Thursday, December 1, 2011

Forests,Human Ecology, Modernity

This massive spruce tree towers toward the sky on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There is soil, mosses and habitat on top of the large branches. This tree is natural vertical piece of living biodiversity. Forty or fifty years ago this tree would have been called "decadent".  We might suppose that ignorance was the reason for such a term and that we are now much more knowledgeable and aware. However, the term "decadent" came because we thought that we were knowledgeable and making progress.

Human ecology looks at the effects of humans on ecosystems. Some even suggest that we are in a new geologic age of the anthropocene where earth will be most altered by human activity. Humans are driven by ideas. Forestry is rooted in modernity. The first modern forestry was the re-establishment of forests in Europe in the late 1700's. Forests had been hammered by overuse. Modern scientific forestry would see to the establishment of orderly forests. The Germans set about the planting of orderly forests, often mono-cultures. By the mid 1800's, some German foresters began to have doubts about man made forests of trees standing to attention in rows. They thought that forests should be managed more along the lines of natural indigenous forests. This was the same idea as what is now known as forest ecosystem management. Non clear-cutting silviculture systems such as shelterwood and selection silvicultural systems were the management techniques developed in Europe to produce more natural, irregular and less even aged forests.

Modernity was based on the idea of improvement of the human condition by the application of knowledge in agriculture, industry and commerce. This single meta-narrative has got a bit confused by events such as the unsinkable Titanic, gas chambers, and use of atomic weapons. Soviet communism was also an exercise in modernity. The idea of improvement is often blamed on Christianity, but it seems to be grounded in human pride.  European foresters were given a lesson in humility by the forest and coined the dictum "Work with nature or you will be defeated".  The "meek shall inherit the earth" is a narrative that exists in European forestry along side the agricultural notion that forests and trees are just another crop that can be manipulated and controlled by humans.

Forests are usually more complex than our human tendency to whittle things down to a few narratives or ideologies. Mere mention of a climax ecosystem will get the attention of any green ears. Heather moors in Scotland are climax ecosystems with an acidified organic layer of peat that leached iron downward into the soil to form a cemented layer. Scottish foresters used bulldozers to pull forest plows through the moors to mix the organic with the mineral layers and improve the soil drainage. Forests were planted with a strong representation of trees from BC. Was this an exercise in anthropocentric vandalism using alien species or a helpful human nudge to create a new forest environment?

Some of North America's early leading foresters went to Europe to study forestry in the late 1800's. They were immersed in the new nature based forestry of shelterwood and selection silviculture systems. They returned to North America and rejected the new nature based notion of forest management. Natural fires were more prevalent in North America, so the "work with nature" notion was out. Fires had to be controlled. Fire fighting became a cornerstone of North American forestry. Man would take on nature and win. Clear- cutting and artificial regeneration of forests was also part of this outlook.

Forest fire fighting in North America in the Twentieth Century, was more than Smokey the Bear. It involved the application of improving technologies. Manned fire lookouts were replaced by infrared sensing devices that would identify new fires for speedy dispatch of aerial fighters in the form of water bombers and helicopter transported fire fighters. British Columbia spent millions on forest fire fighting and technology.

Fire fighting meant that wood was being saved for forest industry. Economics achieved special status after World War II and it would see to an expanding economy and freedom from major economic depression. Forest fire fighting made a good fit with this idea. Most of the forests in BC had been retained in public ownership at the start of the Twentieth Century to ensure that they would have independent professional forest management. After World War II, BC Government administrations forgot that the foundation of a strong forest economy is good forest stewardship and gave economic growth the priority. Government allocated most of BC's public timber to a few forest corporations under administrative pricing and the management of public forests was shared by Government and forest corporations. Forestry in BC was turned into a modern mass production machine. Forest companies built big saw and pulp mill plants and harvested the best timber available. Government provided the fire fighting. The independent professional forester was turned into a specialized assembly line worker for the machine.

The modern forestry machine in BC was also driven by the idea that older virgin forests are not growing as fast as young replacement forest stands. Old virgin forest stands were termed "decadent" because they did not fit the model of modern industrial forest management. The whole idea of modern industrial forest management seemed to work well for decades. Money was made by harvesting the best timber and converting it to dollars.

We forgot that it was not modern industrial forest management that provided the dollars. It was really nature that grew these forests. On the coast of BC, the virgin forests had huge trees with quality wood that easily covered the costs of logging on mountains. Forest industry harvested the best timber that nature had grown. The interior of BC has fire dominated ecosystems where nature coped by having a short lived species. Lodge pole pine was adapted to these landscapes. The Government's fire fighting machine also did most of its work in these landscapes. It went in and saved Lodge pole pine for industry.
Even in a fire dominated landscape things are never simple. Some plateaus and slopes will see a greater frequency of fires than moist niches in the topography. These places will have older larger trees and species. While Government was busy fighting fires in these landscapes, forest industry was busy going after the best timber. Forest industry was not harvesting enough Lodge pole pine. The net result of government and forest industry management efforts in these fire dominated landscapes was to build considerable reserves of old Lodge pole pine trees. European foresters know that this species grows fast and straight when young but tends to stagnate and become susceptible to decline when it gets old. The home indigenous environment of BC has a way of getting the old lodge pole pine out of the way. The mountain pine beetle will supply this service when Lodge pole pine reaches 80 years old. A huge feast of million of hectares of old lodge pole pine was prepared by industrial forest management for the mountain pine beetle. A super epidemic of mountain pine beetle has munched its way through more than 13 million hectares of forest, or about $100 Billion worth of timber.

The super epidemic of mountain pine beetle in BC, and also western USA is perhaps the greatest defeat of modern industrial forest management in the history of forestry. We should realize our pride and mistakes and look toward some new legal and institutional structures that will provide true local care of forest ecosystems. Modern centralized government and corporate command and control organisations are counter to the needs of local forest ecosystems.

Unfortunately, we have not realized that nature has defeated industrial forest management in BC. Public relations and propaganda are a key part of modern organisations. It works by toning down problems and ensuring us that all is well. Propaganda works well when its case rests on some of the truth but not the whole truth. Propaganda works well in forestry. Forest environments are complex with many factors involved. The public wants simple easy to understand answers. The public in BC has been told that warm winters caused increased over winter survival of mountain pine beetles. This is quite true. It is why the mountain pine beetle range extends into BC. BC gets mild winters because it is situated on the Pacific Ocean. Natural outbreaks of the beetle have, and will occur in BC. The present super epidemic is different because of the immense amount of mountain pine beetle habitat that was created by the BC Government and forest industry engaging in industrial forest management that had little regard for the normal functions of forest ecosystems.

Is it the big virgin spruce tree sitting in a sea of young forest on a Vancouver Island,  the decadent organism? Perhaps we ourselves are decadent.

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