By Donella Meadows
–April 4, 1996–
History has been written by people who are much more interested in people than in nature or how people and nature interact. So history books tell us about kings and commanders, economies and wars, but little about the forests, waters, soils and mines over which, sometimes, the wars were fought, and from which, always, the economies, kings, and commanders derived their food and fortunes.
One historian who is attempting to change this blind spot in his field is William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin. One of his books, “Changes in the Land,” documents the impact of European settlers on the ecology of New England (and vice versa). Another book, “Nature’s Metropolis,” is the history of how the city of Chicago rose from the rich soils and forests of the American Midwest.
One chapter in that book is about the vast lumber yards that lined the Chicago River at the end of the last century. Reading it at the end of this century, I could only think of the present-day Pacific Northwest and other parts of the world where confident timber industries are happily ripping into virgin forest with no thought for the morrow, or for the past.
“Will our pine timber soon be exhausted?” asked a popular Chicago magazine in 1870. “We say no. None of our generation will see our pine forests decimated.” Conservationists (they were around then too) were pointing out that the frenzied cutting in the magnificent white pine forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota could not continue. The forests would run out, they said.
The press treated them with scorn.
The “Northwestern Lumberman” was the chief trade publication of the day. Its columns refuted pessimistic timber supply estimates as vigorously as “The Wall Street Journal” does now. Even as the journals denied any problem, however, sawlog prices were rising, and the quality of trees coming from the Great Lakes region was declining. Says Cronon: “In 1870 the typical sawlog reaching a Michigan mill town measured 16 to 18 inches in diameter. Ten years later the size had fallen to 6 to 8 inches. The costs of logging rose accordingly. By 1883 loggers in the Muskegon district were cutting trees higher into the branches than they ever had before; they cut almost the entire tree into logs.”
Even the “Northwestern Lumberman” noticed the changes in the forest. In 1879 it reported, “There is not today a navigable creek in the state of Michigan or Wisconsin, upon whose banks, to the headwaters, the better grade of timber is still standing within a distance of two to three miles.” By 1881 it admitted that “the old prophets must be accredited with a remarkably correct appreciation of the timber supply.” And in 1887 it declared that “the end of the … supposed inexhaustible supply of white and norway pine timber is altogether too near.”
By 1890 sawmill operators in the Mississippi Valley discussed shifting lumber grading scales downward, so lower quality wood could be graded higher. In the north woods the remaining trees were so far from water that they could no longer be floated to Chicago. Expensive rail lines had to be built. Frederick Weyerhaeuser was one of many mill owners who decided it was time to move out to Idaho and Washington. After the early 1890s Great Lakes lumber production plummeted. The yards in Chicago kept going awhile selling yellow pine from the South, but the party was over.
Cronon describes not only what happened in Chicago, but what happened in the former forests. “As the loggers finished their work …, they left behind a literal wasteland. Great piles of slash — small timber, branches, and other debris that had little economic value — remained on the ground, sometimes in piles ten to fifteen feet high. They accumulated over a vast area, turned brown in the summer heat, and waited for the dry season, when a spark might set them alight.
“Fires had long been common in the Great Lakes forests. Indeed, fires were an important reason why the white pine was so abundant, for the tree was adapted to reproduce most effectively in newly burned-over lands. But the fires that followed in the wake of the loggers were not like earlier ones…. In logged areas few parent trees remained to reseed after a burn. Other species, especially aspens and birches, with their ability to reproduce from stumps and suckers, began to invade the pine’s old territory.” Pines returned only in places where people deliberately replanted and tended them.
“The dream that the ‘Cutover’ district would become a fertile agricultural landscape proved within two or three decades to be an illusion. Clear-cutting and the fires that followed reduced what little natural fertility the soils already had and contributed to problems of erosion and flooding. The poorly drained, glaciated soils of the northern forests were inherently inhospitable to agriculture, as was the climate…. Old pinelands became an increasing burden on county and state tax rolls, as their owners went into arrears and let the government claim the lands. The problem of what to do with the depopulated landscape continued to haunt Great Lakes states well into the twentieth century.”
By the time I read that, I was trying to remember that famous old quote about repeating history. I went and looked it up. George Santayana, from a book called “Life of Reason,” 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996