in logging and road-building costs money, which cost-sensitive bureaucrats — corporate and governmental --â€“ tend to resist, particularly in broad, pull-and-tug financial contexts.
Of which more later.
Preservation of Virgin and Old-Growth Forests
There are ecological differences between old and young forests. In some respects, young forests provide ecological and aesthetic niches that old forest don't. While old forests provide ecological niches and aesthetic values that young forests don't. There are also considerations of scale, of species movements between one and the other, etc.
Some partisans feel that existing parks and wilderness areas provide enough old growth. Others argue for preserving all we have left.
The Use of Chemicals in Forest Management
The misuse of the chemical insecticide DDT was the first great banner issue of modern environmental activism, to be followed by 2,4-D, 1080, and others.
But there are chemicals and there are chemicals. Water is a chemical, a vitamin is a chemical, 2,4,5-T is a chemical. Among poisonous chemicals, some soon break down into harmless components, and some do not. Taken in minute quantities, some persistent poisons accumulate in the body and others pass through it. To intelligently judge and control the use of chemicals in forestry or agriculture — or in anything else — it is necessary to know how the chemicals behave, biochemically and ecologically. Then reasonable terms of their prohibition/use can be worked out and made law or policy.
A lot of refinements are available now, in understanding, products and their use, but like everything else, using ecologically active chemicals has its costs.
Biological diversity has been pushed as a new banner issue in forest activism, one which activists hope to use to support their stances on other issues, notably wilderness, the banning of clearcutting, and the protection of endangered species.
But what is biodiversity besides an issue? It's an attribute of nature that has only recently been explicitly recognized and studied. And its ecological significance includes its effects on a forest's, and a region's ability to recover from loss of a species to a new disease or insect "enemy." When chestnut blight eliminated the American chestnut as a mature tree in the eastern United States, various other tree species were there to fill that niche. None, over most of its large range, had the chestnut's great size, but the forest persisted. In Scandinavia, if the spruce died, large tracts would lose most of their forest, until the scattered birches, aspens and pines seeded and filled it in with ecologically quite different forest.
When gray wolves were eliminated over most of their old range in the United States, by habitat destruction as much as by trapping and shooting, it left a broad wolf-free zone between the Canadian wolf population and most remaining territory suitable to wolves in the U.S. That and clearcutting resulted in an exploding deer population (with periodic die-offs), that drastically effected the species composition of the new forests.
The recent strong wolf recovery in the upper Great Lakes region grew out of the extensive wild areas of the Minnesota border country, which abutted on much larger wild areas of central Canada. With protective legislation and elimination of Minnesota's wolf bounties, wolves from Minnesota in turn moved south and spilled over into suitable habitat in northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, augmenting the tiny relict local packs that had persisted there precariously.
The tiny population of woodland caribou in the mountains of northeastern Washington is isolated from caribou in southwestern Canada. It is subject to predation by the recovering cougar population, the occasional (also endangered) grizzly, the prospect of wolf recovery there, and of course the occasional poacher, or elk hunter with a quick trigger finger. A few hundred caribou might well accommodate such predations, but a dozen could disappear in a single year. Mule deer, elk and moose, would remain, of course, each with its own overlapping niche, but none of them fully replace caribou in the regional ecology.
That may not much affect that ecology, or justify heroic efforts to save the caribou there (of which more later), but if for no more reason than social aesthetics, we may well want to save them anyway.
Meanwhile, some claims made about biodiversity, and some activist statements of what protecting biodiversity requires or justifies, sound extreme to many of us. How seriously must we take those arguments? We'll know a lot more after additional research, but we know enough now to draw preliminary conclusions. And I will.
Various, sometimes seemingly incompatible claims have been made about forest burning. When forest fires start, some people believe they should be left to burn themselves out "naturally," except where they threaten human communities. Especially theirs. On the premise that it's healthy for the woods to burn.
With today's human populations, and human carelessness, failure to fight wildfires could easily result in widespread deforestations.
Innumerable examples can be given of severe and widespread forest destruction by fires, and for more than a century, forest fires were considered uniformly bad. However, climatic warming, whatever its causes, will trigger the widespread death of trees due to combinations of drought, insects, and tree diseases. And forests with a lot of dead trees become tinder boxes, waiting for the next dry lightning strike, arsonist, untended trash or camp fire...
Fires and circumstances differ widely. In the second half of the 20th Century, science recognized certain values of fire in the woods, and conditions that made fires more damaging and dangerous. Considerable research has been done to identify the pros, cons, and conditions for useful or acceptable burning. As usual in the real world, the situation is not as simple as some people suppose, or as confusing as conflicting claims make it seem. Zealotry tends to create tunnel vision, heedlessness — and stupidity. Zealotry does serve to highlight problems, but it also tends to make solutions more difficult by feeding human perversity. (Call it cussedness if you'd rather.)
The summer of 1994 had many forest fires in the West, and almost at once, salvage logging became a big issue. In the strict sense of the term, salvage logging removes dead or dying trees. Commonly the primary purpose is to salvage the cash value that would otherwise be lost.
But sometimes salvage is done at a cash loss, to prevent insect outbreaks from developing in, and spreading from, the dying trees. In cases like those, it is more correct and honest to call it sanitation cutting, a different breed of cat.
Some forest activists fight salvage logging bitterly, saying that dead trees are an integral part of forest ecosystems, and should be left. There is truth in that, but how many dead trees does an ecosystem need, under what circumstances, and at what costs?
Commercial interests, and politically coerced or inspired federal agencies, sometimes knowingly and dishonestly call other kinds of logging "salvage logging" to justify cutting areas that otherwise are protected from logging. This can create ecological damage that outweighs the values of the timber. There are ugly, large-scale examples.
Regulation of Practices on Private Land
This is more a potential issue — with the potential to jump well up in the controversy list. Forest practices on private land in the United States have been subject to state regulations since the early 1900s, but few of those regulations have been onerous or painfully enforced, and haven't become terribly controversial.
That could change. Much of our American forest is privately owned, particularly east of the plains. Large acreages are owned by timber companies, but the great preponderance of it is in hundreds of thousands of small private holdings, politically touchy and hard to monitor. Many forest activists would, through regulation by government, like to have a major say in what is done on those lands. There is abundant precedent for such regulation in European democracies, notably in Switzerland, the purest grass-roots democracy on Earth. But the United States has its own, quite different traditions.
Also, much of the time, industrial forest ownerships treat their own forests quite -- let's say gently. (More about this later.) On the other hand, private forest land on which timber companies buy the standing timber are often severely damaged. Call it savaged.
Those are the issues in brief. We'll examine them in more depth later. Meanwhile, now that we've had this brief look at them, we're ready for a trip through time, from pre-colonial days to the present.
- THE WAR FOR THE WOODS
Essays and chapters on ecology, conservation and modern society.
- Related Topics