Industrial Forest Science: Industry’s Bitch

Photo Source Gunvor Røkke | CC BY 2.0

“As soon as you are a scientist … you take a political side [because] you must necessarily choose to ask only certain questions. Many scientists … produce risk assessment for forest management [which] asks ‘how much can we cut, graze, salvage, spray, develop … and do to Earth’s ecosystems without making them buckle.”

–Mary O’Brien, 1994. Being a Scientist Means Taking Sides. BioScience 43(10): 706-708

“The larger and more immediate are prospects for gain, the greater the political power that is used to facilitate unlimited exploitation; Political leaders … base their policies upon a misguided view of the dynamics of resource exploitation; Distrust claims of sustainability; Scientists and their judgments are subject to political pressures.”

–Donald Ludwig, et al., 1993. Uncertainty, Resource Exploitation, and Conservation: Lessons from History. Science 260: 17/36.

Back in the late 1980s, the good people of Minnesota, alarmed by heavy logging, asked that an impact analysis be done. Jaakko Poyry, an international forestry consulting firm, was hired to produce a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), and in 1992, the draft of the million dollar analysis was released for public scrutiny. In essence, it read “There will be ecological damage, we’re not sure how much, but industry rules.”

At even the lowest level investigated [the level that had caused public concern], there were projected declines in species of rare trees; declines of tree species within their ranges; unavoidable destruction of rare plant communities; loss of genetic diversity in many plants, including trees. The authors wrote “The lack of data … make it difficult to interpret impacts with any degree of certainly”; “Projections assume no natural disturbance” [Really!]; “Implicit assumptions [are] unrealistic”; “Loss of genetically unique ecotypes is irreversible.”; “Knowledge [is] not sufficient for detailed analysis of effects of fragmentation on biodiversity.”

The real stunner, though, was a prescription for clearcuts of over 10,000 acres (~16 square miles) to “mimic natural disturbances”. They’re saying that massive removals – essentially everything — would equate to wind throw, fire, and insect invasion (which leave nutrients, biomass and a “structural legacy” in situ). Such invention should have generated emphatic denunciation from within the ranks of forest science, but such was not forthcoming from the U.S. Forest Service or the state Department of Forestry, or from academic departments of forestry. Such silences in the face of pervasive public misconceptions, biological misinformation within legislatures, deceptive advertising, and industry’s invasion of education from pre-Kindergarten to the Academy, is the norm, and it reveals industrial forest science to be the willing handmaiden (or such) of a profiteering industry that is a major engine of global biological decline. In time, though, the final GEIS was to become a guide for management in neighboring states as well as in MN.

Industrial forest science functions within an industrial/political/governmental/academic stew in which industry dominates. The design of the corporate pyramid guarantees rise of the most rapacious profiteers, hence leadership in the forest products industry marches to the same canon as tobacco, defense, pharmaceutical, insurance. Environmental damage is baked into the system. The scientists authoring and supporting the GEIS make that gin clear in their draft: “Conservationists [cannot be] naïve about the reality of world markets and demand for forest products”, and they express intention “to identify mitigation actions which are effective and practical in a physical context, as well as in the political, financial, and administrative environments in Minnesota.” That deflates any pretension of independence from naked power. The public’s forests are managed primarily for tree biomass/area/time, and, as the GEIS reveals, other aspects of the ecosystem, known or unknown, are expendable. Nothing personal, just agribusiness.

Society needs timber and paper, and plantations are OK in places just as cornfields are. But just as cornfields are not tallgrass prairies, stands of trees managed for sawtimber and pulp are not forests in the old growth sense. For all their size, trees are but a few species among countless thousands that compose old growth forest communities. By virtue of sheer size, trees form a structural framework for the rest of the community, but they alone are not a forest. Industrial forest science betrays scientific protocol in its aim to take and “manage” it ALL, as demonstrated by the GEIS repudiation of the World Conservation Union’s proposal to set aside 10-15% of each ecosystem: “To not harvest large parts of forest is not an option“. And this is where forest science fails most profoundly. Scientific methodology requires that if anything is to be experimented on or manipulated, an identical entity must be held aside unchanged as a “control” to serve as a standard that allows the scientist to measure the results of manipulations. As Reed Noss, former editor of the journal Conservation Biology noted, “Scientists shudder to think of experiments without controls, but this is precisely what happens with most of our land management.”

