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How to control growth by growing

We may be nearing the time in California when environmental activists discover the hidden beauty of cutting trees. I’m not kidding. As more and more urbanites flee our cities seeking peace and quiet in the mountains, our mountains are groaning to accommodate their ecological impacts. Sustaining a vigorous regional timber industry is starting to look a lot more desirable than the default alternative of converting private timberlands into subdivisions and strip malls.

Forestry, mining, ranching and agriculture have traditionally enriched and enlivened small town economies in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere in rural Northern California. It is these kinds of picturesque, “natural” settings that cosmopolitan refugees are drawn to. Yet newcomers bring into the mountains a jumble of contradictory attitudes and beliefs.

Many build expensive new houses made out of a variety of wood products, yet insist that cutting trees is bad; or at least, “not in my backyard.” Ironically, refugees seem (subconsciously) to have more tolerance for land uses that fragment and urbanize forests than for the types of management practices that have maintained the landscape wild for generations. Seeking to be a part of what is “natural,” they are changing California’s wildlands more drastically than the chainsaw ever did.



Of course forest management activities – be they planting or harvesting trees, thinning fire-prone thickets or trucking logs to a sawmill – impact the environment. Public values such as biological diversity and water quality can be affected for better or worse. Still, the potential negative environmental impacts of even the sloppiest forest practices do not compare with what happens when a piece of ground ceases to be a working forest and is developed.

Urbanization, after all, is the ultimate land conversion. When you add permanent structures, pavement, vehicles, wires, pipelines and fences to a forest environment, certain ecological attributes cease to exist.




Consider the issue of chemical runoff, for example. A forest landowner may use herbicides to successfully establish a young crop of trees once or twice during that timber stand’s first decade of growth. After the seedlings reach sampling stage and are free of competing brush, there is typically no use of chemicals for 40-60 years, at which time the mature plantation is harvested and the next commercial rotation of trees begins. Contrast this with the cumulative annual impacts of chemical weed control and fertilizers used just in maintaining the average suburban lawn.

Or what about the impacts on water quality of concentrated runoff from paved areas into storm drains compared to the mitigated, short-term impacts of even the most intensive forest management practices? What about wildlife habitat, exotic and invasive species, the ability to see stars at night? There is really no comparison – forestry is better for the natural environment and the values that all of us are concerned about. Forest greenbelts, even if somewhat domesticated by silvicultural practices, are far and away more desirable than conversion to light industry, shopping complexes, vineyards or subdivisions.

Forest management does not necessarily put timber production first, either. Not every ownership is driven by the quarterly balance sheet. Many landowners – both corporate and family – have owned their property for decades, and are deeply involved in maintaining and enhancing natural habitat and ecosystem integrity. Forest management is, after all, as much a labor of love as it is a business. It has to be, because it is such a long-term endeavor – today’s investment in reforestation may not be recouped by a landowner, but instead by his or her grandchildren.

The practice of forestry is brutally suppressed in California as a result of our collective isolation from the physical reality of the land. This production/consumption disconnect creates a double standard: “Hand me that 2×4, but don’t cut any trees.” Laws and regulations affecting the ability of California timberland owners to profitably manage their property continue to pile one on top of the other. The periodic call is for “forestry reform” – more restrictions, more red tape, more costs of doing business. Meanwhile, competing and more lucrative land uses continue to push deeper into our undeveloped wildlands.

I don’t mean to suggest that growth is an evil thing that must be stopped. After all, the forest products industry benefits from healthy demand. Our primary customers are home builders. Yet in order to strike a proper balance between development and conservation, the critical thinking skills of lawmakers and the public must be challenged.

Environmentalists are right in stating that everything we do makes a difference. Instead of continuing to act unconsciously, isn’t it time to rethink our attitudes about the timber industry and what it has to offer our rapidly-changing civilization? If we do, we might come to appreciate forest management as the smartest – and most natural – defense against uncontrolled growth in the mountains of Northern California. You might even catch yourself hugging a logger, instead of a tree.

Donn Zea is president of the California Forest Products Commission, in Auburn, Calif.


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