Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Bike Ride through the Myth of Sustainable Forestry in the PNW

By Bob Ferris

An iris near Albee Creek.
I remember a lecture by the late Raymond Dasmann at UCSC in the early 1980s where he described the phenomenon of humans switching from living within their ecosystems to depending upon resources from beyond the borders of their personal ranges.  In this Ray wanted us to understand how this fact influenced carrying capacity and also the dynamic between developed countries and those still living within or below the constraints of their own resources.  It was a lesson in sustainability and provided cautionary notes about the ramifications of continued growth and the folly of drawing on Earth’s “capital” rather than looking to live on our local or even our planetary “salary.”

Given our current set of circumstances I think about this lecture and topic often.  And one activity that has gained a lot of my attention in this regard is forestry.  I have on occasion quipped that burning wood is not a sustainable activity because I have yet to see a tree that grows as fast as it burns.  The same concept is true for wood and buildings as remodels, rot and redevelopment seem to use lumber at a much faster rate than it grows as well.  Harvesting a two hundred year-old redwood tree and then turning it into fences, shakes or decking that last for less than 30 illustrates this latter point.

Sustainability is often viewed as a three-legged stool supported equally by economics, environmental considerations and social equity or justice
I have raised these points in discussions about so-called “sustainable forestry” because my sense is that no action that uses materials faster than they are produced can truly be considered sustainable.  Moreover, when looking at the three-legged stool model of sustainability which includes consideration of economic, environmental and social factors in the calculus some of these other elements seem to fall short on these measures as well.

Many of these issues floated through my mind as Carlene and I visited the Albee Creek Campground near Weott in Northern California.  We hit the campground right before the Memorial Day rush this May and were told that it is usually pretty full for most of the summer months and that we lucked out finding a spot.  We had a great time there amongst the towering redwoods and rushing waters.

On our second day we hopped on our bikes and rode out to the Bull Creek Pioneer Memorial Cemetery which was a nice, easy pedal until the last stretch between the horse camp and the last resting place for a few dozen locals near the top of the grade.  (My hope about halfway up the last steep hill was that I would be just visiting rather than staying.)

The graveyard is quaint and populated with the few lucky enough to have lived in this area before it became a park.  The burial ground borders on being a folk art installation with many of the graves decorated with concrete deer, “gone fishing” signs and whirligigs.  In a word it is authentic.

The site also has an interpretive sign that tells the story of what killed the community.  For within this display is a paragraph that goes like this:
Redwood products fueled the local economy for nearly 100 years.  Early operators hand cut grapestakes (lower left) and other “Split stuff.”  The Bee Mill of the 1940’s (lower right) cleared the surrounding mountainsides of trees in less than 10 years.
The transition from the more ecosystem-based and sustainable economy to something more global clearly has some winners and losers in this case.  But I suspect this gloomy community eulogy does not appear too often in promotional materials issued by mill operators.  I would guess that externalized costs like roads, below cost timber sales, and the like would also be missing from these materials.  Certainly there have been big winners in these operations but taken in sum the economic leg of this stool seems equal parts hologram and substance.

After riding the three or so miles back to Albee Creek we continued our ride to enjoy the quiet and serenity of the groves that were saved in this public forest.  Monstrous trees abound as well as fallen giants and fields of rusty duff seasoned with undergrowth.  Walking in old growth drives home the point that trees harvested on 80 or even 100 year rotations can never provide this type of structure or habitat value.

Towards the end of our outward leg as we pedaled past Calf Creek and then Cow Creek we came to the Bull Creek Flats grove and walked that circle trail until an unmarked a path to the right called to me.  Dodging poison oak on both sides we emerged on a sand and cobble beach at the confluence of Bull Creek and the South Fork of the Eel River (above).  The Eel River brings me to the topic of fish and forestry as I caught my first trout on the Eel more than 50 years ago.

So how can an industry that degrades the performance of a more sustainable system such as an anadromous fishery or a carbon storage mechanism consider itself sustainable?  In looking at the Pacific Northwest (PNW) there is no doubt that forestry practices have significantly impacted salmon and steelhead populations (1,2,3).  The same is true for timber impacts on spotted owls and marbled murrelets.  And as coastal forests in the PNW represent huge carbon sinks which are more efficient at sequestering carbon when they are on the mature side, it is hard to see where timber harvesting in this Cascadian bio-region qualifies as anything approaching environmentally benign.  Thus the environmental leg of this sustainability stool is being chewed through by the pesky beaver of reality.

Additionally how can an industry be considered sustainable if it makes people ill or shortens their lives?  Many forestry operations across the PNW use chemical cocktails that are increasingly suspected of causing illnesses in rural populations (1,2) as well as impacting wildlife populations (1,2).  These molecular soups—often including the recently-reclassified Monsanto product RoundUp—are poorly tested individually and absolutely not tested in combinations.  So combined with the blowing up of local economies this health impact seems to make the social leg of this sustainability stool a little shaky.

So when looked at in total (economically, environmentally and socially) it is really hard to think of this industry as sustainable in any real or material sense.  The labeling works as a campaign device for continuance and a rationalization for more clearcuts and roads, but at some point you really have to jump to the conclusion that those promoting the use of the word in this context do not understand its meaning or intent.  It is truly an “Inigo Montoya” moment.

So now as we look at forest plan modifications (1,2), proposals for increased logging, continued herbicide use and road building we need to remember the lessons taught us by these big trees, the missing fish and this lost community.  In all of this we need to realistically look at the timber industry for what it is not what the industry tells us it is or what it once was.  Maybe it is time to take a more visionary turn towards maximizing carbon storage and focusing on restoring and protecting a resource that renews itself in a handful of years (i.e., salmon) versus a declining industry that takes nearly a century to transition from seed to sawmill?   Just a thought.

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