There is no more revered biological scientist than the late Aldo Leopold. Here, in a 1941 publication, his comment about controls: “A science of land health needs, first of all, a base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism … Each biotic province needs its own wilderness for comparative studies of used and unused land.” Leopold’s “base datum of normality” is his call for “control”, and he stipulates the importance of wilderness scale, what critic Nancy Newhall pointed out “holds answers to questions man has not yet learned to ask”. SCALE! Forest science extrapolates local findings onto vast landscapes as if scale were of no consequence and so operates without proper controls. Intricacies of intact old growth forests elude science still, and yet industrial forestry, in which its scientists are central players, continues to fell them and to prevent their regeneration in the name of profit. As biologist Chris Maser correctly stated, this is “throwing away Nature’s blueprint.”

As to the condition of public forests in my home state of Wisconsin, the following segment of an internal report of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) tells the story: “[The northern forest] is characterized by sapling and pole-sized material for timber products as the primary objective of forest management … The major forest cover types of the northern forest are managed at an economic rotation age. This perpetuates a simpler local and regional structure of forest communities. Old growth characteristics in managed forests do not develop. More intensively managed forests lack the snag and den-tree component as well as the horizontal and vertical structure typical of old growth stands… Road networks are improving and expanding so that they dominate the landscape in most areas … Plantations and clearcuts will continue to fragment.”

In the political and academic environment in which industrial forest science operates, “mature forest”, rather than a biological designation, is commonly a financial judgment that treesare at “economic rotation age”, i.e., ideal for felling. Trees beyond their youthful growth are seen as “overmature”. Cavity-filled trees, snags and downed, rotting logs are inefficient and a waste, although at every stage they serve as substrate for other species of the community. The WI DNR explains: “Because of the great disparity between economic and biological maturity of most tree species, the increase of old growth forests, in a biological sense, is unlikely.” Indeed.

Another gem found in a WI DNR publication was aimed at the public: “Biodiversity – perhaps more appropriately called ecosystem management – is sometimes controversial and misunderstood.” Yes folks, the DNR wrote that biodiversity = management. And because industrial forest scientists invariably keep their mouths shut as such tripe gets dished out, biological misinformation continues to reverberate throughout legislatures, administrative hierarchies, and the public at large. The authors of an article that appeared in Science (see introductory quote) considered the “remarkable consistency in the history of resource exploitation” as due to “(i)Wealth generates political and social power, (ii)The lack of controls, (iii)The complexity of the underlying biological and physical systems.” No adequate controls, no idea of impacts or of priceless knowledge lost, full speed ahead, science for sale.

Prior to 9/11, public attention on forest issues was intense. Biologists in the University of Wisconsin System charged the U.S. Forest Service with “pervasive biological naivete” and “grossly inadequate ecological underpinning”. Aware that the cobwebs of logging roads in Wisconsin have led to serious loss of “interior” forest, UW botanists proposed that two 50,000-acre patches be allowed to revert to unfragmented old growth. Industry stopped it pronto. The supervisor of a national forest in the state, irked at the prospect of a bona fide control, called the proposal “a veiled grab at wilderness.” In a separate Wisconsin case, 216 independent biologists from 17 campuses petitioned the State to amend its statutes by deleting “recurring forest products”, as the primary “use” of state forests, and to make primary “the restoration and protection of native biodiversity”. Platoons of industry lawyers, lobbyists and industry-supported legislators killed that too. But those were the 90s, and industry still was not yet able to apply its agenda full bore.

Today, in the wake of 9/11, public concern has become so focused on war, terrorism and a plunging standard of living, that support for forest and wilderness-oriented environmentalism is close to nil. With opposition to pure timber/pulp management neutered, legislation to protect industry from biologists and the public has advanced quickly. Wisconsin law now requires the state to “maximize timber production using … locally accepted timber production practices common to the industry … taking into consideration only the site’s capability to produce timber … the market for forest products, and the economy…” The law is now locked up so tightly that a citizen or group proceeding against any “generally accepted forest management practices” is guaranteed to lose and to be liable for court costs, legal fees and any losses industry cares to claim. A legal contest against industry could have no outcome other than financial ruin for any plaintiff. Industry’s platoons of lawyers, lobbyists and legislative shills have done their jobs well, and their industrial forest scientists have been with them every step of the way.

Industrial forest science is servant to an industry that is exploitative to the extent it can persuade society that its actions bear a scientific stamp of approval. It can greenwash and wordsmith its investigations and analyses until Hell freezes over, but until it stands up to the industrial profit-over-all ethic and advocates for proper controls in the form of untouched, expansive, unfragmented oldgrowth forest, it functions as a key industrial weapon through its disregard of very basic protocol.