The forest industry has been charged with some very serious crimes against the environment. It stands accused of the extinction of tens of thousands of species, the deforestation of vast areas of the Earth, and the total and irreversible destruction of the environment. If I was one of the urban majority, and I thought the forest industry was causing the irreversible destruction of the environment I wouldnt care how many jobs it created or how many communities depended on it, I would be against it.
I have spent the last 15 years trying to understand the relationship between forestry and the environment, to separate fact from fiction, myth from reality. Since 1991 I have chaired the Sustainable Forestry Committee of the Forest Alliance of British Columbia. This has provided an ideal opportunity to explore all aspects of the subject. This presentation is the synthesis of what I have learned. But first, let me give you a little background.
Turning Over a New Leaf...
Dr. Patrick Moore, a former founder of Greenpeace, has broken ranks with the major environmental orgaizations on the issues of forestry. He insists that their policies of discouraging timber harvesting will have a negative impact on the environment. He is calling for the forest products industry to stand up and make the truth be heard.
I was born and raised in the tiny fishing and logging village of Winter Harbour on the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, in the rainforest by the Pacific. I didnt realize what a blessed childhood Id had, playing on the tidal flats by the salmon spawning streams in the rainforest, until I was shipped away to boarding school in Vancouver at age 14. I eventually attended the University of British Columba, studying the life sciences: biology, forestry, genetics. But it was when I discovered ecology that I realized that through science I could gain an insight into the mystery of the rainforest I had known as a child.
I became a born-again ecologist, and in the late 1960s was soon transformed into a radical environmental activist. I found myself in a church basement in Vancouver with a like-minded group of people, planning a protest campaign against U.S. hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska. We proved that a somewhat rag-tag looking group of activists could sail a leaky old halibut boat across the north Pacific Ocean and change the course of history. By creating a focal point for opposition to the tests, we got on Walter Cronkites national news and helped build a groundswell of opposition to nuclear testing in the U.S. and Canada. When that bomb went off in November 1971, it was the last hydrogen bomb ever detonated on Earth. Even though there were four more tests planned in the series, President Nixon canceled them due to public opposition. This was the birth of Greenpeace.
By the mid-1980s Greenpeace had grown from that church basement to an organization with an income of over $100 million (U.S.) per year, offices in 21 countries and over 100 campaigns around the world now tackling toxic waste, acid rain, uranium mining and drift net fishing, as well as the original issues. We had won over a majority of the public in the industrialized democracies. Presidents and prime ministers were talking about the environment on a daily basis.
For me it was time to make a change. I had been against at least three or four things every day of my life for 15 years; I decided Id like to be in favor of something for a change. I made the transition from the politics of confrontation to the politics of building consensus. After all, when a majority of people decide they agree with you, it is probably time to stop hitting them over the head with a stick and to sit down and talk to them about finding solutions to our environmental problems.
It is not always easy to balance environmental, social, and economic priorities. Compromise and cooperation with the involvement of government, industry, academia and the environmental movement are required to achieve sustainability. It is this effort to find consensus among competing interests that has occupied my time for the past 15 years.
Coming from British Columbia, born into a third-generation forest industry family, and educated in forestry and ecology, it made sense that I would focus on the challenge of defining sustainable forestry. After all, forests are by far the most important environment in British Columbia, and they are also by far the most important basis of economic wealth for families and communities.
Forests are home to the majority of living species not the oceans, nor the grasslands, nor the alpine areas, but ecosystems that are dominated by trees. There is a fairly simple reason for this. The living bodies of the trees themselves create a new environment that would not be there in their absence. Now the canopy above is home to millions of birds and insects where there was once only thin air. And beneath the canopy, in the interior of the forest, the environment is now protected from frost and sun and wind. This, in combination with the food provided by the leaves, fruits and even the wood of the trees, creates thousands of new habitats into which new species can evolve species that could never have existed if it were not for the presence of the living trees.
This gives rise to the obvious concern that if the trees are cut down, the habitats or homes will be lost, and the species that live in them will die. Indeed, in 1996 the World Wildlife Fund, at a news conference in Geneva, announced that 50,000 species are going extinct each year due to human activity. And the main cause of these 50,000 extinctions, they said, is commercial logging. The story was carried around the world by Associated Press and other media, and hundreds of millions of people came to believe that forestry is the main cause of species extinction. During the past three years I have asked the World Wildlife Fund on many occasions to please provide me with a list of some of the species that have supposedly become extinct due to logging. They have not offered up a single example as evidence. In fact, to the best of our scientific knowledge, no species has become extinct in North America due to forestry.
