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We hear praise for sustainable forestry from the timber industry, politicians, and even among many environmental groups. While sustainability is an admirable goal, most of what I have seen touted as sustainable practices are far from ecologically sustainable, especially when compared to wild landscapes. In nearly all instances that I have observed, the so called “sustainable” logging, grazing, farming-- fill in the blank-- is only sustainable by externalizing most of the real costs (ecological impacts) of production. That doesn’t prevent people from trying to claim that they have achieved the Holy Grail and found a way to exploit nature and protect it too. Everyone wants to think they can take from nature and somehow not have to pay the full cost. It’s the free lunch syndrome.

Is Sustainable Forestry Sustainable?

We hear praise for sustainable forestry from the timber industry, politicians, and even among many environmental groups. While sustainability is an admirable goal, most of what I have seen touted as sustainable practices are far from ecologically sustainable, especially when compared to wild landscapes. In nearly all instances that I have observed, the so called “sustainable” logging, grazing, farming– fill in the blank– is only sustainable by externalizing most of the real costs (ecological impacts) of production. That doesn’t prevent people from trying to claim that they have achieved the Holy Grail and found a way to exploit nature and protect it too. Everyone wants to think they can take from nature and somehow not have to pay the full cost. It’s the free lunch syndrome.

Sustainable forestry as practiced today is usually more of an economic definition than an ecological one. By sustainable, timber companies and their supporters in the “sustainable forestry” movement engage in practices that ensure a continual long term timber supply, not a sustainable forest.

A couple of weeks ago I toured a highly ballyhooed sustainable forestry site in California. The company whose property we viewed was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as a sustainable forestry wood producer. Certification by FSC permits a company to sell its wood for a premium and supposedly gives consumers reassurance that the wood they are buying is environmentally benign or may even enhance ecosystem function.

The company land was, by the standards of the industry, well managed. They did no clearcutting. They left buffers along streams. They didn’t cut any remaining patches of old growth. In short, they were a model timber operation. Their land still had trees, but did it still have a forest? For many the mere presence of trees is taken as proof that logging on the site was sustainable. But a continuous supply of trees for the mill doesn’t necessarily mean you are preserving or sustaining a forest ecosystem.

The company owners and foresters who led the tour were proud of their efforts. I don’t want to denigrate their practices, which, on the whole, were much better than those followed by other timber companies. But that doesn’t mean their logging practices were perpetuating a forest ecosystem. For instance, the company owner showed the tour group growth rings of a tree that grew on the site before his company began to manage the area. Because of the competition with other trees, the tree had grown slowly and the rings were close and tight. Then he showed us a segment of a tree that had grown up after they had selectively cut some trees. The growth rings were wide and spaced far apart, demonstrating–in his mind–how thinning “improved” the forest. Now he was growing “more” wood on the land than when it was a “wild” forest. But my first thought when I saw the two tree segments was “what good are trees that grow under slow conditions”? Do trees with tight growth rings resist rot longer? If so would they remain as a biological legacy on the site far longer than a tree grown under “sustainable forestry practices?” While a fast growing tree may be good from the lumber company’s perspective, a fast growing tree is not necessarily good from a forest ecosystem perspective.

Company representatives believed they were “tidying up” the forest—much as a gardener weeds a flower bed—by selectively weeding out the “bad” or “damaged” trees, and leaving the fast growing “healthy” trees. This practice may seem like good forestry—especially from the prospective of creating more timber to cut–but it may not be what is needed in the long run to preserve forest genetic diversity. No one, including myself, has any idea what genetic properties are valuable to the forest ecosystem. Fast growth or any other trait we may select to preserve in the trees is not necessarily what is needed to preserve the forest ecosystem. It may be the trees we cull—the deformed trees, the slower growing trees, or trees that have other “defects”–that may hold the secret to the future. They may be the very trees, for instance, that might be best adapted to survive a warming climate. Who knows—but certainly not the forester marking such trees for removal believing he is “improving” the forest.

The company’s forest management plan called for the eventual cutting of all trees on its land—just not all trees at the same time as in a clearcut. You might call this a “rolling clearcut”. Because of this practice, no trees will ever again attain old growth dimensions or status before it is cut and hauled off to the mill. So how does this affect forest ecosystem sustainability? After the tour, I visited a nearby state park that had wild (unmanaged) forests. Though the differences might not be apparent to the causal visitor, I saw substantial physical differences between the managed company lands and the wild forest.

