Is Sustainable Forestry Sustainable?

Is Sustainable Forestry Sustainable?

George Wuerthner

There has been a lot of positive talk about sustainable forestry by the timber industry, politicians, and even among many environmental groups. Everyone is looking for a way to exploit the Earth and pretend they are not impacting anything. 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. It has been my experience, if someone is exploiting natural landscapes in a manner that is commercially viable; the activity is typically not ecologically sustainable. In nearly all instances that I have seen, the so called “sustainable” logging, grazing, farming or 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. It’s the free lunch syndrome.


Today with a growing awareness of our global environmental impact, finding ways to sustain ourselves while sustaining the planet is imperative. The question for me is whether so called “sustainable” practices really exist or is it just another piece of propaganda used to sell more to unwitting consumers to assuage their guilt. With public outrage growing over the butchery of forests that used to be passed off by timber companies as “scientific forest management”, many timber companies are finding it necessary to earn certification as sustainable forestry operations to appease consumers and reduce criticism of their operations.


What I have observed when I go on tours of so called “sustainable resource extraction” whether it is “sustainable grazing”, “sustainable farming” or “sustainable forestry” is a failure to ask a fundamental question. How does a wild ecosystem function and how closely does the sustainable activity emulate it and preserve natural ecological processes? Rather what I find among promoters of “sustainable” exploitation is a tendency to view things from the exploitation perspective and then attempting to make the land fit the needs of the industry. So sustainable grazing is about avoiding overgrazing. That’s an admirable goal in its own right, but that’s completely different from asking what it takes to have a sustainable grassland ecosystem. The same for sustainable forestry—what is required to maintain a forest ecosystem, and is there any way to extract some wood from the forest without seriously disrupting ecosystem processes and function.


A couple of weeks ago I toured a highly touted “sustainable” forestry site in California. The company whose property we viewed was certified as a sustainable forestry wood producer by the Forest Stewardship Council. 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.


In general I find what is touted as “sustainable forestry” is usually more of an economic definition than an ecological one. By sustainable, timber companies and their supporters in the “sustainable forestry” movement are engaged in practices that ensures a continual long-term timber supply. For instance the company lands I visited had been selectively logged at least three times in the past 100 years and it still had trees on it. So from their perspective they were practicing “sustainable” forestry.


The land still had trees, but did it still have a fully functioning forest ecosystem? 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.


I don’t want to imply by the following critique that we should abandon forest certification or the goal of sustainability. The forestry procedures I saw on the tour were a vast improvement over the cut and run practices of the past. The company practiced selective cutting of trees over clearcuts. They maintained buffers of unlogged strips along streams. They typically did not cut existing old growth trees. However, whether they are truly ecologically sustainable as is often implied is questionable.


The company owners and foresters who led the tour were definitely 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 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 rings were close and tight. Then he showed us a segment of a tree 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.


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.


The company does not clearcut its land, and does not remove more than 50% of the trees in any single cutting. There are always trees growing on the sites. Thus the site does provide a sustainable supply of fodder for the mill. But is it not providing a sustainable ecosystem.


For instance, the company forest management plans call for the eventual cutting of all trees on any particular area. However, since the logging is done over a period of years—not all trees are removed 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—except for the small percentage of existing old growth that is scattered about its lands.


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. Over time on the company lands the existing old growth will die and will not be replaced because all non-old growth trees will eventually be cut—just not all at once. 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—over time the wild forest will again have 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 was considerably less than what I observed in the wild forest.


Dissimilarity 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 stream, despite the fact that the company did maintain some narrow buffers of unlogged land along all creeks. Again because there was still some salmon spawning in the waterway, the company used that to prove its practices were benign. Perhaps they were, but I would love to know how many salmon the creek used to support in the pre logging days. I’m willing to bet it was higher than what occurs today.


