THE SELF-INFLICTED COST OF ECONOMIC MYOPIA
by
Chris Maser

The lead article in my hometown paper, the Corvallis Gazette-Times, opened on February 13, 2007, with the headline, "Timber filibuster falls short." The first paragraph said, in part: "An attempted filibuster by Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith fell short Monday as procedural wrangling foiled his bid to extend payments to rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging." Smith goes on to say, "We are talking about people's jobs, children's schools and general public safety in 700 timber counties in 39 states."

As has been the case throughout history, this "short fall" is self-inflicted through the kind of economic shortsightedness tucked into the language of the "Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960," which is based on a linear, economic assumption totally at odds with ecological reality. The assumption is that biological processes in a forest remain constant, while we humans maximize whatever forest product or amenity seems desirable. The errors associated with this kind of linear thinking over the past several hundred years illustrate the dismal results of ignoring the perpetual novelty and cyclical nature of ecological reality. Much as some people might want it otherwise, we cannot circumvent a system ultimately controlled by inviolate, biophysical principles beyond the capacity of humanity to alter. Forests are not, after all, the endless producers of commodities and amenities that we have heretofore assumed them to be.

In the beginning, when vast forests of ancient trees spread across much of the Pacific Northwestern United States, the forest industry became incensed whenever the federal government put up a timber sale on public lands. How dare the federal government compete with private industry, was the cry, because such competition would lower the price of lumber. But once the owners of industrial forests had liquidated the available timber on their own lands, a new voice was heard, one that whined because the federal government was not allowing the capture of windfall profits reaped from cutting the public´┐Żs ancient forests, wherein the industry had no investment prior to logging.

There was yet another facet to cutting timber on public lands. Namely, the counties wherein the forests grew were given a share of the revenues. When, therefore, a county wanted more money, pressure was placed on the government agency in charge of the forest to sell more timber. The pressure to sell more and more timber was based on the economic principle of sustained yield (sustained cut), which postulates that, once a forest is converted to a plantation, the latter can and should produce wood fiber at a specified level in perpetuity. Were this the case, however, it would not only require a constant or accelerating rate of growth but also assumes the constant capacity of the soil to nurture the desired growth. There was no room within this claim for even a slight decline in soil fertility from over-exploitation, erosion, and compaction, or catastrophy, such as fire, disease, or a change in climate.

With passage of the "Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960," a new, economic ploy came into being. It was called:   Non-declining, even flow. Simply put, this economic mantra translated into a sustained cut, ostensibly to stabilize jobs and thus community economics, but at the tremendous price of a foregone biologically sustainable forest—the self-inflicted cost of economic myopia.

Today, the forests, which could have been sustainably harvested, are a historical wish, and the coveted "timber receipts" with them. Nevertheless, the monetary insatiability of the counties was as much a part of their decline as was the monetary insatiability of the timber industry. What, if anything, have we learned?

I still hear the same rhetoric I heard ten, twenty, thirty years ago:  We need more money; therefore, we need to cut more trees. Only there are no more big, old trees that can be wisely cut if future generations are to have viable forests to meet their life's requirements. With this in mind, I wonder how our thinking would be affected if the "Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act" had been conceived and written as the "Multiple Use Sustainable Yield Act" or even as the "Sustainable Forest Act?"

I wonder because a forest is a continuum of interdependent processes in relation to time, completing its cycle only in the memory of several human generations. And because a forest is an interactive, biophysical system defined by its function, as opposed to its pieces in isolation of one another, it is driven by continual change and novelty, which precludes the existence of an independent variable or constant value. We do not seem to understand this, however, or we ignore it, because all of our models—economic, managerial, and even ecological—are short term and linear. This is not only because we chose to based them on desired outcomes but also because we do not have the capability to construct them in any other way.

Thus, while linear models can only predict in a linear function within the span of a few years, the cyclical nature of a forest touches that "predictable" line for but the briefest moment in the millennial life of the soil, the womb from which the forest grows. Yet, in this instant, with grossly incomplete knowledge and shortsighted, unquestioning faith in that knowledge, we insist on a sustained-yield prediction into the unforeseeable future from our plantation management. When, therefore, we liquidate an old forest, we do so thinking we can forever have a rapidly growing plantation that has a magical sustained yield, even as we ignore the interacting, biophysical variables of forestry:  soil, water, air, sunlight, climate, and diversity in all its myriad forms.

Changes in global climate are dynamic, however, and will alter Earth's biophysical cycles on Nature's scale of time and space—not humanity's. None of these alterations is quantifiably predictable in the short term, and only slightly more so in the long term, which makes an assumed, constant value effectively moot, economic or otherwise. This leaves computer predictions ecologically "deaf, dumb, and blind" when it comes to forest cycles. Hence, yields from plantations may be moderately predictable in the short term, but cannot be sustained in the long term. On the other hand, plantations that emulate a natural forest, may become sustainable, but only when we have the humility to learn how to nurture the long-term, biophysically health of the soil of which the trees are but a visible extension.

