God hates old growth

Published on 2024-02-16

This week, in my forests class, we started talking about what my professor calls disturbance ecology.

My "forests" class is in fact "forest ecology and management." The semester starts out with a discussion on forest ecology and ends on silvicultural systems and different strategies for managing forests to serve specific ends. I think my professor has handled the complicated subject of what the "purpose" of a forest ought to be well, with a continued insistence that Indigenous voices are deeply and dangerously undervalued in the forestry industry, and that while silviculture as a discipline is historically and currently a lot more concerned with things like maximizing forest "yield," forests do indeed serve other important social roles. But as it stands, I live in a resource extraction economy. Sustainability is a long term target. What we need today is yield.

It's strange to me. When I first started this class, I was extremely excited. Forest ecology is one of the main reasons I got into environmental science. I took my professor's every word as gospel. And yet, I knew this class wasn't just about forest ecology. One day, perhaps without any notice, it'd flip, and we'd start talking about forest management. I expected that's when the flame would die, and this class would be just another thing to be cynical about every week.

But that's not really what happened at all.

We started out with forest ecology, but forest management was always present. There, in the background, there was always this awareness of how the material would be applicable to designing efficient silvicultural systems. The move to forest management wasn't abrupt, but rather gradual. I feel like we were eased into it, until one day I show up to class and "forest ecology" and "forest management" feel like the same thing.

It's strange, because today I realized I've never felt more open to the idea of destroying an old growth forest. That worries me a lot.

Clear cutting is a really interesting subject. There's a number of reasons why the forestry industry wants to build clear cut systems. They're efficient, they're low maintenance, they offer safer working conditions... It is really the most capitalism friendly way to collect timber.

The reason why we don't want to do clear cutting as a society is generally because it feels bad. It's like... Clear cutting is to forestry what bloodletting children is to anti-aging. Maybe a weird idea to begin with but surely you can't come up with a way to do it that sounds more villainous. It's comically evil. It's top hat and monocle evil. There isn't a good, concrete definition of what it means to clear cut a forest, but it's characterized by removing trees in such a way that most of the space emptied is "uninfluenced" by the forest that remains. It is the destruction not only of the forest we see, but also its sphere of influence. It is the optimally abusive way to manage a forest.

Importantly, just because it's abusive doesn't necessarily mean that it's "bad" for the forest in a holistic sense. What it means for something to be "bad" for a forest is a much more abstract question.

Disturbances are normal and common in nature. The natural world is characteristically good at being resilient and absorbing the negative effects of these disturbances.

Famously, some of the trees in my bioregion are adapted to rely on heat in ways that queer the conventional understanding of forest fires as "bad for the environment." Douglas fir is known for its thick, fire-resistant bark. A forest fire in the Interior Douglas fir biogeoclimatic zone need not be a catastrophe, but rather an opportunity for growth, without needing to fight its understory for scarce resources. Lodgepole pine on the other hand have cones who only release seeds when subjected to high temperatures. For them, fire may be necessary for reproduction.

Many Indigenous communities have known this forever, of course. It's something Western foresters are only now starting to catch up on. It does kind of make me wonder if the romanticization of "old growth" isn't healthy. Much like the idea of climax communities in general, romantic old growth seems to insinuate that a forest ecosystem reaches perfection at a certain age, at which it stays for the rest of eternity, immortal. In a living system, there is no stasis--only dynamic equilibrium. If things look still that's because they're constantly changing, only in a way that reproduces the same conditions over time.

Academiology II: Residency

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Kimmerer talks about the role fire plays in Potawatomi tradition. She quotes her father, who says:

Fires help out a lot of plants and animals. We're told that's why the Creator gave people the fire stick--to bring good things to the land. A lot of the time you hear people say that the best thing people can do for nature is to stay away from it and let it be. There are places where that's absolutely true and our people respected that. But we were also given the responsibility to care for land. What people forget is that that means participating--that the natural world relies on us to do good things. (286)

The western consensus has seemed to be for quite a while that humans should stay away from nature for its own good (unless, of course, we're doing eco-tourism). If you squint your eyes you might notice that the forestry industry uses a similar line of reasoning to this human participation idea to justify why they should be allowed to clear cut.

There is an argument to be made that clear cutting mimics natural disturbances, like wildfires. Both kill a large and relatively uniform section of a forest, allowing new vegetation to grow in its place. If nature will throw a catastrophic fire at our cherished boreal forests once a century, why not cut it down first? Get some value out of it before it's gone? Why does nature get to have all the fun?

The problem is, of course, that clear cutting and wildfires are not actually the same thing. Anthropogenic disturbances may mimic natural disturbances sometimes, but they're generally very different in a few key ways. Ways that have a meaningful impact on what the newly barren land will become. Left alone, the problem changes from a moral dilemma to an engineering problem. How can we clear cut trees such that the outcome most closely resembles what we'd expect to follow a wildfire?

Somewhere along the line, it gets implicitly accepted that we should in fact be playing God.

There's a sense of reciprocity to the way Kimmerer describes Potawatomi people burning understory, like a painter with a flaming paintbrush. These fires serve a material purpose to their society, but they also provide a meaningful service to the forest. They foster growth. As I learn about silvicultural systems, I don't feel that same reciprocity. Silvicultural systems don't serve a spiritual purpose, I fear. Silvicultural systems exist to sell wooden planks to an international market. They serve us, and they would cease to exist if we decided tomorrow they were no longer needed.

But western forestry isn't wholly unspiritual, is it? People cut trees not because they have some innate desire to watch as they fall to the ground and die, or to create anything they will ever see themselves. They cut trees because it's the ritual we uphold. We do it for the promise of a mystical social security. We do it because forces greater than we can imagine demand it.

A cargo cult in the imperial core

If so, what do we worship? The economy? Human ingenuity? Industrial progress? No matter how I look at it, it feels narcissistic. It feels like we're worshipping ourselves.

We pay the price for repeatedly clear cutting forest ecosystems. They may regenerate with time, but nobody can tolerate that kind of abuse forever. Our precious "yield" will decline with time, as nature reveals itself to be as mortal as we are. After all, nothing lasts forever.

In this sense, I think the romantic ideal of old growth has some merit after all, because old growth may represent the idea of nature as a cooperation between all species acting interdependently, rather than one that controls and extracts for its own profit at the expense of all its neighbours. It's not immortal. One day, it might get struck by lightning in a bioclimatic act of violence and burn to the ground. It'll never be the same, but it will return in a new form. When a plot of land is rendered a silvicultural system, the trees cease to be old growth, and become commodities, engineered to meet our specific needs. It won't go back to being old growth either--not unless we come up with a new way to relate to the forests we rely on.

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