Because thinning the forest opened up the canopy permitting more light to reach the forest floor, the “sustainable” forest had more shrubs and small trees growing in the understory.  These shrubs and small trees were natural “ladders” for fires to carry the flames of any fire that should occur into the canopy of the trees. By contrast the understory of the old growth wild forest was open and had much less ladder fuels.


In addition to these physical differences, there were other potentially important 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, and clean the forest. Disease and insect outbreaks are also equally unwelcome, though these are important ecological processes in most forest ecosystems.


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.


Thus if enough time between cuttings, there may be a semblance of recovery to the causal viewer, however, one study comparing logged forests with virgin forests in North Carolina found that even 80 years after the last log was removed from the forest, nearly half of the forest floor plant species were still absence from the logged forest. Another study in Ontario found that selective logging removed half of the genetic diversity—mostly be removing the rare alleles. But it is these rarer genes that may sustain the forest in times of adversary—sustained drought, new insect attacks or whatever.


Suffice to say 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. After all on most forest lands we have only gone through 2-3 rotations (cuttings) and like a corn field, we can get a few harvests from the land before the soil productivity is depleted. Whether we can cut trees indefinitely on timber company lands, even those managed for “sustainable” cutting, remains to be seen. My guess is that far too many ecological impacts are externalized and uncounted—and just plain invisible to even the most practiced eye.


As Aldo Leopold admonished years ago the first precaution of intelligent tinkering is to keep every cog and wheel. Unfortunately you cannot be removing a significant amount of biomass from a forest and be saving the parts—the logs removed are the cogs and wheels needed for a functioning ecosystem.






  1. Salle Avatar

    ecologically, there’s no such thing at the industrial level.

    Economically, that’s what they like to call it regardless of the reality when comparing their claims to what actually takes place on the ground.

    …like cereal box advertising.

  2. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Thank you George for bringing this up for discussion. It’s the same for the so-called ‘green’ energy standpoint as well. With our continued population growth, I don’t see how forestry, or anything, can be sustainable. There’s so much that we do not grasp, and yet we forge on ahead – soil erosion, loss of genetic diversity, when-in-doubt-just-spray-herbicides-and-pesticides, etc.

  3. John Avatar

    I think they have a very narrow definition of forest sustainability. Only number of trees harvested over time appears to be their definition. I think it is just a rebranding of their product to make it more palatable to the uninformed public. You see it all the time with the american petroleum institute advertisements

  4. John Avatar

    Their economic model probably has this logging practice producing the greatest return on their investment? I agree that it is better than the old clear cut method which really raped the land.

  5. Yvette Avatar

    It sounds like this company is making an effort, which is good. Surely it’s an improvement over past forestry/logging practices.

    The words sustainable and green seem to have been hi-jacked by business marketers. Personally, the words sustainable and green have become generic and cliche in the private sector. It’s now cool in the upper middle class sector to buy organic and sustainable products.

    Maybe I’m too cynical. A good example of the marketing is palm oil industry and their ‘sustainable palm oil plantations’. Really? Ask an orangutan.

  6. GarryRogers Avatar

    Our timber-industry and forestry managers have turned the term “sustainable forestry” into an oxymoron. Blinded by greed or simply ignorant by choice, forestry worldwide is contributing to the decline of biodiversity.

  7. Logan Avatar

    If we define sustainable as completely mimicking the natural state then their is no form of resource extraction that will meet the definition, any tree you remove is a tree that does not fall and return nutrients to the soil. But if sustainable is a continuation of all native plantlife, wildlife and maintain clean watersheds then I do think we can accomplish it. If there are areas that it cannot be done without permanent damage then we hold off indefenitely or until technology advances to the point that we can use the resource.

    As far as old growth, it has its place but a young growing forest uses more carbon dioxide and produces more oxygen than an aged forest. As stated in the article, an older forest possesses less undergrowth and less browse for wildlife.

    Wildfire is a natural force for good in a forest but it should be no surprise that forest managers wouldn’t allow wildfire to pass through and burn up the resource that they hope to harvest. I have however seen logging operations where after the cut a prescribed burn was used to simulate a natural fire as the cause of tree removal. The natural process for creating habitat mosaics is fire but logging combined with fire can approximate the natural process.

