To save a forest, chop here

How many trees would you be willing to cut down to save a forest? For a moment let's leave the discussion of old growth behind and talk about the rest of the nation's forest land.

The majority of forest land in the United States - both private and public - has been logged at least once if not twice. Most has been replanted tree-farm style with a single commercial species. It's a forest, but even if you let it grow 100 years, it won't provide the same habitat as old growth.

It's just an older tree farm, and out here we have a lot of them. Some of it is state and federal forest lands, a lot of it is private.

Yet, public or private, the people who live in the forest have a stake in how it is managed, and so do the people who live in the city. The forest provides the air that we breathe, it cleans our water, sucks carbon dioxide out of the air, and can provide jobs for our communities as well as habitat for many species of wildlife and fish.

So what should be our goal - as a nation, and as a community - for those forests?

One idea is to set up nonprofit organizations to get loans from investors to buy private land that's been cut to save it from development, then to use environmentally sensitive, selective forestry to generate enough money to pay back the loans. This, of course, is going to involve killing a few trees, but it would end up protecting a much greater area of forest from development, and thus permanent habitat destruction.

This is an idea being put forward in the Seattle area, where a million acres of foothills forest is threatened with being paved and plated and urbanized with sprawl.

Paving-in King County these days pays more in the short term than planting trees. In fact, a major forest company in the state, Weyerhauser, has seen the future and has created real estate and development subsidiaries to turn logged forests into subdivisions.

"Environmentalists have come to believe that it's better to have active forestry than shopping malls everywhere," Nancy Keith, executive director of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, recently told Seattle Weekly.

Even taken at its industrial worst, logging is better for habitat, air, and water quality than sprawl. And forestry can be conducted in ways that are much more sensitive to the ecological functions of the forest.

In fact, computer models suggest that forestry can be conducted in a way that returns the old-growth habitat functions more quickly than if the monoculture of a tree farm is simply left alone, according to research conducted by Andrew Carey and others at the Pacific Northwest Research Station's Olympia Forestry Sciences Laboratory. In doing the thinning and habitat-creating, a steady income can be derived from a variety of forest products.

People are willing to pay more for wood when they know it is harvested sustainably. Obtaining independent certification that the forest practices are "sustainable" would allow more to be charged for each board foot of wood. Currently the market for this certified sustainably harvested wood exceeds the supply. Investors would know up front that the priorities for forest preservation would come before profits.

Another option is to buy just the rights to develop the land, allowing the landowner to keep the property in the family. This arrangement would work better with smaller landowners. Nonprofit organizations could then set up agreements with landowners to manage land sustainably.

Community groups or land trusts could also buy up development rights from small woodlot owners, and gain agreements to manage privately owned land as a larger, more-viable community forest. Instead of shipping raw logs out of the community, the wood could be milled locally to provide jobs. Local co-ops could find markets to promote wood products.

Outside Seattle, the community forest idea is being tried in various forms from British Columbia down to northern California. Some private companies are already putting sustainable harvest methods into practice. Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations like the Pacific Forest Trust have developed a number of tools to help acquire, conserve, and sustainably manage forest lands.

At first, all this seems counterintuitive - cutting trees to save a forest. Yet from a long-term view, you realize that "saving" the planet is not really what we have to figure out how to do. Instead, we need to learn to integrate our human economy - its measures, capital, and values - with the economy of the natural world - otherwise known as an ecosystem.

To accomplish this, our local economic values need to change considerably, but some smart folks are already figuring this stuff out.

For the past 200 years or so, we've had a bipolar view of natural resources. The natural world was either something to be exploited without restraint, or protected without exception - mow it down or lock it up. Usually the first view reigns until only a few areas of clean water, or forest or meadow are left, then the second preservationist view storms in to rescue what's left from the evils of humans.

Don't get me wrong: Preservation of remaining wilderness areas should be a priority. In that sense, we're operating at a sort of triage level of action, working to save what little still remains to be screwed up. Want to end the road-building subsidy? Fine with me. Lock up the remaining old growth on federal lands? Sounds good.

However, such preservation is a short-term fix in the life of the planet.

And there is nothing more dangerous for the environment than short-term thinking.

In the end, there is no such thing as a community or economy that exists separate from the natural world: We simply fail to realize the connections between a healthy community and a healthy environment.

So if we really want to save the planet, we better stop thinking about "nature" and the "environment" as just the green and blue bits between the pavement.

If we fail to develop sustainable ways to use natural resources, we fail to protect the planet long term. It's as simple as that.

So would you be willing to cut down a few trees to save a forest?

*Ed Hunt is a natural-resources writer and editor of the news service.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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