When is a forest not a forest?
According to people who really understand the forest ecosystem, like sustainable-forestry pioneer Merv Wilkinson, a forest is more than trees and underbrush. It’s a complex web of interrelatedness. That web does not come into being in mono-culture tree farms, and new evidence indicates that it also is severely disturbed in areas adjacent to clearcuts.
Using data from Landsat satellite images, two US scientists found this year that while the total area of the Brazilian Amazon basin deforested by 1988 was smaller than previously thought, the area "severely affected with respect to biological diversity" totaled 588,000 square kilometers, more than twice earlier estimates. The culprit: "edge effects."
Edge effects in the area around a clearcut can reach up to a kilometer into the forest. In these zones there is a greater exposure to winds, the microclimate may be dramatically changed, livestock have easier access, and predator-prey relationships may be disrupted as some species move on to undisturbed ranges.
Since tropical rainforests are typically cut in a patchwork pattern (as are North American forests), there are many kilometers of edges affected this way.
Fortunately, for the past decades, a few foresters have been quietly perfecting a better way to log, and others are catching on. Sustainable, selective forestry may be the bridge between our ongoing need for forest products and the immediate necessity for a more responsible relationship with the woods. And it may even heal some wounds between the angry, polarized groups that have formed around the forest practices debate.
Merv Wilkinson has logged his 136-acre woodlot on Vancouver Island, British Columbia since 1945. During that time, the woodlot has remained a viable forest ecosystem. Merv says he can continue to log "indefinitely" because he allows the trees to grow faster than he removes them.
In Wildwood: A Forest for the Future Merv shares the lessons he has learned over the years: to leave the prize-specimen "grandparent trees" standing to reseed the forest; not to clear out "unwanted species" such as willows, which build soil by dropping their leaves; to make his few logging roads follow natural contours to minimize erosion; and to let most tree diseases run their course without intervention.
Merv has gained his knowledge working close to the Earth, in one small corner of Canada. But there’s similar work being done all over the planet.
The International Tropical Timber Organisation, a trade association of 47 producers and importers, has set a goal of making responsible, selective logging the norm in tropical forests by the year 2000.
In North America, sustainable forestry leader Orville Camp is training new foresters in environmentally sensitive techniques at his Ecoforestry Institute, based in Portland, Oregon.
Orville, who wrote the Forest Farmer’s Handbook nearly a decade ago, is worried about people who call themselves sustainable foresters, throw around a few catchwords, and then do a lot of damage with their chainsaws.
"The term is kind of meaningless unless you set some sort of standards," he says.
The need for standards is now widely recognized. The Rogue Institute for Ecology and Economy, the Rainforest Alliance, and Scientific Certification Systems are all working on a process to certify lumber that comes from forests that are managed sustainably.
No one knows yet which certification system or combination of systems will become industry standard, and there is considerable controversy surrounding the matter. In the meantime, architects and builders are increasingly interested in using certified lumber.
The Institute for Sustainable Forestry is also developing a certification process. Peggy Iris and her late husband Jan founded the institute to teach sustainable forestry techniques and help woodlot managers develop sustainable forestry plans.
A long-time homesteader and alternative school teacher, Jan Iris wanted to create a job base in Humboldt County so his students could live and work in the area. He had already been thinning out trees on the property he shared to control the fire risk and decided to build on that experience.
"Holistic forestry," Peggy says, is "all-age, all-species management, very gentle forestry, not ever letting any heavy equipment leave the roadways.
"It takes longer," she says, explaining that trees are selected and cut carefully. It’s a big contrast to the forestry practiced by most timber corporations, which prefer to plant same-age stands of a single species for quick, efficient harvesting.
Since Jan’s motivation was economic development, he had to make up for the higher cost of selective forestry. So Wild Iris started adding value to the wood instead of selling the logs green; it now produces cured and dried hardwood lumber and flooring, and is planning to expand.
"With the timber industry collapsing as it is under the restrictions and the depletion of the resource base, it’s becoming really clear that this is the way to go," says Peggy. "Sustainable forestry is definitely taking off."
Thinking Like A Forest: A Case for Sustainable, Selective Forestry, a 35-minute video featuring Merv Wilkinson, is available in a kit including Wildwood: A Forest for the Future and a guide to the video for $50 from All About Us Videos, R.R. #3, Yellow Point Road, Ladysmith, BC, VOR 2EO, Canada.
The Forest Farmer’s Handbook, now in its fourth printing, is available from Orville Camp, 2100 Thompson Creek Road, Selma, OR, 97538.
The Institute for Sustainable Forestry can be reached at PO Box 1580, Redway, CA 95560 tel: 707/923-4719.