Another View: Wood for the World

In 1984, my family and I had the opportunity to spend three days at the International Forest Congress in Quebec City where conditions of the world's forest were being discussed.

The Malaysian Forest Minister explained that his country's wood supply will have dwindled by the end of this century. He was followed by an administrator from Finland who detailed government's prominent role in his country's struggle to produce sustainable yields. The Soviets, Peruvians and Indians spoke with variations on the same theme of scarcity.

Then came the pivotal point. A speaker declared that there were only four places left on the earth where more wood was growing than was being cut: the northern tier of the Soviet Union, where access is limited; New Zealand and portions of Australia, mostly in young plantations; the Amazon Basin, despite heavy cutting; and the eastern seaboard of the United States, with an abundance of wood, an active economy and an excellent road system.

These four areas, he warned, had better be prepared to provide wood for the entire world.

For days after the convention I was stunned. I was still marking trees, finding boundaries, talking to landowners and loggers, but I was stunned! The reference points for my forestry work had changed dramatically - instead of the context of the woods and folks of a few Vermont counties, it had expanded to the whole world and all of its people.

In mid-nineteenth century America, the Industrial Revolution required more and more raw material and timber famines were predicted. Eventually, European forestry was imported to the U.S. to try to manage forests systematically in the perceived shadow of potential doom. Although estates and government lands began to practice these forestry principles fairly quickly, most forest land was still not managed. Stumbling blocks then were similar to those today, including the concern for individual landowners' rights and the uneconomical and long term aspects of an investment in forest land.

Plainly and simply, the need for forest management is a function of scarcity. When there were fewer than 10,000 Western Abenaki in what is now Vermont, the idea of forestry was totally unnecessary.

Today, with a half million people in Vermont, the practice of foresters deciding which trees will be harvested and which will be retained has been conceptualized, refined and encouraged – but not required.

Our perception of scarcity is buffered by the shifting nature of markets inside the United States; we use sugar maple heavily for a few years and then markets shift to another species and maple gets a rest. But now with an ever needy world population demanding our wood and paying high prices and with the eastern seaboard accessible to all, the only appropriate response to the challenge of sustaining the resource is the practice of excellent forestry, which melds intensive silviculture and management by wildlife habitat units, while maintaining the natural system and an aesthetically pleasing forest.

We were saved from potential scarcity before, not by forestry but by cheap gas, oil, electricity and coal. The eastern forests have rebounded and reclaimed land since the turn of the century. This resilience saved the forests from scarcity and curtailed the need for management.

We are back in the shadows of potential scarcity again, and with this historical perspective in mind, may I move the questions of this writing? How will the forests be sustained and who is in charge? Does practicing excellent silviculture alone assure a sustainable flow of necessary wood from all those lands dedicated to wood production? How are we going to quit thinking of the woods as a bank of raw materials and instead see humans and all life as inseparable parts of ecosystems, and then build models of sustainability on this shifted thinking? Would the people building the models of this sustainability please stand up?

Less than a decade ago we could back into the secure truth that we were cutting only 60 to 70 percent of the annual growth in Vermont and that the sawlog volumes had doubled in less than three decades. Again, forestry was not necessary, but a good idea; we just needed to cut more culls and regenerate in a gentle fashion. However, state foresters acknowledge that spruce and balsam fir cutting in the Northeast Kingdom runs at or above its growth rate, and that across the state, white pine is close behind.

When we collectively recognize the potential to overcut the Vermont forest, we must have the means of practicing sustainable forestry with excellent silviculture. I hope that this will not duplicate the mandate structure of Finland nor the desperate "wish we had known' of Malaysia, but be based on the cooperative effort that Brendan Whittaker called for in the last issue of Vermont Woodlands.

Please join me in being stunned, in refining these questions and in facing the future together. Now I must go to the woods to work... a difficult piece of silviculture to mark, individual tree selection with patch cuts in adjacent aspen for ruffed grouse habitat.

Ross Morgan is a consulting forester and adjunct faculty member at Sterling College who lives in Craftsbury Common.


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