Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fannel and Pine Bows

The mystique of the lumberjack is shrouded in the fables of the ye olden times. Mythical men like Paul Bunyan stir feelings of aw and admiration in children and adults alike. The idea of brute strength, cunning, and a rugged demeanor draws much interest and creates a picture of man dominating the wilderness for the sole purpose of asserting his power over the land. Some see this as an American Ideal, others see it as something that ought to be clarified and corrected with an asterisk that reads, “With moderation...” - because in the land of the fat and greedy, moderation is certainly something we know well. We, the people of the world, Americans near the top of the list, have not been all too kind to this organic spaceship we copilot around a ball of fire. Assuming Manifest Destiny, we have set forth into the wild, intent on taming it and believing that it is all for the taking and to be used without concern for the ramifications of our destructive actions. We have all taken to habit the act of turning a blind eye to problems that are hard to fix, believing that divine intervention, like government policy makers, will fix the problem while we are fixing ourselves a sandwich. But, that is not the case, as we are currently learning the very hard way. We need to be the change we wish to see – that is perhaps the most cliché phrase in the English language, however, it is very true and most poignant in the realm of environmental conservation. As a wee lad, I was always listening to my grandfather, dad, and uncles discuss the health of the couple hundred acres of land they owned and cared for – from mapping and hunting, to general upkeep and logging. From all of these years of listening and hiking out to see the areas of interest, I have cultivated a strong interest in forrest health, particularly logging aka tree harvesting. In the following pages I will be discussing the importance of sustainable/selective logging in North America and the issues surrounding the subject.

In order to understand the benefits of sustainable logging, it is best to first talk about the less environmentally friendly type of tree harvesting, clear-cutting. This type of tree felling is done just like it sounds: everything is cut down – entire designated wood lots are leveled. The resulting landscape is very unsettling and bare. The remains of the unused timber lies helter-skelter in any odd fashion, and in general, the whole scene looks like a giant razor shaved the area clean. Now, the benefits of this type of resource harvest are pretty clear – more trees cut and taken to the mills is more money for the logging operation. Additionally, if this the cleared area is only a handful of acres and not entire mountain/hill sides, then field land is created and can help increase biodiversity with flora and fauna alike; by diversify the species of bird and woodland creatures, as well as provide grazing area for animals of all sizes. But on a whole, clear-cutting does the exact opposite of that.

When entire graded or sloped areas are leveled, soil erosion becomes a big issue. Soil nutrient density is also effected because there is not the same kind of exchange as before between the trees and soil. Things like mineral and gas (oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, etc) levels are no longer stable. Further more, the soil can only hold so much water. Once it reaches its saturation level, the water flows straight into the watershed. This can cause flooding due to the higher levels of rain water entering into the fragile system. With it, this new overflow of rain water drags top soil along for the ride causing sedimentation in streams, creaks, and rivers. This clogs up water ways, causes the creation of sand bars, and can greatly effect the river ecology. Further more, the filtering effect that the top soil once provided deteriorates, thus more pollution (think: acid rain) seeps into the water table. In general, most people would not think past the trees hitting the ground, but the effects of clear-cutting are long lasting and far reaching, much more so than just the scars left by chainsaws, harvesting machines, and transportation equipment.

This kind of resource management is clearly not sustainable. Trashing the environment and using up all that the land can yield is not going to keep the wheels of society turning very long. Gross mismanagement of our forests causes decreases in biodiversity, unseats the general ecological homeostasis that has developed naturally, and on a whole the scars man creates with machines do not disappear quickly – they remain for decades, and the other effects can be even longer lasting than that. This is why it is important to understand the possible outcomes if sustainable practices are not implemented and properly regulated.

Sustainable logging is a very different type of tree harvesting. It starts as a process of selecting trees to be cut based on the needs of the harvester as well as based on what the selected trees can yield. The idea isn't necessarily to take the biggest trees and leave the rest to grow – with selective cutting, the idea is get the most usable wood. The biggest trees are not always the straightest trees, and some times they are rotten on the inside. So a knowledgeable forester will go out and evaluate the land, find the trees that are most accessible, in best harvesting condition, and map out the projected area of harvest. From there, skid roads are built to allow for the draft team (if horses are used to drag the timber) or the skidder (the large industrial machines used to wrangle the timber) to retrieve the resources and bring them back to the log landing (area selected for its accessibility and gentle grade/flatness). The idea behind this type of operation is that it is less invasive and less destructive to the land and ecosystem. Ecologically speaking, the benefits of selectively cutting trees are numerous. By strategically taking out trees, the canopy is thinned, allowing more sunlight to reach the forest floor and promote new growth. By taking out more mature trees, the nutrient density of the soil is increased and allows for more new growth as well. The watershed is not effected, and erosion is minimal, so the “downstream effects” of the logging are next to none. Thinning out the woods also helps create grazing pastures for animals, due en part to the increase in ground-level flora growth. Selectively cutting trees is not a perfect solution because it is still invasive and the side effects of man invading nature are still present – however, the scale of harm is done is much smaller than other alternatives.

