Strangely Like War

Deforestation

“It was strangely like war. They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beachheads, driven into the hills, broken into patches, and wiped out. Many operators thought they were not only making lumber but liberating the land from the trees.”
Murray Morgan, 1955

The very day we wrote the final words of this book, scientists declared that yet another subspecies of tiger had gone extinct in the wild (with only captives remaining, so discouraged they’re dosed with Viagra to try to make them breed). Gone Extinct. Such a passive way to put it, as though we know no cause, can assign no responsibility. It’s almost as though we were to say that victims of murder passed away, or that victims of arson decided to move.

The South China tiger joins its cousins the Caspian tiger, Bali tiger, and Javan tiger, all victims of logging, roadbuilding, and the leveling of forests under this excuse or that. The other tigers will almost undoubtedly join them soon.

It doesn’t matter much to the tigers whether the forests are cut because Mao decided that “Man must conquer nature,” or because the World Bank decided that “Man must develop natural resources.” The forests are cut, the tigers dead.

The forests of the world are in bad shape. About three-quarters of the world’s original forests have been cut, most of that in the past century. Much of what remains is in three nations: Russia, Canada, and Brazil. Ninety-five percent of the original forests of the United States are gone.

We don’t know how fast the surviving forests are disappearing. We don’t know how many acres are cut each year in the United States, nor how much of that is old growth. We have estimates, and we’ll give them through the book, but the paucity of information even on present levels of cutting reveals more than it hides: it reveals how desperately out of control is the whole situation.

The United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management sell trees from public forests–meaning they belong to you–to big timber corporations at prices that often do not even cover the administrative costs of preparing the sales, much less reflect full market value. For example, in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska, 400-year-old hemlock, spruce, and cedar are sold to huge timber corporations for less than the price of a cheeseburger, and taxpayers have paid for the building of the logging roads as well. The Forest Service loses hundreds of millions of dollars a year on its timber-sale programs. In other words, if you pay taxes, you pay to deforest your own land.

If you live in the West, Southwest, South, Northeast, Midwest, Alaska, or anywhere else in the United States where there are or were forests, chances are good you’ve seen or walked clearcuts, sometimes square mile after square mile, cut, scraped, compacted, and herbicided. You’ve seen lone trees silhouetted on ridgelines, and you’ve seen once-dense forests reduced to a handful of trees per acre. You’ve suspected and later learned that these few trees were left so the Forest Service and big timber corporations could maintain that they did not clearcut this particular piece of ground. And maybe you came back another time and saw that the survivors, too, were gone.

You’ve probably driven highways lined by trees, then pulled over to look around, only to discover that just like in old westerns, where false fronts hid the absence of real stores, you’ve been sold a bill of goods: a few yards of trees separate the road from yet more clearcuts. This fringe of trees, which reveals recognition on the part of timber corporations and government agencies that industrial forestry requires public deception, is common enough to have been given a name: the beauty strip.

Do yourself–and the forests–a favor. Next time you fly over a once-forested region on a clear day, look down. Pay attention to the crazy quilt of clearcuts you see below, to the roads linking clearcuts and fragmenting forests, roads that wash out in heavy rains to scour streambeds and destroy fisheries.

Only 5 percent of native forest still stands in the continental United States. 440,000 miles of logging roads run through National Forests alone. (The Forest Service claims there are “only” 383,000 miles, but the Forest Service routinely lies, keeping double books–a private set showing actual clearcuts, and a public set showing some of the same acres as old growth– misleading the public by labeling clearcuts “temporary meadows,” reducing the stated costs of logging roads by amortizing them over a thousand years, and so on). That’s more road than the Interstate Highway System, enough road to drive from Washington, DC, to San Francisco a hundred and fifty times. Only God and the trees themselves know how many miles of roads fragment the forests.

