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Forests: A renewable resource being under valued

Editor’s note: Keith Crummer is a Registered Professional Forester, license # 310, and has decades of field experience with both the Forest Service and in private forestry consulting.

These observations can be categorized as expert opinion and are unaffiliated with any environmental organizations or timber industry groups.

Background

Earth Day, which was first celebrated in 1970, was considered by many to be a pivotal event in the drive to expand awareness of environmental/ecological issues and with good reason.

After all, this is a subject that rests at the core of our physical existence.

Unfortunately, like many topics that impact all of us, it has become very politicized and since politics is about power and money we have come to see numerous extremes in the array of “environmental authorities,” groups and/or causes including a considerable amount of disinformation both in the form of incorrect statements and omission of facts.

It is really not too surprising that large segments of the population can be swayed by incorrect information since most people are unfamiliar with even the most rudimentary basics of subjects like proper forest management.

The vast majority of American citizens live in a daily world that is virtually devoid of the “naturalness” that is offered in our northern counties.

Their air is often filtered and cooled or heated with windows seldom being opened to let in the not-so-fresh air. Many commercial buildings are often constructed of concrete, steel and glass with wood products only being used sparingly for ornamental purposes.

Even wood-framed dwellings are carefully covered with stucco, faux rock, metal siding and gypsum board. Walk outside and find vast expanses of concrete and asphalt.

Neighborhood parks are usually designed by landscape architects and, while pleasant, are far from being a true natural setting.

In all, many have lost that “connection with the land” most of our grandparents and older ancestors enjoyed and understood.

A lack of understanding coupled with a habit of relying on popular media for our knowledge of the subject can easily lead to not using our critical thinking skills and the time it takes to actually do the research for ourselves.

Many times the easy way will not result in an accurate answer and too often the short, quick and easy assertions have a hidden agenda that may not be in the best long-term interests of our environment.

All such ecological or environmental opinions, from any source, should be subjected to careful scrutiny.

This subject matter is far too complex to be reduced to a simple slogan or bumper sticker.

Scientific fact in regard to environmental matters is very often diametrically opposed to what often passes as “common knowledge” in our present age and that is precisely why careful scrutiny is required for any canned talking point statements.

Natural resistance

Taken as a whole, our environment is very resilient; meaning that it has, both now and in the past, the ability to recover from major disturbances.

Earth has successfully weathered the effects of meteor impacts, ice ages, gigantic volcano eruptions, and the eras when greenhouse gases were far more dense than we can even now imagine.

This general environmental concept does not necessarily extend, however, to individual biological components.

It is widely recognized that most of the individual plants and animal types that ever existed on earth are now extinct. The current array of plants and animals we enjoy is simply that, the current array.

When given dispassionate thought, it is obvious that all plants and animals are “endangered” when at the extremes of their ranges.

A plant native to an arid desert setting would become quickly endangered if transplanted to the arctic tundra. Similarly, a trout will not do well out of water, and man will not do well under water without artificial protection.

When a disturbance occurs within an environment where a specific species resides, that species basically has two choices: adapt or die.

Most species will attempt to adapt, perhaps migrating to another area with more favorable conditions or by changing behaviors (evolving) to cope with the new surroundings. If the migration or change does not occur quickly enough, the species in the impacted area will perish.

The pressure to adapt is quite profound. In the past many subspecies have perished from the face of the earth, but elements of primary species tend to survive and evolve into new forms with specialized traits that sustain them in their new environments.

This is natural resilience in action.

The word “species” is defined as “the basic category of biological classification, composed of related individuals that resemble one another, are able to breed among themselves, but are not able to breed with another species.”

For example, dogs are a species, while golden retrievers and Boston terriers are subspecies (breeds). They can interbreed in the species, but cannot breed with, say, cats, which are a different species.

The loss of one subspecies of dogs to extinction does not mean a loss of a species. On the contrary, in the world of dog breeding, there seems to be a new subspecies introduced every few years.

This brings us to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the use or misuse thereof.

The original intent was to identify and take measures to protect native species that might be threatened by human activity. The basic definition of the word species as noted above, however, proved to be troublesome.

Remember, even the most locally abundant species can be threatened at the limits of their ranges. If there were no limits then all things could live everywhere on the planet.

If you accept the fact that there are no limits on useable habitat and strictly adhere to the definition of the word species, then all living plants and animals could be considered threatened and therefore worthy of extraordinary action to protect them.

If by contrast, you substitute the word subspecies in the ESA, you begin to narrow populations into sizes that are more manageable, at least in political terms.

The focus can now be on smaller groups that have adapted (evolved) to survive in a particular and sometime unique portion of the overall environment.

