AMERICA is on an environmental kick and that's great. In response to this concern, many environmental associations are trying to find ways to better the environment. However, not all these groups are created equal. Forest preservation groups sell themselves as being environmental, and they claim to do what is best for the environment. And yet, according to Ron Arnold, author of natural-resource books such as ``Ecology Wars,'' ``there is no area where environmental groups misrepresent themselves more than when it comes to forest preservation.'' The main goal of special interest groups advocating forest preservation is to reduce or stop harvesting of trees and to designate large tracts of forest as wilderness or parks. They feel nature is its own best manager, and that humans shouldn't interfere. But is forest preservation good for the environment?
All forests have similarities, but there are dramatic differences between areas. In northern New England, trees die naturally at a relatively young age (50 to 150 years). However, when harvested, New England forests re-seed naturally, providing a renewable resource.
The White Mountain National Forest is a good example of a forest that has renewed itself. Most of the forest was cut and/or burned at the turn of the century, and while few trees were planted, today the forest's beauty and health place it among the top five most-used national forests in the country. Scenic driving is its most popular use.
Trees are beneficial to the environment for many reasons, but the primary reason is photosynthesis. In this process, trees consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. If trees are not harvested, as in wilderness areas or parks, they die from insects, fire, ice storms, or disease. When this happens, photosynthesis is reversed and the rotting or burning trees consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide.
In a forest fire, each burning tree releases, in a few minutes or hours, all the carbon dioxide it consumed in its lifetime - negating the benefits of photosynthesis. This contributes to the greenhouse effect, a major concern for our planet today. Over-mature forests have a low rate of photosynthesis and are more susceptible to stress and fire than younger forests. The devastating fire that consumed so much of Yellowstone Park two years ago is a good example of photosynthesis reversal and what can happen in an unmanaged forest.
Wise use of natural resources makes more sense economically and environmentally than no-use recommendations of preservation groups. When a tree is harvested and processed into fine furniture or a house, the carbon is stored, rather than emitted. Manufacturing residues are used to produce other useful products and for energy. We can burn wood efficiently so that it is not harmful to the environment; wood can replace nonrenewable, polluting fossil fuels. The ash from wood-burning is a natural fertilizer that can help young trees grow up to 15 percent faster, thereby improving the photosynthesis process.
Preservation groups claim their policies help wildlife. In reality, timber harvesting and wildlife management are more compatible. John Lanier, biologist with the US Forest Service, says, ``Ninety percent of our local wildlife species benefit sometime in their life from tree growth zero to 10 years old or young succession.''
Wildlife numbers are higher in a young growth forest than in mature forests because of plant life on the forest floor usable as food. Those species that prefer old growth usually live well in a maturing stand of a multiple-use forest. The best of all worlds is a mosaic of young and maturing growth alternating over periods of time.
Forest preservation groups place too much emphasis on single species they claim are rare or endangered. Protecting these species is important, but sometimes the special interest groups can't see the forest for the trees. The most important thing in the forest is the tree. Without it, there is no forest. Making sure the tree life is healthy is the best way to insure the many other parts of the forest will also remain healthy. Let's not discard several generations of scientific knowledge about the management of forests in the name of a single species.
Many people have strong negative feelings about the appearance of a recently harvested forest, despite the fact that it appears unnatural only temporarily. This concern for appearance shouldn't be sold as environmentalism but as the aesthetic advocacy that it is. While some of us who advocate wise use and management of forests at times disagree with those who advocate preservation, our position is pro-environment.
This country is fortunate to have officials calling for massive planting of trees to supplement planting done by the timber industry in areas that don't have natural regeneration. These trees will help the environment while the forests are young and healthy, but unless current forest preservation trends change, we will simply be storing our carbon dioxide and passing it on to future generations. On top of that, future generations will have less wildlife to enjoy.