    In my opinion the biggest threat to the sustainability of the forest is the creation of roads and the spread of noxious weeds as noted in the article that occurs. Remediation of roads should be a top priority of any logging operation but is often never undertaken.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      How are we going to make timber sustainable, or anything, when the country’s population keeps growing? Especially if jobs are the number one priority? That means not only more timber for homes, but more schools, services, automobiles, trucks and buses, more roads, more stores, restaurants, more oil, coal, gas, and solar and wind farms, and the list goes on….and on. We are the biggest threat to sustainability.

      I agree with your idea of getting rid of all the crap and plastics we just throw away. Cities are banning plastic bags for reusables, which is a good thing.

      I don’t know why people can’t pick up after themselves! I always keep a few (plastic!) grocery bags in the car for any trash, and for picking up other people’s trash when it is just too much of an eyesore to leave behind. Reusable grocery bags and glassware are just two of the old ways that are better than throwaway everything. I always thought glass was a beautiful thing.

      But, if we want to keep jobs, and if people won’t conserve and downsize their consumption, sustainability other than just a superficial feel-good effort just cannot be done.

      1. JB Avatar

        Again, it all depends upon what you mean by ‘sustainable’. By forester standards (not harvesting more than the years growth) we’re doing quite well.

        1. Ida Lupines Avatar
          Ida Lupines

          The Bill Clinton definition of ‘is’ method for defining sustainable? Very hard to pin down, and not very honest either. There is only one definition of is, and one definition of sustainable. We are not doing well, at all. As someone said, go ask an orangutan in Borneo just what sustainable means to them with regard to palm oil that we in the Western world only use for junk food that we don’t need, and the stupid, and dangerous, consideration for biofuel!

          1. Ida Lupines Avatar
            Ida Lupines

            Deforestation in Borneo

            (From Wikipedia!)

          2. JB Avatar

            No Ida, the original definition of sustainability (see my comment below): i.e., harvesting less than the year’s regrowth. I’m not sure what country you live in, but when I said “we’re doing quite well” I spoke of the policies and practices of the people in my country–the United states. Here (in the US) we’ve seen a substantial increase in forest biomass since the 1990s and a decrease in harvested wood products. And as I mentioned (on the other post) there are places in the U.S. that actually could do with some harvest–specifically, to create early successional habitat.

            Now you can go back to telling me that the sky is falling.

            From Science (not wikipedia):

        2. Tammy Davis Avatar
          Tammy Davis

          Perhaps I am mistaken, but I believe you are missing the point JB. There are many definitions out there for every human activity. But to truly understand these activities we must trace the steps back to the origin of the idea and then follow its progression.

      2. Tammy Davis Avatar
        Tammy Davis

        I completely agree with you Ida. ALL of the messages that come from mass media and which frame our social norms, are designed to support corporate interests. For example we never hear that recycling should be #3 on the list for disposing of consumer waste. #1 is Reduce Consumption and #2 is Reuse/Re-purpose.

        And your point about jobs I think gets to the heart of the matter. Our ingrained obsession with the idea that humanity cannot continue without “economic growth” and “creating new jobs” scares me the most. Until there are enough people who understand that employment (working at least 1/3 of our lives to pay bills and a mortgage just to make rich people richer) is not only unnecessary to our survival, but it has also resulted in serious harm to the planet and humanity. We have all but lost our connection to nature, to this planet that is our only home, and to each other.

        If you have not done so already, check out


    2. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins

      As far as old growth, it has its place but a young growing forest uses more carbon dioxide and produces more oxygen than an aged forest

      that’s convenient assumption for timber industry:

      “Trees accelerate growth as they get older and bigger, study finds”

      This finding contradicts the usual assumption that tree growth eventually declines as trees get older and bigger … It also means that big, old trees are better at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere than has been commonly assumed

      The scientists from 16 countries studied measurements of 673,046 trees of more than 400 species growing on six continents, and found that large, old trees actively fix large (r?) amounts of carbon compared to smaller trees. A single big tree can add the same amount of carbon to the forest in a year as is contained in an entire mid-sized tree, they found.