First, the wild forest had a much higher percentage of big, old trees. Furthermore, these disparities will grow ever greater the longer the company lands are managed for “sustainable” timber production. While on the wild forest, the percentage of old growth will vary over time depending on things like wildfire or insect attacks, but no matter what disturbs the forest—the wild forest will at least have the potential to grow significant amounts of old growth.

Given what we know about the value of older, bigger trees, this can’t help but affect the forest ecosystem. For example, big trees take longer to rot. They remain longer on the ground, in streams, and provide structural diversity to the forest floor and stream channels. One of the noticeable things about the managed forest we visited was the absence of big woody debris (logs) on the forest floor compared to the nearby wild forest. And though the company foresters had a prescription that left a few snags per acre, the number of large snags on their managed lands was considerably less than what I observed in the wild forest.

Another contrast between the so called “sustainable” forestry site and the wild forest were differences in the amount of wood in the streams. In the wild forest there was an abundance of logs that had fallen into the creek. These logs help to create fish habitat, and armor the banks against erosion. On the managed landscape, there were far fewer logs in the streambed, despite the fact that the company did maintain some narrow buffers of unlogged land along all creeks.

In addition to these physical differences, there were other potentially important ecological losses. Among other things, the timber company did not permit wildfires to burn through its “sustainable” forest tracts. Yet in this particular part of California, wildfire was an important ecological factor that on occasion would normally burn at least some of the forest stands. Typically such fires would create a mosaic of burned and unburned forests, release nutrients, kill smaller trees, create some snags of the larger trees as legacy logs, and cleanse the forest. In the managed forest, the company was doing everything it could to keep fire from burning up its profits. Without fire, it is doubtful this forest stand was really emulating a sustainable ecosystem.

In the “sustainable” forest, the company representatives admitted that the disturbed habitat created by logging roads and skid trails facilitated invasion by exotic weeds—but they handled it by spraying herbicides along roadways. In the nearby wild forest there were no roads and even few trails. Weeds were far less of a problem as a consequence. Soil erosion, particularly that from logging roads, was also an issue and one that never disappeared because once they constructed their main roads for timber management access, they did not remove them. Thus they remained as a long term source of sedimentation.

Do all these differences compromise ecological sustainability? I don’t know. But I am willing to assert it is premature to claim that such forestry practices are sustainable. While they may be an improvement over the kind of butchery that occurred in the past–and is still the dominant paradigm on many timber lands including public forests–I question whether such techniques are sustainable from a forest ecosystem perspective. And in the long run that is the only perspective that really counts. My guess is that far too many ecological costs are externalized and uncounted and the only thing we are sustaining are company profits.

About George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner has published 36 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy

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  1. I'm Just a Moron I Guess

    Dear Dr. Wuerther,

    Can you explain the differences between a forest and a tree farm, or are there none? How about between a prairie and a wheat field? A corn field and a wetland?

    Or do you maintain that these pairs are the same things?

    Do you think we should ban all logging, grazing, farming– fill in the blank? What would you eat? What kind of a hut would you live in?

    Are profits evil? Why? What economic system do you advocate?

    Thank you for answering these questions.

  2. Also, what is your definition of the word “wild”, You sure used it a lot. It must mean something.

  3. Greenpeace founderPatric Moore has an interesting take on this subject here

    Daryl L. Hunter

  4. Dear Matt:

    Good questions. Let me answer a few of them. Profits are not evil. I just want a full accounting. What we have too often in natural resource extraction is an externalization of costs so that others whether taxpayers, other people, future generations,and/ or the land winds up “paying” for the profits that go to a few while the costs are spread over others who gain no profit. Furthermore, the consumers who are using those products are not making choices based on good information, especially if they think they are buying a “green” product that in fact is not that green.

