Saturday, May 25, 2013

Clear cutting's greatest problem

Clear cutting a forest creates immediate visual change. An area of the forest goes from green to brown. This can prompt quite a bit of ranting and raving about the end of all that is good or natural.  In most cases, it is not quite as bad as it looks.

When a farmer turns a field from green to brown by plowing, all the vegetation and soil is turned over. Clear cutting the forest does not remove the stumps and ground vegetation, so there is something left to hold the soil or nutrient capital in place. There are some changes to the soil and its organisms at clear-cutting, but most forest soils recover relatively quickly and stay in place.

The greatest potential problem in a clear cut is the logging roads. Construction of a logging road is a deep disturbance to the soil. It can capture and change water flows in the clear cut. If roads are not adequately drained with ditches and culverts erosion can occur. It water is diverted down a steep road severe erosion can occur. Sometimes landslides can occur on steep slopes that are receiving extra water from inadequately drained roads. Since water is an important factor in erosion and landslides near roads, the soil usually finds its way into streams and rivers to cause additional damage to streams and fish.

Logging roads are sometimes deactivated after harvesting. This involves installation of diagonal water-bars in the road surface to divert water from the road if ditches and culverts become clogged with soil or woody debris. The road in the photograph above was deactivated, but some erosion has occurred. However the erosion is much less severe.

Accelerated erosion on logging roads can continue for decades. Recently, I went with some BC Parks staff on a field trip to examine some trails in a protected area. Unlike most parks or protected areas, this park had been logged about 50 or 60 years ago. A new forest has regenerated naturally and the park has the general appearance of being well on the road to full recovery. The management plan for the park even outlines that it contains one of the highest percentages of high ecological value areas.

Parks staff operate within the ethos of Parks in British Columbia. Parks are areas that have been "saved from the ravages of resource extraction". In most cases parks have been designated in virgin natural areas where no development has taken place. This park is different because it is a recovering landscape. In some respects, the recovery is so good that the park looks and feels like an area in natural condition. Parks staff were attentive to areas of sensitive sites, wildflowers etc and the need to protect them. However, part of the designated trail system in the park uses old logging roads. Park users also follow other old logging roads that are not part of the designated system and trample sensitive sites. Many of the old logging roads were poorly located and built and have been eroding for 50 or 60 years. One section has gradients of 33%, is eroding severely and forms part of the main arterial trail system in the park. In a managed timber producing forest, the road would be permanently deactivated to reduce erosion. Parks staff were rather oblivious to the erosion problem and reluctant to rectify the problem inherited from clear cutting. BC Parks has a mandate to preserve heritage. A heritage exhibition of poorly located and constructed logging roads that continue to erode after 60 years is something we do not need.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Clear cutting and your house

If you live in North America, the chances are that your house is built out of wood. Before we used fossil fuels as energy slaves and could saw up logs easily, wooden buildings tended to be built out of large sized wooden posts and beams. Wood is a good structural material as well as a good aesthetic material. Large posts and beam structures are more fire resistant than those made with smaller dimensions.

Unlike this house with joined post and beams and wooden panel walls, little wood is usually seen inside the average North American house. The use of wood in North American homes is not so much about wood as it is about being fast. The nominal two inch or five centimeter lumber that makes up the structure of the North American house enables them to be erected with great speed. The wooden structure is covered on the outside of the house by siding or other facing materials that may or may not be wood based. The interior of the house is covered with dry-wall, plasterboard, or sheet-rock. These are all different names for gypsum sheets that are faced with paper based liner board.

The expansion of European people over North America and the need to erect structures and towns quickly made forests a target for ready materials. There were big continuous clear cuts, sometimes with great fires in the wasteful slash that was left over, and ghost timber towns that expired as greedy timber barons moved on to the next forest. Forests were also being cleared to make farms. USA experienced a timber binge in the 1800's that extended into the early 1900's. British Columbia was spared because it was located at the end of the line on the north west of the continent. The creation of the National Forests in USA and public forests in BC was a progressive reaction to that binge.

The first half of the 20th century brought two wars and a depression. There was pent up energy and increased technological progress with improved mechanical energy slaves after WWII ended. There was a baby boom and a building boom. Forests in USA had not fully recovered from the previous binge. There was great demand for stick framing lumber, and British Columbia was able to supply. Much of the lumber came from clear cutting quality timber from virgin forests. It could have been used for higher value purposes than a support for gypsum board. Canada sees itself as a source of raw materials, so we tend to do as little as possible to the raw material before trying to collect the paycheck. We do not seem to be maturing in this respect as we try to sell raw bitumen from our tar sands.

Clear cutting was an unchallenged part of taking high value timber to market as a low value commodity. It fit the cost picture. Most of British Columbia's public timber harvest was allocated to commodity wood producers, leaving no wood for value adding manufacturers. BC locked itself into the low value commodity market for the long term. When forests in USA started to recover from the previous binge about 1980, grumblings about the market share of BC wood started to come from American lumber companies. Administrative prices paid by BC forest companies for public timber became vulnerable to allegations of subsidy and trade tariffs. BC is locked into the commodity lumber model and attempts to sell wood to other markets have also been accompanied by efforts to sell North American stick framing construction techniques.