      “In human terms, it is as if our growth just keeps accelerating after adolescence, instead of slowing down. By that measure, humans could weigh half a tonne by middle age, and well over a tonne at retirement,

      …old trees play a disproportionately important role in forest growth. Trees of 100cm in diameter in old-growth western US forests comprised just 6% of trees, yet contributed 33% of the annual forest mass growth

  8. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    I highly applaud this company for their practices as 90% of timber companies in the Pacific Northwest practice short rotations (40 to 50 years) using large clearcut extraction methods.

    If companies would practice multiple thinnings where they would remove ~20% of the volume every 20 to 30 years over 200 years they would actually have produced more volume than clearcutting every 40 to 50 years. The thinned forest would allow natural regeneration of trees to establish along with an understory of vascular plants and shrubs and as the forest ages, snags would be created along with down logs. The key would be to protect the snags during harvest and not remove the down logs. This is sustainable forestry.

    The biggest threats to sustainable forestry is intensive forest practices using clearcutting harvest methods along with short rotations. Typically companies clearcut a 120 acre stand leaving few snags and down logs, narrow stream buffers (which typically blowdown) and then plant a monoculture of tree species. Following the planting they then spray herbicides leaving little plant life except for the newly planted trees. Roads are only a threat when they are not properly maintained and invasive species are for the most part a short term minor threat.

  9. JB Avatar

    This discussion remains me of an article I read a few years back on the changing meaning of sustainability. According to the article (published in the journal “Sustainability”):

    “The concept of sustainability was originally coined in forestry, where it means never harvesting more than what the forest yields in new growth” (p. 3437). That is very much in line with how industry and foresters generally view sustainability; however, the authors go on to argue that the term has changed over time to include a social, ecological, and economic component (sometimes referred to as the ‘three-legged stool’ of sustainability). They propose that focus on meeting current human needs via the harvest of natural resources isn’t sustainbility; rather, sustainable practices come about when managers focus on meeting the needs of future generations. I suspect many here would still reject this focus as overly anthropocentric? Personally, I favor a definition of sustainability that allows for human use while maintaining important ecological processes.

    In any case, an interesting read: Kuhlman, T., Farrington, J., What is Sustainability? Sustainability 2, 3436-3448.

  10. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    A question I’ve always had in regard to sustainability/succession is when biomass is removed from logged areas, it must be different than unlogged areas where trees fall, rot… Beginning with microorganisms and up.

    Yet, papers, magazines, computer paper, packaging, cardboard, tissue and toilet paper, greeting cards, construction, fuel…some of the waste could be eliminated, but then so would some jobs.

    1. Logan Avatar

      You make a good point because many people are all for eliminating waste until they find out it also eliminates jobs. I link sustainability with reducing and eliminating waste, the less we waste of our resources the less we have to extract and the longer we can use the resource.

      The big one that stands out to me on your short list is packaging. The fact that we actually produce something that is made to be thrown away and wasted just boggles me. Think about how much plastic, paper, styrofoam and cardboard is used to package products at the store, just so we can throw it away. We could significantly reduce how much logging we need to do if we were more efficient with the end products.

      1. Immer Treue Avatar
        Immer Treue

        I had a student who’s lunch was something called lunchables. The packaging weighed more than the actual lunch!

      2. Nancy Avatar

        Logan – I asked one of the employees at the local IGA recently why they don’t have recycle bins at their store and he said they had a bin for cans, around back for awhile but no one seem to know it was there. I may have to pursue it further with the manager since so much trash originates from their business.

        I seem to recall that was one of the comments, over and over, when non-residents were poled by the Tourism Institute (in 2012?) Why no or not enough, recycling drop off areas in Montana?