Its not as if humans have never caused the extinction of species; they have, and the list is quite long. There are three main ways by which humans cause species extinction. First, and perhaps most effective, is simply killing them all, with spears, clubs, and rifles. The passenger pigeon, the dodo bird, the Carolinian parakeet, and back in time the mammoths and mastodons, are all examples of species that were simply wiped out either for food or because they were pests.
Second is the vast clearance of native forests for agriculture. There may have been an orchid in that valley bottom that was found nowhere else. If all the forest is cleared away, burned, plowed, and planted with corn, the orchid may disappear forever.
The third and actually the major cause of species extinction by humans during the past 200 years has been the introduction of exotic predators and diseases. In particular, when Europeans colonized Australia, New Zealand, and the other Pacific Islands, including Hawaii, they brought with them rats, cats, foxes, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and cows, and all the other domestic animals and plants, including their diseases. This resulted in the extinction of hundreds of ground-dwelling marsupials and flightless birds as well as many other species.
We have long lists of species that have become extinct due to these three types of human activity, but we do not know of a single species that has become extinct due to forestry.
The spotted owl is one of the many species that was never threatened with extinction due to forestry. Yet in the early 1990s, 30,000 loggers were thrown out of work in the U.S. Pacific Northwest due to concern that logging in the National Forests would cause the owls extinction. Since that time, in just a few short years, it has been shown by actual field observations that there are more than twice as many spotted owls in the public forests of Washington state than were thought to be theoretically possible when those loggers lost their jobs. More importantly, it is now evident that spotted owls are capable of living and breeding in landscapes that are dominated by second-growth forests. Over 1,000 spotted owls have been documented on Simpson Timbers 500,000 acre second-growth redwood forests in northern California. And yet, in reporting on the settlement of the Headwaters redwood forests nearby, the New York Times described the spotted owl as a "nearly extinct species" despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of them thriving in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
We have all been taught since we were children that you should not judge a book by its cover; in other words, that beauty is only skin deep. Yet we are still easily tricked into thinking that if we like what we see with our eyes, it must be good, and if we dont like what we see with our eyes, it must be bad. We tend to link our visual impression of what is beautiful and what is ugly with our moral judgment of what is right and wrong. The Sierra Club says, "You dont need a professional forester to tell if a forest is mismanaged if a forest appears to be mismanaged, it is mismanaged." They want you to believe that the ugly appearance of a recently harvested forest is synonymous with permanent destruction of the environment. And yet, the unsightly sea of stumps is not nuclear waste or a toxic discharge; it is 100% organic and will soon grow back to a beautiful new forest again. All the same, the fact that recently harvested areas of forest appear ugly to our eyes makes for very effective images in the hands of anti-forestry activists.
The way we think the land should look often has more to do with personal and social values than anything to do with biodiversity or science. We tend to idealize nature, as if there is some perfect state that is exactly right for a given area of land. There are actually thousands of different combinations of species at all different stages of forest growth that are perfectly natural and sustainable in their own right. There is nothing better about old trees than there is about young trees. Perhaps the ideal state is to have forests of all ages, young, medium, and old in the landscape. This will provide the highest diversity of habitats and therefore the opportunity for the largest number of species to live in that landscape.
Deforestation is a difficult subject for
the forest industry because it certainly looks deforested when
all the trees are cut down in a given area. Unfortunately, this
is the publics understanding of this term. However, cutting
the trees down is not sufficient in itself to cause deforestation.
What really matters to whether the forest is removed permanently
or reforested with new trees. But the unsightly nature of a recently
harvested forest, even if it is going to grow back eventually,
can easily give the impression of environmental destruction and
Beauty Does Not Equal Biodiversity...
Which picture looks environmentally better to you? Most Americans would respond the photo of the lush green farm fields. The truth is the fields are a perfect picture of deforestation. The picture of the clearcut (above) is not an environmental disaster. Instead, it is reforestation. The trees will grow back, and the stgumps and debris will provide nutrients and shelter for many types of wildlife.
Prevent Forest Loss
On the other hand, a rural scene of farmlands and pasture looks pleasant to the eye and is neat and tidy compared to the jumble of woody debris in a clear-cut. Yet it is the farm and pasture land that truly represents deforestation. It was cleared of forest long ago and the forest has been permanently replaced by food crops and fodder. Deforestation is nearly always caused by friendly farmers growing our food, and by nice carpenters building our houses, towns, and cities. Deforestation is not an evil plot; it is something we do on purpose in order to feed and house the growing population of 6 billion humans.
