By Donella Meadows
–October 31, 1996–
You have to be well trained by a forestry school or well paid by a lumber company to see beauty in a clearcut.
If you haven’t been so trained or paid, if you’re just an ordinary bloke looking at an expanse of slashed, rutted ground where recently a forest stood, you feel slightly sick. You know violence has been done. Whatever your logical mind tells you about jobs and profits and cheap wood, your conscience whispers that this is no way to treat a forest.
That instinctive negative reaction has become a problem for industry. As hikers and campers discover open spaces where there used to be trees, as companies need more timber to pay for mergers and stockholder expectations, as ragged scars dominate once-green landscapes, citizens are becoming outraged. In California they block loggers from old-growth redwoods. In Maine they’ve called a referendum to ban clearcuts.
To foresters these uprisings look ignorant and emotional and hypocritical. Cityfolk don’t know a fir from a spruce, they are the greatest paper users in the world, and they probably have redwood picnic tables in their backyards. They sure as heck don’t know what it would cost, if clearcuts were stopped.
But when the public is revulsed by something, there is often good reason, whether the public can articulate that reason or not. In the case of clearcuts, the reasons are many, esthetic, ecological and economic.
Industry snatches away every tree, to be sure it doesn’t “go to waste,” which means rot in place rather than being turned into dollars. In nature’s economy that “waste” maintains the forest. It returns the nutrients in dead trees to the soil, slowly, at the rate growing trees can take them up again. And as they decay, woodpecker-riddled snags and moss-covered logs are habitat and food for whole pyramids of creatures.
Nature doesn’t do clearcuts. Mostly, as ancient trees die, holes open in the forest canopy, letting in light for the next generation. Every now and then a hurricane or volcano may level a swath of forest, but that swath isn’t shaved clean. It’s covered with downed trunks, piled like jackstraws, sheltering porcupines and blackberries until new tree seedling rise up. Even forest fires don’t leave clearcuts. They leave nutrient-laden ash and charred trunks to hold soil.
The industrial feller-buncher feeding into a chipper takes virtually all biomass except underground roots. It compacts and tears the soil. Woodland creatures flee, creating two problems. In the forest to which the exiles move, there is overcrowding. In the clearcut there is desert. The temperature rises, winds blow unimpeded, humidity drops. Life still exists there — pioneer species such as lichens or crabgrass thrive — but not forest life. It will be decades before forest-dwellers return, assuming there’s someplace they can hide out, so they can return.
The most stomach-turning clearcuts are on steep slopes in rainy territory, like the ones that deface our national forests in the Pacific Northwest. The rains wash the soil away, slowing forest regeneration maybe for centuries, maybe forever. Landslides clog streams, bury roads, cover floodplains, destroy fisheries. Both floods and droughts get worse. The cost for decades to come is high, and it’s not assessed to the clearcutters or added to the price of wood.
In places like Maine, with gentler slopes, lighter rains, and less erosive soils than the Northwest, the consequences of clearcuts are not so drastic. But the patchy clearings surrounded with narrow “beauty strips” of remnant forest form fragmented habitats certain to extinguish species of birds, mammals, wildflowers, butterflies. Clearcuts are often followed with herbicide to kill off everything except valuable spruce and fir. The new two-species even-age industrial plantation bears as much resemblance to a forest as a wheat field does to a prairie.
Every clearcut removes nutrients and speeds up erosion. There is no guarantee that after three or four clearcuts there will be enough soil and nutrients left to grow a forest at all.
Any clearcut is an ugliness, even one done by a careful company with a long-term perspective — and there are such companies. There are also liquidators, folks who are in it for the quick payoff. They grab the resource and move on, leaving behind economic devastation that they blame on environmentalists or government regulators. In the national forests they bribe politicians to subsidize their destruction with public funds.
This is an outrage. You don’t have to know spruce from fir to be outraged. The public is not overemotional on this subject. To the contrary, we have waited too long to issue wake-up calls to an industry that has let itself get out of control. Our call for responsibility is still much too gentle. It shouldn’t be at the state level (where a Maine clearcut ban could just send the rogues into New Hampshire) or grove by hard-fought grove in California. It should be federal. We should demand sustainable forestry — preservation of soils and species and a cutting rate no faster than regeneration on a local level, to sustain local economies. We should require forest operations to pay for all the damage they cause, even long-term, even downstream. We should eliminate public subsidies to private harvesters. And we should ban clearcuts.
All that will cost a lot, in the price of forest products, in the loss of some kinds of jobs. But it won’t cost as much as the irresponsible, unsustainable forestry that’s going on today.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996