Monday, January 26, 2009

Cutting some trees but saving the forest

It’s good news when trees are being planted and bad news when trees are being cut, right?

So that means the Indonesian government’s announcement that it is planting 100 million trees per year is good news for the earth, right? The fact that timber operations in Maine have mostly stopped planting trees where they have cut is bad news, right? And environmentalists should cheer that the current slump in timber demand is putting a lot of loggers and sawmills out of business, right?

The vast majority of people would say “Right” to all of those questions. And they would be wrong.

I can’t blame them. I used to be impressed when paper companies told me (back in the 1990s, when paper companies still owned forests) that they planted two trees for every one they cut down.

It only took me a decade to ask an obvious question: Why do you need to plant trees in a forest? After all, it didn’t take human intervention to start the forest or to replant trees that have died there over the millennia. (As I have explained previously, I'm an environmental idiot.)

A logger gave me the answer: Timber operations generally plant trees when they want an area to have a single species rather than taking the pot luck of mixed species that occurs in a natural forest. That often means clear cutting, then the spraying of herbicides to keep down the vines for a few years until the seedlings are big enough.

The planting of trees in Maine (and many other North American forests) has largely ended because loggers there have generally stopped clear cutting. It’s not that they have suddenly gone green. They have found it’s more profitable to harvest trees selectively, go to the trouble of separating the different species for different markets, and then let the forest regenerate itself. That eliminates expenses for seedlings, planting, spraying, etc. (Isn’t it funny how green practices often end up saving a lot of green stuff?)

Indonesia’s massive tree planting is a symptom of an environmental nightmare: The country has lost about 70 percent of its original forest cover. Cynic that I am, I suspect that much of the tree planting is for sterile palm-oil plantations, not for reforestation.

Many environmental groups are realizing that a key to protecting a region’s privately owned forests is maintaining the viability of the region’s forest-products industry.

“We have to realize private-land timber companies are our friend. Once land gets broken up into smaller pieces, our ability to protect it is eliminated," said Guido Rahr, president of the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, Ore. The center has joined with other environmental groups that want to provide funds or other support to help the struggling timber industry stay in business, according to the The Oregonian.

The Nature Conservancy is involved in a massive effort to ensure that more than 1 million acres of timber-company land in Montana do not get sold to developers. Kirk Johnson of the New York Times recently wrote that “groups like the Wilderness Society . . . say that working forests with controlled harvests are healthier, safer, and more likely to be preserved” and that small forest-region towns with a sawmill as “an anchoring employer are less prone to real estate speculation and development.”

We environmentalists often talk about saving trees, but what we really need to focus on is saving forests.

"The environmental community has spent 40 years perfecting the art of saying no and has almost no ability to say yes," says Lawrence Selzer, president of The Conservation Fund. If we can’t find a way to say yes to private land owners trying to make a living from their forests in a sustainable way, don’t be surprised to see those forests get turned into ski slopes and shopping centers.

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