The forests of this continent have not always been a patchwork of dwindling and increasingly isolated natural communities. Prior to the arrival of our culture, unbroken forests ran along the entire eastern seaboard, leading to the clichÈ that a squirrel could have leapt tree to tree from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, never having touched the ground. Today, of course, it could still do so and never touch ground, but instead walk on pavement. Polar bears wandered as far south as the Gulf of Maine, martens were “innumerable” in New England, wood bison cruised that region, passenger pigeons passed overhead in flocks that darkened the skies for days at a time, Eskimo curlews did the same, rivers and seas were so full of fish they could be caught by lowering a basket into the water. American chestnuts ran from Maine to Florida so thick on the dry ridgetops of the central Appalachians that when their crowns filled with creamy-white flowers the mountains appeared to be covered with snow. Before European “settlement” –read conquest–of America, there was no such thing as “old growth,” no such thing as “native forest,” no such thing as “ancient forest,” because all of the forests were mixed old growth, they were all native, they were all diverse, ancient communities. Difficult as all of this may be to imagine, living as we do in this time of extraordinary ecological impoverishment, all of these images of fecundity are from near-contemporary accounts easy enough to find, if only we bother to look.

Worldwide, forests are similarly under attack. One estimate says that two and a half acres of forest are cut every second. That’s equivalent to two football fields. One hundred and fifty acres cut per minute. That’s 214,000 acres per day: an area larger than New York City. Seventy-eight million acres (121,875 square miles) deforested each year: an area larger than Poland.

The reasons for international deforestation are, as we’ll explore in this short book, similar to those for domestic deforestation. Indeed, those doing the deforesting are often the same huge corporations, acting under the same economic imperatives with the same political powers.

Apologists for deforestation routinely argue that because preconquest Indians sometimes “managed” forests by setting small fires to improve habitat for deer and other creatures, industrial “management” of forests–deforestation–is acceptable as well. But the argument is as false and unsatisfying as the beauty strips, and really serves the same purpose: diverting our attention from deforestation. This is analogous to saying that because someone once clipped a partner’s fingernails, it’s okay for us to cut those fingers off.

I saw this argument presented again just today in the San Francisco Chronicle, in an op-ed piece by William Wade Keye, past chairman of the Northern California Society of American Foresters. He wrote, “Native peoples managed the North American landscape, cutting trees and using fire to perpetuate desirable forest conditions. There is no reason that we cannot equal or better this record of stewardship.” Actually, there are many reasons. Indians lived in place, and considered themselves a part of the land; they did not come in as an occupying force and develop an extractive economy. They did not participate in an economy and culture that valued money over life. They were smart enough not to invent chainsaws and feller bunchers (huge shears on wheels that roll along the ground, severing trees and stacking them into piles). They were smart enough not to invent wood chippers or pulp mills. They were smart enough not to invent an economy that ignored everything but cash. They were smart enough not to invent limited liability corporations. They didn’t export mountains of timber overseas. They knew trees and other nonhumans as intelligent beings with precious lives worth considering, and not as cash on the stump, or resources to be managed, or even as resources at all. Their spiritual beliefs did not include commands to “subdue the earth,” nor was their cosmology based on the absurd notion that one succeeds in life by outcompeting one’s human and nonhuman neighbors.

And the Indians didn’t subdue the earth. There is absolutely nothing in our culture’s history to suggest that we can “equal or better this record of stewardship.” There is everything in our culture’s history and present practices to suggest that the deforestation will continue, no matter the rhetoric of those doing the deforestation, and that ecological collapse will be our downfall, as it has been for earlier civilizations. But believe neither us, nor even contemporary accounts of early explorers who wrote of the extraordinary richness of native forests, nor especially the handsomely paid liars of the timber industry and the government. For the truth lies not in what they say, nor even in what we say. The truth lies on the ground. Go out and walk the clearcuts for yourself. Rub the dried soil between your fingertips. Walk the dying streams, listen to the silence in the skies (except for the whine of chainsaws and roar of distant logging trucks). Walk among ancient ones still standing, trees sometimes two thousand years old. Put your hands on their bark, on their skin. Taste the difference in the air. Smell it. Reflect on the beauty of what’s still there, and on what has been lost–what has been taken from us.

When you’ve finished crying, and if you want to know more about the current crisis in the forests — where we are, how we got here, and where we’re going–then come back and read the rest of this book.