Sustainable Timber?

Looking at the greater forestscape around EEC Forest Stewardship helps put our little patch of reforestation and agricultural restoration in context. I often talk about looking at the big picture, and it’s important for land stewards to take this time, as they are usually involved with micromanagement of specific ecosystems. Understanding the management of larger habitats can inform restoration plans. A large forest of 100,000 acres lies just a few miles east of EEC. It’s a timber farm, and has been for over a hundred years. Most of the land in and around Western Washington was logged for commercial use as soon as European settlers could get their axes in.

If you look at most of Europe, the forests are gone. The British Isles is an extreme but very real example of this, having once been covered in thick oak groves, the entire landscape is now barren of any oak, and often dominated by heather and scrub brush. The habitat is minimal, hosting little diversity and very few of the original species which once thrived there. Human development and predation of habitat is inevitable, but our understanding of that impact is well documented today, and we know better. But still, timber is considered a renewable resource, and logging companies are very good at reminding us of our consumer love of paper products. It’s the green choice in environmental consciousness.

What’s wrong with this perception? Well, as I look around at the clear-cuts, I see strong evidence of past logging in the stumps which lay scattered about the landscape. Many of the old growth stumps are gone, having been ripped out by logging equipment to clear the landscape for easier replanting. But many remain, their huge bulky bones testify to the giants which once thrived here. No logging company has ever produced a tree that big from a planting. The second cuts witnessed in the stump diaries were 2-3 foot diameter trees, as apposed to the 5-7 foot monsters of old. The second cut was 50-70 years after the initial slaughter. Now a new trend is forming, and the timber industry has pivoted to survive. Since there is no more old growth, wood materials have shrunk in size in production lines too, making use of wood pulp and fractured chips to laminate whatever shape is needed. This makes any sized tree a viable product, and we’ve gone from valuing board feet to taking whatever available wood we can to pump out cheaper imitations.

Now forests are managed for pulp material, meaning age is irrelevant to profit. Third cuttings of 70 year old stands, what’s left of the old management style for size, are quickly disappearing. From far away in Seattle, or even Bellevue, the site of a bare mountain on the edge of The Cascades can be disturbing, but once a green sheet of young growth replaces a clear cut, people think things are “renewed”, and the forestry industry is planting new trees, more than there were originally, but those statistics are misleading. More trees does not mean more land with forests. The same 100,000 acres are replanted, but more trees can be planted, because young trees are small. Old growth forests have huge single trees climaxing in a system of many younger under-story trees which will one day replace the older ones. In a timber driven industry, many young trees fill the space and produce enough in a short time. There is no reason to let a forest mature, and impossible to wait for.

Any older trees in a logging operation are left because they are on too steep a slope to harvest safely, or are spared because of stream buffer regulations- and not all streams are recognized and protected. The ease of harvesting a swath across the mountainside would be greatly hindered by wetland and stream designation. When you walk through any clear cut, you will find running water under the scattered branches and stumps. These are often considered seasonal flows, and not recognized as sensitive areas. This is one way commercial timber operations maintain commercially viable harvests. It is good to see branches no spread about on the exposed soil. Until the early 1990s, slash piles were burned, removing what little organic matter was left and reducing it to ash. The slash is now left as a mulch on the ground, and can easily be planted into with young seedlings.

Commercial timber operations are mono-crops- with Douglas fir being the most profitable mass produced wood products. The green forest re-plantings are sterile environments, providing little habitat diversity for wildlife. Native plants diapear from the environment, and fern stands dominate what little under-story manages to take hold.

The stand shown above has been thinned, but the trees are still straggly, and the branches put knots in the trunk. But for pulp or chipped products, these blemishes are unimportant. Logging is about quantity, not quality; but what about all the jobs? Often, the argument of employment and way of life are used to justify ecological destruction and commercialization. Mill shut down because ecologists put detrimental restrictions on harvesting. This is far from the truth. Older mills were designed to process large old trees. There are none left now, so those mills became outdated and too expensive to run. Because the demand for raw materials has risen, and there is a huge market in Asia, it’s cheaper to ship the logs abroad to mills in other countries. Labor costs are cheaper over seas too. And the loggers? What about them? They have families to feed too right? Well yes, but the timber industry is not hiring loggers, unless they can drive the large equipment now used.

People like to romanticize the “good old days” of life as a lumber jack. Scenes of men slinging axes and saws together in a good days work make many feel nostalgic, connected to wilderness, and the taming of the wild as progress. But logging today is a mere shadow of these “golden times” of past. Only a few jobs are filled in a commercial timber operation today. Not many loggers actually cut trees by hand, and very few use axes with any skill. You’re more likely to see good axe handling at a highland games gathering. And the scale of harvesting has grown to an unimaginable capacity. Trees are stripped from the land by the thousands, in hours. The video below shows the efficiency of modern deforestation, and it’s only getting faster.

Note the size of the trees now being harvested- size is not important, and younger trees take less time to grow out. Renewable merely means continued abuse of stressed finite resources. When you remove the majority of biomass produced on the landscape, you take away the fertility and strip the land of its viability. The timber industry’s solution? Loop loop! Please read this explanation from our county on how to deal with poor forest soils and our overflowing sewage problem in King County. What’s the bad news? Well, sewage treatment does not take out heavy metals or prescription drugs still in the waste being poured out in the forests. To give perspective- Puget Sound muscles tested positive for meth-amphetamines draining into the ocean from waste water runoff and treated sewage output systems. You can imagine what is seeping into the soils of our forests. By the time we discover the impact of this careless cycle, the soil will be fully contaminated with no easy restoration answer. The foothill forests where the loop system is being processed drain into our aquifers, streams, and become woven into our ecology.

Next door to the 100,000 acre timber management is some state wilderness. Luckily, no logging goes on there- too steep and remote, for now. Sate forests are logged, and wilderness lands are under threat. Current political climates are inclined to open up our public lands to resource extraction. The commercial consumer markets demand the rollback of conservation protections, for the sake of progress. What we’re ultimately moving towards with this mindset, is the progressive slow death of our environment, and therefore, ourselves. Perhaps by looking at the limitations of the natural world, we can acknowledge our impact and plan within nature’s constraints, instead of our short term profit margins and convenience.

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