    Let me give you an example. I use electricity like most of us. But many of the costs of that production are externalized. Say the electricity I use is coming from a coal fired plant. If the plant puts air pollution that causes acid rain, and so forth, than I am not paying the full cost of my electricity production. In many cases we have the capability to remove most, if not all of these pollutions, but it costs more to do so, and those using that power are not really paying the real cost of that electricity. Worse acid rain is affecting others that do not benefit from that electricity, such a policy is obviously unfair. If we internalized all those costs, solar electricity or perhaps conservation measures like insulation of all homes, etc. might be cheaper and a smarter choice than to continue to use “cheap” coal-fir electrical energy.

    Internalizing costs will also alter consumer use. If forestry were truly sustainable, it’s likely that the cost of wood will rise. This will have two effects. People might choose to use less wood and substitute other materials in construction, use less paper products, or whatever the wood is being used to produce. We might have smaller homes, but not necessarily less functional or beautiful.

    For instance, when I was in Europe a number of years ago, I noticed that few new homes were framed with wood as in America. Instead, they used a lot of stone, brick, cement, even packed earth, and other materials for the basic walls, and so forth. As one German friend noted to me, “we Germans like wood–we just think it’s too valuable to waste inside a wall. So we use it to make window frames, doors, and floors.” German homes are beautiful. Of course, even these other materials have costs–so the only way to know which is the “best” to use is to do a full accounting and internalize as many costs as possible.

    The problem with many claims of sustainability is that they are not really sustainable. They are robbing the soil, ecosystem function, current and future generations. These practices may be better than those used in the past, but they are also more insidious in that one may not be aware of how they are depleting the land just as surely as past practices–just at a slower rate. It is not unlike starving a person by eliminating all food or starving them slowly with meager amounts of food–in the end the person is dead. That’s the problem I see with most “sustainable” claims.

    In other words, these sustainability efforts are on the right path–but they are not there yet.

  5. Daryl:

    I think this commentary by Patric Moore suffers from the same problem lack of insight as I encountered on my recent field trip with the timber company in California. Because there are trees growing back on the site, the author believes there is a functional forest ecosystem. I visited that park years ago, and it’s a beauty, especially because it is in the city. However, I suspect a good ecologist would find many differences between this small former clearcut forest and a natural forest, especially since this forest is completely surrounded by urban development, thus fragmented from other forest stands. I can’t recall details now because it was 35 years ago when I walked in that park, but I suspect there are tons of alien species, and while the trees are gaining large dimensions, they are still not equal to the size characteristic of coastal BC forests, and despite his assertions that the forest supports native wildlife, I am certain that many native species are probably absence due to its fragmented and isolated nature–of course I don’t know since I haven’t been there.

    Let’s just keep in mind that the mere presence of trees doesn’t equal a forest.

  6. Dear Just a Moron:

    No profits are not evil. But profits made by externalizing costs on to someone else is. That’s the basic problem that I see with most of our natural resource extraction industries. The companies get to keep the profits, consumers pay for a product that does not include the real price, and someone else pays either in higher taxes, degraded landscapes, or loss in ecosystem values and processes.

    For example, if you are logging a forest, and adding excessive sedimentation to a river that destroys the water quality and degrades fish habitat, than someone else including any downstream residents who might use that river, fishers who might not catch as many fish, not to mention fish and other aquatic life that no longer can live in the river, etc. are all suffering. All the while the timber company and the consumers of that wood product are avoiding these costs.

    To be sustainable we have to include as many of the costs as possible and internalize them. In the case of sedimentation from logging operations that means cutting trees in a way that doesn’t create additional sedimentation.

    That is a simple example, but there are far more subtle costs often externalized from so called “sustainable” logging programs like loss of soil productivity, loss in flood control, loss in wildlife habitat, and so forth. Until all these costs are accounted for and eliminated than logging or whatever is not sustainable.