Proper land management like this is very sustainable and can create a very strong and positive relationship with the land and the lumberjack. The give and take is much more even. A more open forest allows for better air circulation (which is important for water distribution and the spreading of flora seed), animal travel, and general biodiversity. This practice is very similar to crop rotation, and a successfully managed forest will yield much more than just trees. The forests are our first resource to go, and the last to return. With a well thought out forest management plan, it is possible to continuously stream revenue from the forest.

Having covered the basic advantage and disadvantages of the different forms of logging, it is time to cover the finer points of how the trees are taken and distributed. Back in the day of actual horse power, draft teams of horses were used to pull the timber out of the woods and into the mills or to the log landings where they were stacked and taken out en mass to the mills. The days of horses were also the days of the near-mythical lumberjack, the one of folklore and phantasmal imagery. The woodsmen used hand-sharpened axes, two-man saws, and pure brawn to obtain the cellulose fruits of the forest. The “traditional ways” were hard on the body, slow on the clock, and only effective on a small scale operation. However, the man power was much more “green” than the logging practices of today. Skidders, feller-bunchers, chainsaws, logging trucks; the list goes on of the massive fossil fuel run machines that do the work of countless men in so such little time. It is staggering to imagine how long it much have taken to do the same amount of clearing back in the day. Though the technology may allow for faster, more effective logging practices, the pollution and physical footprint of the machinery is hard to ignore. Massive ruts, oil and gas spills, exhaust, and all of the other ailments of heavy, fossil fuel powered equipment is just the tip of the iceberg. The costs of the machines alone is astronomical, upkeep and operation aside. However, this is all offset by the monetary compensation brought on by higher yield of timber to sell.

Man power may have more soul, but machines definitely win out in the battle because of how cost effective they are in the long run. As awesome as swinging an axe is, as cool as running a draft team of horse can be, the magic of old ways is now only kept alive by enthusiasts and purists. To be fair, the logging industry has recognized the need for more fuel efficient equipment, as well as lower-impact machines. This is a good step to making sustainable logging even more sustainable. Because the fact of the matter is, as excellent as it would be to revert back to axes, wool caps, and big boots, diesel power, tires with chains, and hydraulic cutting arms just work better.

Two types of logging practices have been evaluated and discussed, as well as some of the means of harvest. But, let's take this one step further and offer some sort of solution to a clear and present problem/argument, as the different schools of thought don't tend to overlap – it is very black and white. Everyone has some solution idea, but unfortunately due to lobbyists and industry pressure, a lot of good ideas get stonewalled and tossed aside because they cut into revenue and often would require a company to re outfit a lot of equipment and change how they log.

A solution this paper is here to deliver is as follows: selective cutting should be the only type of logging allowed, and the asterisk for clear-cutting would be very simple – the only way clear-cutting could happen would be in the case of tree farms and land that is dead flat. Hilly, mountainous, and generally slopped terrain, where the land would suffer greatly from losing its covering of trees, would only be able to be selectively cut. This compromise bridges the gap between the two practices. Granted, it puts clear-cut operations in jeopardy of massive revenue loss, but the fact of the matter is that the harm done to the land is not going to be negated in time. The damage is done and changed permanently.

Old growth forests take hundreds of years to form, and undoing that kind of natural work causes destruction of valuable habitat, tilts the natural and harmonious balance of the ecosystem, and sets the stage for even more harmful means of obtaining resources. There is no shortage of wild forest in North America. But it is unacceptable to tear down the mountains with such apparent force. New England, just a century ago, used to by 80% farmland. Now it is 80% woodland – congested forest at that. Tightly packed new growth forest is not only harder to manage for logging (an effect of clear-cutting), but it is harder for biodiversity to develop and be sustained. By implementing strict regulations and pushing the practice of tree farming, the old growth forest will remain untouched and able to flourish, new growth forest will become manageable, and our societal need for steady lumber and tree-based products will continue to be met.

The world is not our fun play-thing. It is a living beast of burden, we are its burden. The resources we have learned to used are varied and differ greatly in terms of accessibility and renewability. Thankfully, trees grow and can be planted, to then be cut and replaced once again. But, like any process of give and take, it needs to be done with thought and care. We cannot afford to trash our majestic North American forests like we have in the past, and continue to do in certain places. Putting together a plan for sustainable logging practices and properly regulating them is paramount if we wish to continue to use wood-based product with such vigor. If we mess up, we can fix it, but at what cost? What damage will be incurred before we realize the need for better regulation and execution of logging practices? Though the fairly tail story of axe men and selectively felling trees would be a great solution, this situation calls for a sense of pragmatism and foresight for our future needs. Together, with some initiative, cooperation, and understanding, we will be able to combat the negative effects of poor practices and implement friendlier and sustainable ways of working the land.


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