There are three things we can do to prevent further loss of the worlds forests, and they have nothing to do with forestry. These three things are:
Population management. The more people there are in this world, the more mouths there are to feed and the more forest we must clear to feed them. This is a simple fact of arithmetic.
Intensive agricultural production. Over the last 50 years in North America, we have learned to grow five times as much food on the same area of land due to advances in genetics, technology, and pest control. If we had not made these advances we would either have to clear away five times as much forest, which is not available anyway, or, more likely, we simply could not grow as much food. Again, it is a matter of arithmetic. The more food we can grow on a given piece of land, the less forest will be lost to grow it.
Urban densification. There is actually only one significant cause of continuing forest loss in United States; 200 cities sprawling out over the landscape and permanently converting forest and farm to pavement. If we would design our cities for a higher density, more livable environment, we would not only save forests, we would also use less energy and materials.
New Pair of Eyes
We need to give the public a new pair of eyes with which to see the landscape, to get beyond the immediate visual impression and to understand a little more about science, ecology, and biodiversity. This is perhaps the single most important task for the forest industry. The lesson is not a difficult one, but it is not intuitively obvious to people. They simply tend to judge the health of the environment with the same eyes they use to judge the aesthetics of the land. If a person strongly believes that forestry is bad because it is ugly, no amount of technical and scientific information will cause them to change their mind. First they must understand that the look of the land is not sufficient, in itself, to make judgments about ecology.
All this controversy, political pressure, and near-hysterical rhetoric is over a few percent of biodiversity, with the camera lens focused squarely in on the most recent, ugliest, burnt-out clear-cut available, as if its going to remain that way forever. The real extreme is the parking lot and other areas of deforestation, not the recently cut forest that is soon going to grow back into a beautiful new forest again.
We have to help take the blinders off peoples eyes and to give them a better appreciation of the full range of impacts caused by our various activities. When it comes to biodiversity conservation, there is no more sustainable primary industry than forestry.
You would think that since forestry is the most sustainable of all the primary industries, and that wood is without a doubt the most renewable material used to build and maintain our civilization, that this would give wood a lot of green eco-points in the environmental movements ledger. Unfortunately, this doesnt seem to be the case. Greenpeace has gone before the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Forests, calling on countries to reduce the amount of wood they use and to adopt "environmentally appropriate substitutes" instead. No list of substitutes is provided. The Sierra Club is calling for "zero cut" and an end to all commercial forestry on federal public lands in United States. The Rainforest Action Network wants a 75% reduction in wood use in North America by the year 2015. I think it is fair to summarize this approach as "cut fewer trees, use less wood."
Less Wood Misguided
It is my firm belief, as a life-long environmentalist and ecologist, that this is an anti-environmental policy. Put aside, for a moment, the importance of forestry for our economy and communities. On purely environmental grounds the policy of "use less wood" is anti-environmental. In particular, it is logically inconsistent with, and diametrically opposed to, policies that would bring about positive results for both climate change and biodiversity conservation. I will explain my reasoning for this belief:
First, it is important to recognize that we do use a tremendous amount of wood. On a daily basis, on average, each of the 6 billion people on Earth uses 3.5 pounds or 1.6 kilos of wood for a total of 3.5 billion tons per year. So why dont we just cut that in half and save vast areas of forest from harvesting? In order to demonstrate the superficial nature of this apparent logic, it is necessary to look at what we are doing with all this wood.
It comes as a surprise to many people that over half the wood used every year is not for building things but for burning as energy. Fifty-five percent of all wood use is for energy, mainly for cooking and heating in the tropical developing countries, where 2.5 billion people depend on wood as their primary source of energy. They cannot afford substitutes because most of them make less than $1,000 per year. But even if they could afford substitute fuels, they would nearly always have to turn to coal, oil, or natural gas non-renewable fossil fuels. How are we going to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions from excessive use of fossil fuels under the Climate Change Convention if 2.5 billion people switch from a renewable wood energy to non-renewable fossil fuels? Even in cases where fuelwood supplies are not sustainable at present levels of consumption, the answer is not to use less wood and switch to non-renewables. The answer is to grow more trees.
Fifteen percent of the wood used in the world is for building things such as houses and furniture. Every available substitute is non-renewable and requires a great deal more energy consumption to produce. That is because wood is produced in a factory called the forest that is powered by renewable solar energy. Wood is essentially the material embodiment of solar energy. Non-renewable building materials, such as steel, cement and plastic, must be produced in real factories such as steel mills, cement works and oil refineries. This usually requires large inputs of fossil fuels, inevitably resulting in high carbon dioxide emissions. So, for 70% of the wood used each year for energy and building, switching to substitutes nearly always results in increased carbon dioxide emissions, contrary to climate change policy.