BC has had laws to discourage export of logs for more than a century. Manufacture within BC keeps jobs in BC. Export of logs has been permitted under special circumstances. There has been pressure for more log exports in recent years. Off shore buyers are able to pay more than BC's commodity mills for the logs. The off shore buyer can afford to pay the cost of clear cutting but the domestic mills cannot afford the cost. Sawmill workers loose potential employment and the issue is politically contentious. Politicians cannot see past the fact that the problem is just a symptom of locking into commodity production and favor increased or decreased log exports depending on political stripe.

Clear cutting is the low cost forest harvesting method that goes with timber supply to the commodity stick framing residential construction market. It is part of the fast pace of modern life. It points to a special kind of intellectual and aesthetic poverty if all the use we find for wood is for nailing gypsum board to make a wall.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Clear cutting and farming the forest

Clear cutting of forests is a hot button issue. Foresters point out that clear cutting can be an acceptable silvicultural system. Forests in their natural state can suffer catastrophic natural disturbances such as fires or wind throw that cause large openings not unlike clear cuts. More clear cutting of lodge pole pine forests in the interior of BC in the last half century would have reduced the severity of the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic.

All clear cutting of forests is not bad, but there remains a strong popular perception that there is something wrong with clear cutting. Probably this at least partly due to an ideal notion of the green forest being defiled. However, when many people get aroused about something and it sticks for a long time, there are probably some legitimate issues.

Forests in their natural state seem to know what they are doing and they seldom do things in straight lines. When the straight line solution of the growth of a conifer tree trunk gets interrupted by some injury or damage nature will produce a great variety of non straight line solutions to get around the problem and keep on growing. When simple humans come along with a power and control mindset straight line solutions become the order of the day. We like to call ourselves civilized. This hypocritical term for ourselves has a lot to do with agriculture, that involves fields and straight lines on the ground. Agriculture, the historians tell us, provided the food surpluses that enabled cities and other artistic and technological endeavors of civilization. Another feature of the long march to civilization was using new gained technological prowess to beat others up and steal their land and resources. Our straight line fixation, and other flaws such as warfare are embedded with farming and cultivation. Farming used to require a lot of people on the land to do the work. Petroleum brought machines that could do the work of an army of slaves. It also brought the ingredients for fertilizers and pesticides. Farming now delights in power and control inputs repeated annually to gain at least one crop in a year. This is often called the "green revolution".

The forests of British Columbia have been going about their business for millennia and the time frame is decades and centuries to complete the growth cycle. The virgin forests had some of the largest and best conifers in the world. If it works well, why should we try to fix it?  European foresters said "work with nature in the forest or you will be defeated". Over 200 years ago European foresters started to restore devastated forests using the farming idea of planting fields of single species of tree that would be clear cut like a crop. More than a few problems were encountered with this approach so a more natural approach was proposed by some leading foresters. The natural approach involved mixtures of tree species and development of non- clear cut silvicultural systems such as shelter wood and selection methods. The more natural approach to forestry is now called eco-system management. The natural or eco approach to forestry probably makes more sense than the farming approach. Farming is a high control, high input endeavor usually intended to come up with a crop in one growing season. If one year's effort comes undone, the farmer can recover in the next year. Forestry is a long term affair and many heavy inputs become too costly if harvest is many years away. Loss of a crop means loss of many years growth. The approach of little inputs with reliance on nature probably makes more long term business sense than trying to push the forest along with lots of inputs. Intensive forestry or intensive silviculture are the present terms for a farming approach.

Our whole perspective and approach to life is bent around farming, and a steroid civilization propelled by mechanical slaves powered by fossil fuels. The mechanical slaves available have reduced the population involved with farming and the food produced get shipped to animal feed lots and human feed lots in cities. British Columbia's population is heavily urban and little interest or understanding remains about rural life on farm or forest. We like to talk about renewable energy. The forest is a renewable energy machine that is efficient at capturing the sun's energy over time. The job does take time and it does not compete with our subsidized fossil fuel sources. The subsidy comes from time or the millions of years that it took to accumulate the fossil fuels that we burn in vast quantities. When our fast fuel civilization bumps up against the natural energy cycle of the forest there is a collision that usually expresses itself on the landscape as a clear cut. We do not like its looks, but we do not want to get out of our fossil fuel guzzling conveyance and walk at the speed of the forest.

The early loggers on the British Columbia coast made big clear cuts but they used nature to help it along. Large tall trees were rigged with guy cables, large pulley blocks. A steam driven winch fueled by wood supplied the power. Logs were moved by cables that were suspended off the ground by the rigged spar trees. After World War II, the time to rig up a logging site was reduced by portable steel spar trees that had the all the pulley blocks welded in place. The under carriage of a Sherman tank was often used to move the steel spar tree from site to site. Nothing like a little war technology to help with clear cutting. Clear cutting is a "brown revolution" in the forest landscape.