One year into the Trump presidency and it ain’t pretty. Minority and immigrant’s rights are being trampled and verbal assaults are commonplace. It seems more like a school playground than America. Black Lives Matter (BLM), #MeToo, Sh*thole countries, Joe Arpaio, Steve Bannon; dissing “the other” is suddenly okay. Chauvinism is not confined to people. I’ve witnessed decades of interspecies prejudice and the consequences are just as hurtful and sometimes lethal.
We must point out this ugliness when it occurs in the barest terms. What I’m referring to is the heretofore unlabeled tree classism that I call bigo-tree. Both professionals and neophytes arbor-trarily place some species above others. Thus, we have an established system of Linnaeus’ classification occurring alongside a crudely promulgated arboreal intolerance.
Honestly, I have my own tree biases. I carry no great love for nonnatives that enamor our city planners. I’ve rejected those over-planted blue spruce (Picea pungens x domestica) so favored by town folk bent on establishing overnight shade. The symmetrical blue spruce of Butte, Boulder, Bountiful, or Baker looks nothing like it’s wildland relative, though it may now exist in greater abundance than its natural cousin. Be it spruce, linden, ash, or sycamore these foreigners exhibit insatiable thirst while tapping regional aquafers at a sprawling pace. Tree-litism takes many forms.
It’s easy to pick on imported or crossbred specimens of our humanized world. What gets under my bark are the demeaning proclamations on native trees; as if vocational title—forester, range manager, botanist, fuels specialist—endows god-like powers to decree good and bad in the tree world.
As European-based forestry marched across America in the early 20th century resource extraction was king and only fast growing ‘timber’ species were favored. All others were banished to the apartheid of arboreal under classes. This caste system committed the “unmerchantables” to a fate of staggering abuse, if not outright genocide, in the name of progress. In the West, aspen, birch, cottonwood, piñon and limber pine, and others were burned, bulldozed, bashed and otherwise berated to make way for preferred stems. In a sort of Jim Crow of forestry, these species were figuratively spit on for decades.
My farther-in-law, a trained forest hydrologist, considered cottonwood a “weed” in the early 1960s and he did his best to denude the Black Hills of this troublesome broadleaf. Across the West, aspen too was thought to impede production forestry. Down it went by way of D9 Cat, clearfell, stem girdling, even chemical warfare.
Piñon-juniper forest are common in the West, yet many managers continue to disparage these trees because their twisting and multiple stems don’t conform to silvicultural standards. Undeserving of industry standards, they’re often debased as “woodlands” or “pigmy forests.” Of no use upright, they’ve been assaulted by massive “chaining” projects because they had the nerve to “encroach” on rangelands. This parallels the pithy slurs on Haiti while propping up Norway. Bigo-tree is a festering canker on western values!
“Ecosystem management” was supposed to redeem us from past embarrassments and inject a new spirit of objectivity and egalitarianism in our forests. Once we found ecological value in the previous outcasts, however, new tree outcasts emerged. Now aspen, mountain maple, and Gambel oak give us diversity. Fire brings diversity AND rids of those now-nasty…firs and pseudo-firs! Sometimes called “piss firs,” these demons are encroaching on our less-than-healthy forests. We found a new tree enemy and persecution, name-calling, and subjugation is the obvious solution. Down with ‘overly dense’ firs and up with ‘park-like’ pines! Ethnobotanic cleansing replete with clean imagery.
And on it goes. A new era brings another round of dendro pariahs. Like the parade of nationalities crossing Ellis Island they look different and don’t act like we expect them to, so we denigrate their very existence. Maybe their fruits are too big, too abundant, or just messy. Perhaps they burn readily when we build too close to them or their self-pruning limbs clutter the forest floor. Humans, the great arbor-trators, may never see the forest for the trees, so absorbed are we in how they should look and perform to our liking.
Bigo-tree is palpable as we hominids selectively cull bad from good. Ask the grizzly bear about the whitebark pine or the eagle about the cottonwood. Trees, like humans, animals, and water play many roles. Forests are an infinite tangle of roots, processes, and notions. As we tinker with trees or fiddle with forests, it may benefit all to consider letting firs be firs within the larger morass where we are only one, often prejudiced, element.
Paul C. Rogers is the Director of the Western Aspen Alliance and an academic ecologist. He lives in Logan, Utah when he is not traveling and working around the West.