These subgroups are much more likely to perish due to severe environment changes unless they can rapidly adapt to the changes.

An example would be the desert pupfish, which are the last survivors of a formerly larger population. Pupfish evolved from fish that lived when lakes filled what are now desert valleys. If the last desert waterholes dry up, the remaining pupfish are goners, but then remember, all of their ancestors died long ago when the lakes first evaporated.

The pupfish was listed while it was fashionable to save selected subspecies using the ESA. The results have been both good and bad.

In some cases there have been scientifically valid studies followed by constructive action to reverse a decline in a subspecies population. In other cases, it seems that the ESA was used simply an excuse to wield a heavy hand without true scientific justification.

The very complexity of the earth’s ecosystems and the proliferation of subspecies leads to its natural resilience.

While one organism may be limited by a change in the environment, nearly always there are others that have benefited.

Over time, it has been observed that changes continue to take place in organisms as they adapt to what exists around them.

The human problem is that we appear to want everything to remain constant within our particular moment in time. We want to “stop the clock” and preserve this moment forever.

This has never happened in the history of the earth. In fact, when you consider the term “preserve,” it only applies to things that are dead. You can preserve a pressed flower or an old building or even a rock sample, but you can’t preserve a living ecosystem.

On a broader scale, the earth’s resilience may cause worry about the future of humans. What is here today that may not be here a few years from now?

A homeowner living on the shoreline may well have concerns about the possibility of rising oceans levels as a result of a melting icecap, or on the other hand is it possible that the climate goes in the other direction, the shoreline recedes and suddenly someone else is the owner of a new shoreline property. Change is so annoying.

Many modern humans have become environmentally brittle, choosing to live on active fault lines or next to sleeping volcanoes, or maybe next to a river that floods every few yeas.

How about those that live at sea level on shores that are in hurricane zones or live in mobile homes along tornado alley and then don’t want to consider the consequences.

It’s almost as if part of humankind wants the environment to adapt to us rather that the other way around.

Natural buffering systems

Here is another topic that you will seldom find as the subject of a popular demonstration or a congressional hearing.

One of the factors that aids the resilience of the worldwide ecosystem is the existence of natural buffers. Because they are often so difficult to explain they get little attention in discussions when it comes to dialog about climate change.

Buffers mostly come into play when considering the current concerns about greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) and global warming.

The evidence is conclusive that global air temperatures have been slowly increasing during the past century.

The connection to human activity is much more speculative, but it does seem likely that the burning of fossil fuels is having some impact on this temperature trend.

What is most often missed in this sometimes emotional discussion is that there are some inherent buffering factors present that may alter the prevalent extrapolations.

A buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have the effect of stimulating plant growth. Plants with short life spans will not be significantly altered as a result of this because they grow, die and decompose in fairly short intervals.

However, forest life cycles are much longer and offer the advantage of carbon sequestration if the wood is harvested.

Young, growing forests, the result of thinning to reduce excessive fuel loads, can absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide.

The simple choice to exercise scientific forest management techniques on the country’s 200 million acres of National Forest lands would be a good beginning.

An even larger buffer is found in the oceans, which cover roughly 70 percent of the earth’s surface. Calcium, a water-soluble substance found in soil, is regularly leached into streams and rivers that flow into the oceans.

Here it chemically combines with carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate. (CaCo3), which is the same material found in fish bones and seashells.

This substance is then carried and distributed across ocean floors by currents, where it eventually forms beds of limestone where it can tie up considerable amounts of, once atmospheric, carbon in mineral form. Sea plants and plankton sequester tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide as well.

The actual capacity of the forests and oceans are still unknown at this time, but estimates indicate that the oceans currently contain some 40 TRILLION tons of carbon while the land mass sequesters 2.2 trillion tons leaving about 0.75 trillion tons left in the atmosphere. If all the carbon in the atmosphere were sequestered in the ocean the carbon levels would increase by less that two percent.

Suffice it to say that enormous quantities of once atmospheric carbon is constantly being sequestered by the oceans and forests with the possibility of increased efficiency with better forest practices.

This is not to say that global warming or greenhouse gases are a minor concern, rather it is to point out that there are some potentially larger natural buffering system influences that, to date, have not been thoroughly evaluated at the scientific level and have definitely not been discussed by the popular media.

It should also be noted that human activity and natural buffering aside, there are other natural forces that could completely and suddenly alter the global environment.

Historic evidence from the prehistoric past indicates that the occasional massive volcanic event can spew sufficient quantities of particulate matter into the upper atmosphere to block out the sun’s rays and cause a period of “global winter.”

  Best advice for adaptable humans?

Keep both a supply of sun screen and parkas handy.

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