  11. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    In Oregon we have a very progressive recycling program and attitude. I don’t know the percentage that is recycled but everything from styrofoam to oil is recycled. Recyling has created a whole new industry with good paying jobs.

    The biomass (ie. limbs, unmerchantable logs) after logging is extremely beneficial if left on site. It creates habitat for reptiles, amphibians, worms and numerous invertebrates, absorbs rainfall reducing erosion, provides microsites for tree seedlings and vegetation and will eventually break down creating soil.

    The biomass does create the risk for a higher fire intensity, but its short term as within 2 to 3 years the smaller limbs and needles break down and land on the forest floor where they absorb moisture.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Where I am we recycle paperboard, plastics, oil, glass and aluminum but no Styrofoam, and we burn our trash to generate electricity (municipal power). I only pay $.10/kwh. Plastics into fuel, and it isn’t your grandfather’s trash burning anymore, a lot cleaner. Plastics are a great petroleum source, trash is an unending supply and will only increase in the future. I know Nevada does this too. But it isn’t as sexy as wind and solar.

  12. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    First, I am more than glad that by what ever standard one measures as sustainable it is light years better today than when the industry standard was clear cut and be dammed.
    having said that I recall a conversation my Dad had with one of my brother-in -laws, who happens to be French, and was here visiting about how every thing in America is made of wood where in Europe the materials tended to be more stone or concrete in addition to wood.
    The conversation landed on the fact that where ever you were you used the most available, cheapest to procure materials that were readily available and in North America that equated to wood.

    So I guess my question is how many here live in a house that is not constructed out of wood and if not for the forestry industry what would your dwelling be made of?

    1. Yvette Avatar

      1921 Sandstone here. It’s a common stone in my region and there are quite a few houses built with sandstone. I love never having to paint, but hate the 1921 teeny bedrooms and small closets, LOL. Of course, there is wood throughout the house: wood floors, trim and doors, and surely the frame is wood.

      We need wood even if there are other products to build homes and buildings.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        I don’t think we have to build mega-homes with three-car garages, we could use wood less and more efficiently, not extravagantly, and live in modest homes. Or some kind of wood product for the future. We can’t keep using it the way we have been.

        1. Nancy Avatar
          1. Ida Lupines Avatar
            Ida Lupines

            Yes. But keep building stuff, to create short-term construction jobs. Unless you work in construction for a Federal gov’t and taxpayer subsidized project like Boston’s Big Dig, and then you can expect the construction jobs can be dragged out for yeeeeaaaarrrrssssss.

    2. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins

      How Much Wood Goes Into A House?

      The typical 2,400 square foot, single-family home requires about 16,000 board feet of framing lumber and over 14,000 square feet of other wood products including plywood, oriented stand board, glulam beams, wood I-joists, laminated veneer lumber, hardboard, particleboard and medium-density fiberboard (MDF).

      A board foot is a standard measure of the usable wood in a tree. You can picture aboard foot as a piect of lumber one-inch thick, one foot wide, and one foot long (1″ x 12″ x 12″).

      220 logging trucks are needed to carry one million board feet (MMBF) of raw logs. That’s 4,500 board feet per truck.

      Roughly 35 jobs are created for Idaho residents for each million board feet of wood processed.
      Each million board feet of timber harvested provides $614 thousand in personal income and $2.6 million in sales of goods and services.

      The average size house built in 2011 was 2,480 square feet. The median size house built in 2011 was 2,233 square feet.

