Economy and Ecology : Forever Redwood Concern

Humanity exists within an intricate web of biological/energetic relationships. Over time, this web has evolved seemingly infinite biological expressions on the earth from landscapes to homosapiens.1 Where forestland develops, the most evolved landscapes are the old-growth forests. At the dawn of history, these all-age forests covered half of the earth’s land surface outside of the arctic regions. Since then, over 40% of this forest has been converted to human use or turned into desert. This historical conversion continues with a growing percentage of the remaining forest being simplified, fragmented and/or degraded. (A 1997 United Nations study reports that between 1980 and 1995, deforestation totaled 2,000,000 km2 in developing countries while the industrialized world reclaimed a modest 200,000 km2 of forest area.)
The large biomass of a mature forest moderates the earth’s energetic extremes in a variety of ways. For example, mature forests have a tremendous capacity to retain water and influence overall weather patterns. They continually recycle and increase local rainfall. They release large amounts of moisture when the air is dry and re-absorb moisture at night or when raining. They moderate streams by quickly absorbing and slowly releasing water into the watershed. The forest absorbs pollution and also moderates temperature and wind. The larger and more extensive the forest cover, the greater the moderating effect. The larger the biomass of a forest, the greater amount of carbon it holds.
In contrast, the highest and best use of land economically begins with skyscrapers and moves down in order of economic concentration to suburbs, industrial agriculture and forestry. By its short-term nature, the market economy undervalues the highly evolved state of “undeveloped” earth-land and its web of biological relationships. As long as equal value does not exist for both ecology and economy, the quantity and quality of the Earth’s forests and all related life will continue declining. Despite the work of environmental organizations, the planetary trend is toward more population, resource consumption and pollution while old-growth forests continue to decline. If you are sympathetic to changing this dangerous course, read on. Otherwise, please recycle.
The tree planting programs of the large timber companies is a good example of economy and ecology not being considered equally. These programs are generally praised – even though they convert biologically complex forests into young tree-farms. The tree-farms maximize profits in the short-term and maintain tree cover over the land. But, tree-farms often alter the forest structure and trigger an interrelated chain of consequences. For example, many tree-farms plant only fast-growing “genetically-engineered” species. Chemical herbicides are used to eliminate the naturally regenerating competing trees. Because of these practices, industrially managed tree-farms reduce tree species variety and composition. Less tree species and the logging of all trees while young and small (60 years-old) eliminates habitat for some animals and insects and keeps the biomass of the land at a small fraction of its carrying capacity. The relatively small biomass of the young forest limits the moderating effect of the forestland and its capacity to sequester carbon. (The illustration on page 2 and 3 dramatically illustrates the size and structure differences of a 60-year-old tree-farm stand and a mature and old-growth forest.)
Removing tree species that time selected for a specific area invites long-term imbalance into the forest. The interrelated chain of events continues to slowly unfold. Because different tree species use and build-up varying amounts of soil minerals, altering species composition eventually causes imbalances in the mineral content of the soil. Chemical fertilizers are then used to compensate for the soil imbalances. Because the predators of certain insects are eliminated with their host trees, insect populations change. Insect infestations become common and widespread. This leads to insecticide use and more genetic altering to develop “bug-resistant” trees. The regular use of herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers cause the soil’s natural productivity to drop because the populations of microorganisms and fungi that are part of its biological web decline. Genetic engineering and the use of chemicals add instability by changing the forest’s self-regulating form.2 But, by equally weighing economy and ecology, restoration forestry balances the over-emphasized financial perspective that allows biological degradation to occur.

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