Don’t worry about the tropical rain forests, we’ll still have the freaking tree farms!

Not too many  years ago, a French company after comparing satellite images said that Washington state had cut relatively more forest than had been cleared in the Amazonian rain forest.  This came at a time when alarms were being spread around the world concerning the rate at which the rainforests of that area were disappearing.

Weyerhaeuser (“the tree growing company”) responded indignantly by saying that most of these clear cut areas had been replanted with trees whereas the Amazonian rain forest clearcuts had not been replanted.  I’m sure that some people were reassured by learning that this company, the largest private owner of softwood forests in the world, was diligently replanting the denuded forest land which they had cut.

There are at least a couple of questions a person might ask:

  • Are these replanting efforts by timber companies effective in re-establishing the same type of forest that was removed by clearcutting?  Are these “tree farms” ecologically equivalent to those that were cut?
  • Is Weyerhaeuser only cutting trees from their “tree farms?”  Are their replanting effforts enough to enable the company to conserve their old growth forests?

To compare these replanted tree farms to a mature natural forest would be tantamount to comparing a wheat or corn field to a natural grass prairie.  When the first settlers came to the great grass prairies of the midwestern United States, they found an extremely diverse community of plants and animals comprised of many species which had evolved together to form the tall and short grass ecosystems of the area.  When the settlers first plowed these virgin prairies and planted their crops, often wheat or corn, they supplanted this diverse, well balenced community with a monoculture.

Monocultures in this context refers to a single crop species that is grown in an area.  The increase of large areas planted in a single crop reached its zenith with the advent of corporate farms, and has both pros and cons.

The pros:

  • It is more efficient in the SHORT run.
  • The grower can use machines that are specifically designed for a particular crop.
  • The grower can apply the same fertilizers and pesticides.
  • The harvesting, processing and marketing can be streamlined with a corresponding savings.  And that of course is the bottom line–money.

The cons:

  • Pests that feed upon the crop often explode in numbers as they react to the huge new food supply.
  • The use of chemical pesticides are often applied in greater quantities to keep up with the burgeoning pest population (e.g. the boll weevil and the drenching of the South with DDT).
  • The large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides don’t just stay on the applied areas but spread throughout the ecosystem, often with dire results.
  • The soil condition often is neglected in these large fertilizer-dependent monocultures which eventually results in the application of more fertilizer than was initially needed as the soil becomes depleted.
  • In addition to various animal pests, disease organisms often become established.
  • Since the monoculture crop is often genetically similar, they usually have the same genetic susceptibility to diseases (and other pests).  In a genetically diverse crop some individuals by chance would have a genetic resistance to these diseases.
  • Many species are eliminated.

Healthy ecosystems have a tremendous amount of genetic diversity.   This usually means not only a large number of species, but a large amount of genetic variation within the species–various geographic races, etc.   As the genetic diversity is reduced for any reason, the ecosystem becomes more unstable.  On these tree farms, usually a single species of tree is planted (e.g. Douglas Fir), and often it is a particular variant of a species that is planted.  For example in some areas the trees have been selected for their rapid growth or some other desirable trait, and entire forests of this same particular variation may be planted in rows.

Some of the forests in the northwestern U.S. are thousands of years old with a corresponding huge amount of genetic diversity in the form of thousands of species, not only plant species, but mammals and birds, insects, spiders, and soil organisms.  The claim of Weyerhaeuser that their monoculture tree farms are equivalent to the mature forests in the area can be viewed in several ways in my opinion:

  • They could have made an honest mistake.  This is doubtful since they employ thousands of employees, many who have advanced degrees in the science of forestry.  Of course forestry majors may not have the same perspective as forest ecologists!
  • They may have simply suggested that the forests they plant are equivalent to the mature forests of the area.
  • They may have deliberately lied in a despicable attempt to cover up the fact that they are currently denuding the mature forests in over eighteen countries, including the United States, Canada, Uruguay, Australia, New Zealand, China, Mexico, Ireland and France, and causing irreparable harm to the ecosystems and species of the area.  This site may help answer that question.

Which brings up the second question listed above.  Are these timber companies simply “harvesting” second or third growth trees on the tree farms that they have planted? Are they managing to leave the mature forests alone?  They are approaching this goal in Washington and a few other places but see the above link and this quote from the Seattle Times which tries to answer that question.  The Seattle Times article also talks about Weyerhaeuser’s history and presence in Canada.

But it’s in Canada, where trees take 40 to 100 years to reach a size worth felling, that Weyerhaeuser is logging hard. Despite decades of cutting, there are not enough mature, second-generation trees to maintain the industry at its present production levels. So Weyerhaeuser and other companies are targeting an ever-widening arc of first-growth forests, which may have been singed by fire or infested with beetles but have never before been logged.

Here is another quote concerning Weyerhaeuser in British Colombia:

“Vancouver Island, British Columbia, was once graced with one of the most magnificent forested ecosystems on Earth.

After 150 years of industrial logging, more than 80 per cent of the primeval forests have now been destroyed. 85 of a total of 91 watersheds have been roaded and gutted in the most thoughtless and brutal manner, and what is left is being cut down at the fastest rate ever. It took 120 years to cut the first half of the island’s forests, and it’s taken 30 years to clear the remainder. 20 per cent of Vancouver Island is logged without any regulation at all as ‘private land,’ – much of which is ‘owned’ by Weyerhaeuser.

Last year [2004], Weyerhaeuser destroyed a 50 hectare stand of single aged 1000 year old western red cedar in the Walbran Valley, not three hours away from Victoria, British Columbia, from where I write to you. This magnificent ancient forest is now a mass of stumps on average about four meters in diameter.

Weyerhaeuser is now invading East Creek, one of the last of five intact and unprotected primeval watersheds on Vancouver Island. The company wantonly mows down the forests even as First Nations struggle in Kafkaesque negotiations to get back their territories which have never been ceded. I have directly seen  the horrors that Weyerhaeuser has inflicted on our forests, and I understand how this giant American corporation is enabled to continue on with the invasion.

Of course the depletion of these forest which store vast amounts of carbon contributes to global warming.  What? Me worry?

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