  7. Well, I see somebody has bought into the “biological legacy” line as a way to promote not harvesting trees.
    Don’t forget, George, that those stone/brick/dirt homebuilding methods mean holes in the German ground, probably permanent.
    Argue whatever you want, but leaving forests unmolested or
    natural is an ahistoric and therefore unnatural paradigm. In North America the fact is that forest structure both pre- and post-Columbian was heavily human-influenced, with one purpose in mind, and that was to improve the environment from a human perspective.
    The landscape was managed when and where it made sense from an effort/cost/benefit standpoint. Period. If there was a payoff from setting Indian fires, fires got set. If trying to torch certain stands did not produce a beneficial result, then those areas were not burnt.
    Perspectives have changed, certainly. Forests are more than timber. Aesthetics are a factor….but that raises the matter of whether a nuked black pile of jackstrawed “legacy logs” is preferable to a managed stand of mixed-aged trees, possibly with some induced fire over time.
    Furthermore, in the context of whether some areas are manageable, lets consider that both technology and benefits have changed. Wood wasn’t that much of a benefit to Indians. They wanted forage for game. Then white people came along and for them, trees are useful. And to get to more useful trees, power tools got invented.
    Forestry and landscape management is the story of human development more than it is a story of “untrammelled” nature.
    Those of you curious to learn a little history might want to look up Omer Stewart and 1491.

  8. George,
    While there is clearly more that FSC logging companies could and should be doing, it seems to me that another perhaps more pressing issue is the blatant greenwashing that non-FSC logging companies are doing. Under the guise of the “Sustainable Forestry Initiative,” (SFI) companies like Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) here in California are clearcutting at an alarming rate-they readily admit that they plan to clearcut over one million acres this century (full disclosure-my organization, ForestEthics is running a campaign against SPI-www.savethesierra.org). As you said, FSC style logging and companies of their ilk are “on the right path–but they are not there yet,” and yet they are still a miniscule amount of the marketplace right now. It is predominantly SFI giants (SPI, West Fraser, Georgia Pacific, Weyerhaeuser, etc) that are the major forest destroyers out there and the ones raking in most of the profits, and yet, because of this phony certification, they can still call their logging “sustainable” and “good for the environment.” What a sham.

    P.S. Thanks for all your great work and particularly “Wildfire.”

  9. George,

    I like your article and I would love to come tour your countries forests someday. My name is Hadjj and I live in SW Borneo…because everyone in the US loves their forests so much, large golbal companies come to my backyard and rape the landscape so that you can have your stick framed house. I have heard of the forest practices that you implement in the USA and it is amazing all of the insight that is involved with forestry…the science, many years of research, BMP’s, etc, etc…yet you still sound so confused and can’t even give soilid numbers when you start waving your hands about ecosystem health and biological legacy. So untill, you can make the distinction between the function of a managed forests and wildlands, be thankful for being the leader in forest practices in the world and stop pushing the cut to my undeveloped country…

    Sincerely Pissed Off,

  10. George, your comments are well thought out, and as usual, the normal “industrial extremists” defenders jump to conclusions that you are advocing a return to the stone age. I have spent 35 years in forest management and do not, yet, understand what “sustainable forestry” means because it is blended in with so many external influences and forces. The seminal sustability issue that is never addressed are human numbers and consumption rates. Why is this question always excluded from the discussion? As any wise rancher or farmer knows, a given parcel of land will only support a finite number of livestock.

    The reality is that “industrial civilization” (as presently constructed), in all aspects of life, is not sustainable and never will be. As Hadjji implied, the American culture is supported by the premise that those higher on the food chain are more valuable than those on the bottom.

  11. Suppose these timber companies rotated between different parts of a forest every ___ years or so…might this be sustainable?

  12. Dear Giggles:

    Yes and no. The short answer is yes. If timber companies cut only some trees (and how many is an issue–I don’t know what percentage would be acceptable) and didn’t come back for years and years –probably hundreds to even as much as a thousand years than perhaps that might be sustainable. At some point, the amount of biomass being removed would be so little that I suspect it would have no notable effect–I say that without knowing of course.

    And the other factor is how much of the forest cover is removed over how large an area. Spatial and temporal scales are important.

    One important point to consider is that dead trees are the major foundation for forest soil development. So if you are removing a significant amount of the biomass, you are “robbing” the soils. At what point this exceeds natural replacement I do not know.

    I imagine it is like pollution of a bay. If just one household dumps its sewage in a bay, the bay can probably dilute that sewage without consequences. However, if you dumped the combined sewage of a city of several million into the bay, you might have troubles. Inbetween those two extremes is some number where you could add more sewage and not overwhelm the system. Where that point lies is hard to determine. It is usually lower or less than we think.

    The problem I’ve seen with “sustainable” so far is that the amount of wood that has to be removed to be economically viable is more than I suspect the forest can tolerate.