Old-Growth Forests - the Last Stand

By Wood, Wilbur | The Nation, July 9, 1990 | Go to article overview

Old-Growth Forests - the Last Stand


Wood, Wilbur, The Nation


From the tropical rain forests of the Amazon to the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, from Borneo to the Tibetan Plateau, humanity's war against trees lurches into its final phase. In the United States the primary battle in this war is between those who would save the few remaining old-growth forests - mainly on public land - and those who would eliminate them.

Mostly I live On the edge of that war. But I do heat my house with wood, so come fall I am Prowling the hills for dead Pine, scouting the river valley for downed cottonwood. I pick up the trimmings from elm, green ash and silver Poplar trees in our town. I use ax, handsaw, chain saw to work up loads to haul home in my pickup. More scavenger than predator, still I am connected by this work to that basic industry called logging.

I walk Out of my valley town into the hills across the river and from a ridgetop I turn my gaze west, fifty, a hundred miles over the rumpled Yellow-brown Prairie Of central Montana to the first ranges of the Rocky mountains, white mantled along the horizon.

In these mountains are forests, but the Rockies are not blessed with the abundant rams and snows of mountains farther west, nearer the Pacific. Trees here do not grow as densely or as tall, or with such exuberant variety of species, as in the great rain forest that sweeps north out

into British Columbia and Alaska. Yet even here, as in that coastal forest, ancient trees fall steadily under blade and torch. Should we sacrifice even these slow-to-regenerate forests of the Northern Rockies for the sake of jobs? The timber industry says yes, but when you consider how automated logging and milling have become these days, the jobs argument breaks down. Giant timber companies like Champion and Plum Creek, Georgia Pacific and Weyerhaeuser, have moved well beyond ax and saw, well beyond horses pulling logs down a mountain. Now they have robotlike machines that grasp and slice off trees like stalks of corn, along with huge mechanical grapplers and loaders. Now, as wen as big tractors that knock down trees and tear up the ground, timber companies deploy gigantic "yarders," which squat on ridgetops and send tentacles of steel down forested slopes; these steel cables, pulled slowly over the land, drag down everything in their path.

Logging is still hard and dangerous work, but instead of hundreds of human beings working over one mountain slope - and at least potentially able to select which trees to cut and which to save - we have a few dozen people pushing buttons, hitching chains, marking butt ends to indicate whether the logs are from private or public land.

The more automated the logging, the fewer the jobs and the more devastated the land: denuded soils, streams silting up, trashed fisheries, piles of slash' (discarded limbs and branches, bushes and small trees) later to be torched, fewer living green things to take in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen, more and more ugliness.

Well-meaning attempts to wage peace, after this war, are Often inadequate (replanted seedlings struggle to take hold in eroding soils) or they are self-serving (monoculture 'tree CROPS' are generally favored, not a healthy variety of species), or they simply continue the war in another form (chemical herbicides keep weeds'- or other types of trees - from competing with desired species; chemical pesticides douse insect invaders, which nonetheless multiply with few birds, squirrels or other predators to keep them in balance; chemical residues find their way into the soil and water).

Who pays for all this? Earth pays, of course, which means we pay. And our grandchildren will pay, and their grandchildren. But in the immediate sense, at least in the vast public forests of the Rocky Mountains, the taxpayer tends to pay. Why? Because timber sales here almost always bring in less money than it costs the Forest Service to plot and administer the sales, to monitor wildlife and watersheds, and especially) to build logging roads.

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