by Berthold Brecht, in Brecht's 1938 poem, "An die Nachgeborenen" (To Those Who Will Come After Us):
Ah, what an age it is
Brecht wrote during and about times with many pressing human needs. Then to trifle away time and contemplation on givens in the natural world such as trees, the poem suggests, would be an ill-advised luxury. But as the century ends with deforested and degraded landscapes, lifeless soils and vanishing species, trees "need to be at the center of our political debates," Smith continues. In this decade and facing the next century, we know that the fate of forests is linked inextricably to human welfare and to social justice.
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a silence about injustice.
When forests become over harvested and degraded, or converted to other uses, the ecological
functions they perform for humans and non-human species suffer and quality of life is threatened for future generations. When tribal villagers in ancient forests are displaced through industrial logging or suffer loss of game, fruits and other forest products which shield them from starvation, social injustice is done.
I spend much time with trees. On my small homestead (of a mere acre) which now has more than 150 of them, planted over two decades as borders, green oasis, orchard, and creature-friendly habitat, human included. On the national forest where hikes in search of "original" old growth, rare-plant monitoring or for recreational pleasure have taken me up and down mountains and trails, creeks and branches, to waterfalls and "wilderness" areas. They have also taken me to areas destined for logging, or recently logged and now bare, or impassable sprouts-and-brambles thickets. I enjoy the naturalists' writings about trees and the forests but also engage with the resource managers of "our" national forest, the Forest Service.
In Forest Service decision documents for timber cutting, and the environmental assessments giving evaluations for decision alternatives, I am perpetually struck by arguments such as those below, similar if not alike in one after another decision. They seem to make out living, upright trees and natural forest as "in the way," "enemy" to itself and its own creatures, so to speak, and to the resource commodity value for human uses. In their aggregate, these assumptions then become justification for the clearing through logging of large forest areas:
One may take issue, in my view, with every one of these ideas. Historical evidence, conservation-ecology and biological research, personal observation, and "common sense" speak loudly of many holes in the theories which seem to underlie them.
- Unless all trees (in the areas selected for logging) are cut and undesirable successor sprouts eliminated, oak will disappear due to "natural forest succession."
- Unless all the trees are cut to foster new oak sprouts, the oak component in the forest will be lost due to gypsy moth infestation.
- Unless all trees are cut to allow growth of early successional habitat, the forest's "wildlife" will decline.
- All or nearly all the oaks are "in decline," anyway, or vulnerable to decline.
- Animals are obstructed by trees and will benefit from their removal, e.g. eagles gain clearer view of the lake after timber cutting, or bats an unobstructed flight path to roosting trees.
Take the "forest succession" idea, for example, that oaks will be crowded out of our Appalachian forest by shade tolerant trees. This theory predicts that, without preventive human management, maple trees will eventually dominate our forest. But forces and factors at work in nature, in reality, have given us forests with great variety of trees. In areas in the national forest which have not been recently logged one finds pines and magnolias, tulip poplar and locust, birch, and black and sweetgum, hickory and hemlock, sassafras and cherry, and red and sugar and striped maple, basswood and sourwood and yet others. The forest seems always to have created sufficient natural openings to allow the oaks a foothold -- in fact to make oak family species dominant in most areas of the national forest around here.
Many unpredictability factors, undoubtedly, can work to derail "succession" theory. Accidental
fires can cause unplanned openings. Periodically introduced forest pathogens such as now afflict hemlock and white pine can defoliate or kill affected trees, creating further openings. Increasingly stronger storms can cause more natural blow downs. Remember the winter storm in the Smokies two years ago downing a couple of hundred acres! Plenty of instant sunlight for oak seedlings and acorns awaiting their chance.
One finds tree diversity even in those areas in the national forest -- usually high, steep-sloped and difficult to access -- which have escaped logging and thus represent patches of old-growth, or "original" forest. Here, trees may measure three feet or more in diameter and 200-300 years in annual rings. Here, where succession theory would predict maple to predominate, the white and black and chestnut and red oaks still do. Oaks share the canopy with hickories, birches, ashes, other "desirable" hardwoods and maples, the understory with rhododendrons and laurel, wild grape, sweet pepper and other shrubs, and the forest floor with a rich assemblage of flowers and ferns and fungi.
What about the bedrock assumption that "wildlife" will decline unless artificial clearings are continually made anew in the forest? The forest managers' reference is to game species, i.e. those creatures most often viewed (by the hunter) from the barrel of a gun. The larger universe of living creatures in the forest which is viewed by the biologist, receives little accounting in this provision for "wildlife."
Ruffed grouse and wild turkey are among game species prototypically cited as dependent on the type of forest vegetation which springs up in clearcut areas. Yet they were plentiful before
there was a U. S. Forest Service, and before deliberate "habitat management" through clearcutting became the norm in our forests. The great naturalist, John Burroughs, considered ruffed grouse one of the "birds of the deeper forest" and describes nights with grouse drumming on all sides around him, "in all parts of the woods." And before large parts of the woods were lost to timber cutting, as Rachel Carson recounts, "wild turkey, grouse and other upland game birds were incredibly abundant." Why then the now standard, proffered assumption that nature does not provide for turkey and grouse unless we "manage" the forest with clearcuts? How well have we managed the rest of our land?
When Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson likens the richness and diversity of life in the leaf litter of a North American forest to that in the tree canopy of the tropics, he speaks of that "other" sphere of wildlife -- of microorganisms and mycorrhizae, insects, fungi, plants, rodents, salamanders -- immense in number and "biomass" compared to the handful of favored games species. When the bulldozers go in, packing down and squeezing the oxygen out of that top forest layer, when bright sunlight crashes down and drying wind reaches formerly shaded and moist soil, it means catastrophe for billions of individuals of this wildlife.
The micro level of life on the forest floor which is damaged or destroyed through clearcutting may even be what best sustains the game birds. Current biological field research seems to lead back full circle to Burroughs' notion of grouse as "bird of the deeper forest." In such research, ruffed grouse's chick-raising or "reproductive" success is found to be higher in old-growth cove hardwood forest than in young forest since the older, undisturbed forest has more and more diverse insects for chicks to feed on.
One could similarly dissect, and reasonably counter all the arguments for benefits to the forest from cutting down its trees. But these examples may suffice. We need to speak about trees in a manner and with acknowledgment, that the forest left on its own displays an almost miraculous productivity, order and balance in its functioning, despite a thousand vicissitudes and unpredictable contingencies. It doesn't discriminate against or favor any of its creatures but manages to preserve, across great diversity of life forms, an enduring and healthy state of equilibrium. Would that we did as well in our human affairs!
Past management interference in its working has not improved our forest. Our language should not deceive us into thinking that, now, it does.