Working Wooded Landscapes
An essay about forestry in the west.
In many ways, trees define much of the west for me. They grow differently here than in the warm, humid south of my youth where the horizon was always muted green and hidden by leaves during much of the year. There the patches of trees were only broken by farm fields or small towns that later grew into subdivisions of metropolitan areas. Out in the west though, trees came draped across the tumble of mountains and broken by vast tracts of sage and juniper.
The trees grow large and old here in the west, which drew in thousands who made a living transferring this biological legacy into a growing number of 2x4’s and thence into homes. Some, no doubt, were in it for the quick profit to be made while others followed in the steps of Gifford Pinchot and saw a landscape to be managed for conservation and utility. There were many missteps along this path as we discovered a lot we didn’t know; Aldo Leopold opened a few eyes, as did Rachel Carson, Bob Marshall, E.O Wilson and many others. And foresters began to learn the landscape and the trees and the soil and the myriad things that depend on working forests and figured we could continue to provide multiple goods and services from the woods.
I started out in forestry in the south where industrial scale intensive management was the norm and pines were planted and harvested as a sustainable crop. We were taught that we could simplify the system enough to efficiently produce the fiber society needed and still manage for wildlife, particularly for game animals. And for the most part we did this well, though most of those systems had already been seriously disturbed by the early agricultural settlement and growing pines in monocultures on these lands was an ecological improvement.
In the west though, the forested landscape was much different. From distances that are measured in time to trees whose lives can span centuries, even millenia, I found an environment that almost seemed limitless, as I suspect it did for hundreds of foresters before me, though not after. Logging had seemed to be the greatest good for decades because we thought we could harvest these giants, regrow a new, vibrant forest and still provide all the other services required of these forests. And we could have, if we hadn’t been quite so efficient, or quite so greedy, about harvesting these old trees. But society was demanding wood for an expanding housing market and these trees seemed to meet the need perfectly. The economics of consumption outweighed the intangibles of rare species, untouched wilderness, even the aesthetics of massively large trees.
What we had trouble with, and still do to a large extent, was figuring out exactly what the public wanted from these forests, these national treasures. It made for a contentious time when passions rampaged through the media and the woods as we fought to understand the social and economic forces pushing and pulling policy and regulations. Foresters, who typically have one of the broadest scientific educations of any field, knew how to look at a forest and how to manipulate it to achieve various goals. But many lacked a basic understanding of sociology and psychology that would’ve allowed them to anticipate and respond to a rapidly changing society in a way that could’ve made this transition easier.
The transition is now showing glimmers of progress towards an agreement on how to manage our forests. We now approach a working forest with an ecosystem management approach where timber is often not the primary goal. And we’ve developed certification to assuage social doubt about our conviction to manage the entire system sustainably. Collaborative efforts have been going on for a few years now on some National Forests to try and get out of the stalemate of litigation and planning paralysis that has gripped our western forests. It won’t be easy because there are some very passionate folks on opposite ends of the spectrum of how we should use our National Forests. We have to learn to recognize the thoughts, beliefs, needs and desires of those who own these landscapes as well as those who possess the scientific understanding of how these systems function. And we need to recognize that continued consumption of forest products is going to occur in a society that still demands much from trees.
Working forests will continue to be an important part of the western landscape and in some ways they epitomize the resiliency of the western spirit. Today I lead classes through forests filled with an amazing abundance of trees and wildlife that still contain the signs of previous use and exploitation. Today however, some of the worse signs of damage come not from the loggers but from recreational users. It presents new challenges in trying to achieve a truly sustainable future in a society that is full of contradictions and rampant NIMBYism when it comes to forestry and the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run (to paraphrase Pinchot). I wonder if we’ll ever look at western forests the same way we’ve started looking at locavore concept in food -- local production to meet local needs to reduce global impacts. The potential is certainly there.