      Learn about the costs:

      Breaking Down House Price and Construction Costs

      a study from Dr. Paul Emrath for the National Association of Home Builders

      1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
        Mareks Vilkins

        however, folks who live in remote areas (for example, Siberia) and are not troubled by private property religion build their cabins without input from timber/lumber industry

  13. John Avatar

    A much bigger picture is the effects of land use and forest management on climate change.

    new govt report by NCA

  14. snaildarter Avatar

    This is a great article and it reminds me of a conversation I had with David Bower a few years back.
    He would of course completely agree, but over the years I’ve found that compromise is the only way to make progress and protect past victories. Here in Georgia true conservation is perhaps more difficult than it is in the Northern Rockies, but back in the 1970’s when Jimmy Carter was Governor we protected 90% of Georgia’s coastline. This included 19 barrier Islands, one of which became a National Seashore, and by far the most expansive remaining salt marshes on the eastern Seaboard. We set up wilderness areas in the Okefenokee Swamp and Blue Ridge National Forest. We also created a National Recreation Area near Atlanta, but by 1980 developers, farmers and others had learned how to fight back. Now they completely control the Legislature and we are on the defense. One of the big problems is Republicans see environmentalist as the enemy and I think the no compromise idea may have led to that schism. Now our only successes seem to come from law suits.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      That’s my biggest fear – that both sides will always remain polarized and nothing will get done. We’re losing ground these days.

  15. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
    Mareks Vilkins

    I will post some paragraphs from Richard Manning’s “Last Stand: A riveting expose of environmental pillage and a lone journalist’s struggle to keep faith”


    I want to tell what the forests
    were like

    I will have to speak
    in a forgotten language


    This is forestry at its harshest, not really forestry at all, but more a form of strip mining. At its most severe, this sort of cutting proceeds across very large clearcuts, hundreds of acres at a time stripped not only of mature, usable trees, but of all trees, all vegetation. The sawable is sawed, the marginal is burned, the limbs and brush are burned, the land is burned and then a few years later crews plug in genetically and economically acceptable saplings. A forest is reduced to the mountain’s equivalent of a Midwestern cornfield in a massive ecological and genetic experiment. A couple of hundred years from now, we will know if it worked. If it doesn’t we will know the corporations got the last of the wood out fast and cheap.

    Arnold Bolle has a name for this. Bolle is a softspoken old man, dean emeritus of the University of Montana’s School of Forestry. Likely he had a hand in the training of more foresters than any person in the West.

    “It’s Nazi forestry. You clear off that old junk and put in a good genetic quality in orderly rows as if that’s the whole reason God created trees, just for our benefit,” he once told me. “It’s a very comfortable thing to think that man is in total control and everything is obeying us.” (page 35)

  16. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
    Mareks Vilkins

    When Champion bought its lands from Anaconda, it did not know what it was getting. Much of the land was too harsh for trees, even by the rocky standards of Montana. Much of the land flowed over dry, south-facing slopes in areas more suited to grasses and sagebrush. Some trees did grow on these places, but by only owing to quirks: come a few wet years in a row, a cold summer of the sort that happens once in a century, and a few seedlings catch. A forest then rises by the strength of its own moisture-holding shade, an up-by-the-bootstraps operation. Champion was clearcutting such places, Runyon told me. The accident of nature was being reversed.

    Methods and foresters’ artifice did not matter in such dry places. Likely, once cut, those sites would never see trees again, at least in the sense humans understand “never”.

    I wonder how we will guard our trees and, more important, the forest. Are humans to be trusted with this task? We have given our trees to the corporations, and they are so harried by the predations of international markets that the next quarter is their only hurdle. We have entrusted the forests to foresters who believe that they are visionary in ensuring the next generation of trees. They generally mean to protect the existence of “rotation-age” trees which live about sixty years, just long enough to be cut. (page61)

  17. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
    Mareks Vilkins

    The Forest Service’s numbers, however, are cooked. For instance, administrative costs are hidden. Effects of logging on wildlife are considered “positive”, because the timber beasts argue that logging improves habitat. Those “benefits” are entered on the profit side of the ledger. Capital costs are amortized at odd rates. The costs of roads in the Chugach National Forest in Alaska were once spread over twelve hundred years, thereby levying infinitesimal costs against each year’s proceeds. Wolf used accepted accounting methods to run an eleven-year cash flow analysis of the Forest Service timber program. He says the agency’s claim of a profit is simply false, that the timber program racked up a deficit of $3.3 billion during that eleven-year period, $5.6 billion with interest.