Thirty percent of the wood harvested is used to manufacture pulp and paper, mainly for printing, packaging, and sanitary purposes. Fully half of this wood is derived from the wastes of sawmills that produce the solid wood products for building. Most of the remaining supply is from tree plantations, many of which are established on land that was previously cleared for agriculture. So even if we did stop using wood to make pulp and paper, it would not have the effect of "saving" many forests.
Many of you have heard of the idea that we should stop using trees to make paper and use "alternative fibers" such as hemp, kenaf, and cotton. "Tree-free paper" made from "wood-free pulp" would supposedly be better for the environment than paper made from trees. I speak at schools and universities on a regular basis and have found that many young people believe that this is the right approach to improve the environment. I ask them, Where are you going to grow the hemp, on Mars? Do you have another continent somewhere that we dont know about? No. The fact is we would have to grow the hemp on this planet, in soil where you could otherwise be growing trees.
Use More Wood
It is therefore clear to me that the policy of "use less wood" is anti-environmental because it would result in increased carbon dioxide emissions and a reduction in forested land. I believe the correct policy is a positive rather a negative one. From an environmental perspective the correct policy is "grow more trees, and use more wood." This can be accomplished in a number of ways.
First, it is important to place some of the worlds forest into permanently protected parks and wilderness reserves where no industrial development occurs. The World Wildlife Fund recommends that 10% of the worlds forests should be set aside for this purpose. Perhaps it should even be 15%. But then the question becomes, how should we manage the remaining 85% to 95% of the forest? I believe we should manage it more intensively for higher timber production, keeping in mind the needs of other species in the landscape. By just managing our existing forests better, we could dramatically increase the worlds supply of wood. In addition, we should expand the geographic extent of our forests, largely by reforesting areas of land that were previously cleared for agriculture. In particular, huge areas of forest have been cleared for domestic animal production to supply us with meat. A modest reduction in meat consumption would open up large areas of land for reforestation. This would be good for our health as well as the health of the environment.
In the tropical developing countries there is a pressing need for sustainable fuelwood plantations as well as forest plantations to provide timber. We should direct more of our international aid programs towards this end. Relatively modest changes in fiscal and taxation policy could bring about a doubling of global wood supply within 40 years. All that is required is the political will to put these policies in place. But the general public and our political leaders have been confused by the misguided approach towards forestry taken by much of the environmental movement. So long as people think it is inherently wrong to cut down trees, we will continue to behave in a logically inconsistent and dysfunctional manner.
Produce More Wood
To conclude, let me take you back to the
rainforest of the West Coast of North America. About 300 feet
from my house in downtown Vancouver is Pacific Spirit Park, 2,000
acres of beautiful native forest, right in the heart of the city.
It is not a botanical garden where people come and prune the bushes
and plant tulip bulbs. It is the real thing, a wild West Coast
rainforest full of Douglas-fir, Western red cedar, hemlock, maple,
alder and cherry. But people who come by the hundreds each day
to walk on the many trails in Pacific Spirit Park would find it
hard to believe that all 2,000 acres were completely clear-cut
logged around the turn of the century to feed the sawmills that
helped build Vancouver.
Now and Then...
Pretty as a painting, the photo to the left shows the current state of Pacific Spirit in downtown Vancouver. A wild West Coast rainforest full of Douglas-fir, Western red cedar, hemlock, maple, alder and cherry. If you visited it today, you would think that it hs noit been logged for hundreds of years. It is hard to believe that all 2,000 acres were completely clear-cut logged around the turn of the century. The lesson of these two photos is that logging does not cause the long term devastation that many environmentalists contend.
I believe that if forests can recover by themselves from total and complete destruction, that, with our growing knowledge of forest science in silviculture, biodiversity conservation, soils, and genetics, we can ensure that the forests of this world continue to provide an abundant and hopefully growing supply of renewable wood to help build and maintain our civilization. At the same time we will be providing an abundant and hopefully growing supply of habitat for the thousands of other species that depend on the forest for their survival every day just as much as we do.
The fact is, a world without forests is as unthinkable as a day without wood. And its time that politicians, environmentalists, foresters, teachers, journalists, and the general public got that balance right. Because we must get it right if we are going to achieve sustainability in the 21st century.