    The beneficiaries of this largesse are the timber mills, and why should they turn it down? Why should a single mill owner buck the system only to go out of business and allow another mill to exploit the niche? This is the commons and willing exploiters wait on line. Why should a timber company take pains in its cutting to adopt more careful methods when those methods are more costly and therefore render his lumber less competitive? Why should a Forest Service inspector take pains to enforce more than minimum standards on a logger when that will lead to fewer board feet being cut? The greater the cut, the more money the Forest Service gets to spend on roads and bulldozers and desk-growth. When more is cut, the Forest Service gets a bigger budget, the ultimate goal of all bureaucracies. Deficit accrue to the Treasury; growth accrues to the bureaucracy. (page 73)

  18. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
    Mareks Vilkins

    Trees are planted. In sixty years or so, childhood for most species, they grow to something that can be fed to a mill, more and more a chip mill, a large enough stem to be ground and glued into something resembling a board.
    Foresters have done this long enough – in this country, about a hundred years – that they now feel confident to overrule the hand that nature has exercised through the millenia. They do this by planting trees, a matter of pride for the profession. During recent years, it has become fashionable for the timber corporations and professional associations of foresters to commission advertisements in environmental magazines. These generally feature a photo of a tender hand on a vigorous young sapling. A copy block announces the millions of times this nurturing has occured in recent months, that the companies and foresters are concerned with the future and the future is their planted trees. We are advised that wood is America’s renewable resource and that every day is Earth Day for a forester.

    There is a certain cynicism behind these pronouncements. Many of these planted trees will not grow, and the companies know it. Champion officials, for instance, admit they have cut exceedingly dry slopes in Montana, areas that once grew trees by accident of a few wet years. Once stripped of the snow-holding canopy of existing trees, these baked slopes will remain deforested. Even on friendlier sites, accidents happen. A drought follows the time of planting and so all the young trees die. By the time planters are able to revisit the site, brush takes hold and chokes out the effort. Or somebody makes a wrong choice about strain and species. Somebody misreads the wildly varying conditions of mountain slopes. Then the variables such as aspect, slope, and rainfall wipe out a plantation. Timber companies, however, do not commission advertisements about these failures. (page 95)

  19. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
    Mareks Vilkins

    long interview with Kathie Durbin, author of “Tongass: Pulp Politics and the Fight for the Alaska Rain Forest”

  20. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
    Mareks Vilkins

    Scientist Tells Bill Moyers That Letting Climate Change Happen Is an ‘Intergenerational Crime’

    Leading scientist David Suzuki sounds the alarm on the climate crisis.

    BM: What would you like to pass on? I mean, what are some nuggets of experience from your own life that you think might be instructive and helpful to future generations?

    DS: They’re all about stories. And one that comes to mind immediately, we were doing a show, a two-hour special on forestry. And I arranged with MacMillan Bloedel, one of the big logging companies, to interview three loggers on Vancouver Island.

    And so we rolled up and pulled out our camera. The loggers saw us. They were waiting and they came out of the bush, they’re cussing me and saying, you XX enviros, you’re taking our jobs away. And I started arguing. And it was great television, you know, people love that. But at the end of this exchange I said, you know, I don’t know a single environmentalist who’s against logging. We use paper, we use lumber. We’re not against logging. We just want to be sure your kids and grandchildren will be able to log forests as rich as the ones you’re cutting now.

    Right away one of the loggers jumped in and said, there’s no way my kids are going into logging. There aren’t going to be any trees left. And that’s when I understood or I realized that we weren’t talking to each other. They were talking about, look, I’ve got to put food on the plate every day, I’ve got to pay for my car and my mortgage.

    They’re looking at it in terms of immediate needs whereas what we were arguing was the long-term protection of the forest that could continue to yield wood and pulp forever if we do it the right way. But we’re arguing in different ways. And I think that’s one of the most important lessons is when we begin a conversation, let’s at least start from a common ground so that we know what we’re talking about. Otherwise we’re just talking past each other.

    BM: How do you reach common ground there?

    DS: If we can both agree that the health of the forest is critical. As long as those trees are healthy, that forest is healthy, loggers can make a living at it. And those forests, that forest, will provide the services that all of humanity needs which is taking carbon out of the air and putting oxygen back in and holding the soil so it doesn’t erode and providing habitat, those are the kind of ecological services I’m interested in.

    But if we both agree the health of the forest is the source of our wellbeing, either as a logger, see, that’s where I think the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs is so relevant. You know, as long as the goose is fat and healthy and you take care of it, it would lay a golden egg every day. But you get greedy and kill the goose, there’s no golden eggs to be got.

    BM: In her forward to your book, “The Legacy,” Margaret Atwood says you have lived the life of the great prophets, “those whose messages go unheeded because they tell us things we find uncomfortable.” But there was a time when your messages were heeded. And you helped win some very important battles back there in the ’70s, and the ’80s. Now you’re, seems to me, you’re fighting those same battles all over again. What does that tell us?

    DS: That was the shock to me. We celebrated great victories in the 1970s and ’80s, stopping clear cutting of these forests or drilling for oil off the coast of British Columbia, stopping big dams that were to be built in Brazil and northern British Columbia, stopped supertankers from Alaska going down to Seattle. And here we are 30, 35 years later and we’re fighting the same battles.

    And what I’ve said is that this is a signal that we as environmentalists have fundamentally failed. We’ve failed to shift the perceptual lenses through which we see our place on the planet. You see, we thought if we stop that dam, whoa, we’ve won, that’s it. And we didn’t point out why are we stopping the dam. What does it mean? What are the values inherent in that battle and that victory? We just saw the battle as the issue. And we never saw it as simply part of the symptoms of a greater change that’s needed.

    And so we failed the common expression is to shift the paradigm. And that really is the challenges of environmentalism is really about seeing our place in the world in the way that humans have always known up until very, very recently that we’re part of nature and utterly dependent on the natural world for our wellbeing and survival.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “So Bhutan, Bhutan is this tiny country that, well, they’ve got 70 percent of the land is covered with forest and they’re determined to keep it. And they’re committed to all organic agriculture in the country. And their goal is not economic growth but gross national happiness”

      I love that – gross national happiness 🙂

    2. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      How can it be said that the environmentalists have failed? They are the smallest group of voices out there advocating to stop the exploitation of our forests, it’s like a Sysiphean task because when gains are made, they are also lost. If anything, our political leadership has failed.

      Climate change is here, and cannot be stopped. All we can do is try to ‘mitigate’ it, by reducing our consumption and I believe a complete societal change in the way we live which is going to be a major effort. It is wrong to tell people we can have our cake and eat it too – as in continued logging of our world’s forests and have healthy wildlands too. It simply cannot be done with our present mindsets.

  21. T Lewis Avatar
    T Lewis


    As a wilderness supporter and a practicing forester in an eastern US state, I always enjoy reading your articles. And once again, I generally agree with the premise of your thought-provoking essay on “sustainable forestry”.

    Anyone who knows their history is aware that we humans have been relying on forest products for a very long time. Generally speaking, the demand for forest products has increased over time, while the commercially productive forest land base has correspondingly shrunk. The challenge for 21st century foresters is to practice environmentally friendly forest management on fewer available acres while simultaneously meeting society’s demands for forest products. Part of that challenge includes minimizing the footprint that forest management operations leave on the land.

    As you suggest, forest managers have made some progress in that regard over the years. Sustainable forestry, while certainly not the end-all and be-all, is just another step in the right direction.

    And yes, economics will always be a large part of the forest mgmt and sustainable forestry equation.

    But haven’t we wilderness supporters also invoked economics as justification for preserving wild places?


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George Wuerthner