Because of the dynamic nature of evolving ecosystems and because each system is constantly organizing itself from one critical state to another, an ecosystem cannot be "managed" for an absolute value of anything, such as a given sustained yield of timber. The only sustainability with respect to humanity is whatever ensures the ability of an ecosystem to adapt to evolutionary change (such as global warming) in a way that may be favorable for us.

We must, however, devise a new paradigm before we can change our utilitarian focus, which forces us to view the forest and all it contains simply as commodities to be endlessly exploited. In other words, we cannot have an economically sustainable yield of any forest product (such as wood fiber, water, soil fertility, wildlife, or genetic diversity) until we first have an ecologically sustainable forest, one in which the biological divestments, investments, and reinvestments are balanced in such a way that the forest is self-maintaining in perpetuity.

In the new paradigm, we must accept the forest as a living organism with which we cooperate and through such cooperation are allowed to harvest products as the biophysical capability of the forest permits. But what, you might ask, does the concept of sustainability mean in terms of a forest?

It means we must have a biologically sustainable forest in order to have a biologically sustainable yield. We must have a biologically sustainable yield in order to have an economically sustainable industry. We must have an economically sustainable industry in order to have an economically sustainable community. And we must have an economically sustainable community in order to have an economically sustainable society. When sustainability is put in purely economic terms, the required primacy of the ecological principles becomes clear.

We must first practice sound "bio-economics" (the economics of maintaining a healthy, biologically sustainable forest), before we can practice sound "industrio-economics" (the economics of maintaining a healthy, economically sustainable timber industry), before we can practice sound "socio-economics" (the economics of maintaining a healthy, culturally sustainable society). It all begins with a solid foundation, which in this case is a healthy, biologically sustainable forest.

Many of today's "forest practices" are counter to sustainable forestry. Instead of training foresters to take care of forests, we train plantation managers to manage the short-rotation, economic plantations—rowcropping, as it were. Forests have evolved through the cumulative addition of structural diversity that initiates and maintains process diversity, complexity, and stability through time. We are reversing the rich building process of that diversity, complexity, and stability by continually replacing forests with plantations designed within narrow, short-term, economic constraints.

Every acre of Nature's forest replaced with a plantation is an acre that is purposely stripped of its biological diversity and ecological sustainability, thereby reducing it to the lowest common denominator—simplistic economic theory. The simplistic economics of the agriculture paradigm has not proven to be ecologically sustainable anywhere in the world in the medium and long term. Thus, the concept of a "plantation," a strictly simplistic, economic concept, has nothing whatsoever to do with the biological sustainability of a forest. Under this concept, forests are replaced with plantations of genetically manipulated trees accompanied by the corporate-political-academic promise that such plantations are better, healthier, and more viable than the indigenous forests, which evolved with the land over millennia.

"Sustainable," however, means producing economic outputs as the forest gives us the biophysical capability to do so in perpetuity. This, in turn, necessitates maximizing the health of the forest, as well as procuring all products and amenities within the forest's sustainable capacity.

To accomplish ecological sustainability, we must shift our historical paradigm from the cherished notion of sustained yield, wherein the forest is managed so an equal volume of merchantable wood fiber is not only produced annually but also projected forever into the unknowable future. I say this because the timber industry was sustained, until recently, by the superabundance of existing timber, rather than by carefully creating and implementing plans for the caretaking of biologically sustainable forests.

The timber industry has survived by changing its technology and standards of utilization, which has enabled more of the existing timber to be cut and processed. Although this has improved the industry's efficiency of use, it has delayed the apparent need for a critical assessment of the forest's actual condition, and has made no provision for the necessities of either forest health or the life requirements of future generations.

The most productive forests in Oregon (those below 4000 ft elevation) were the first to be cut out. To maintain the "sustained yield" from the less productive high-elevation forests (those above 4000 ft) the increase in annual acreage cut has been five times the increase in volume cut during the last 40 years. Are we adding to other ecological blunders of world forestry by mining our high-elevation water-catchments?

Further, the practice of "sustained-yield forestry" excludes of all other human values except production of fast-grown wood fiber. Young forests (up to 60 years old) do not produce the highest quality water. They are not conducive to recreation. Spotted owls, marbled murrelets, and elk are not sustained by them through time. They have lost the attractiveness of diversity. In addition, genetically engineered, "improved" trees in fast-growing plantations produce problem lumber because of weak wood that tends to shrink, warp, and break under stress.

In Short, sustained yield is nothing more than short-term, economic exploitation, wherein the inherited principal is summarily cut without reinvesting sufficient biological capital in the forest to at least balance the account. Ecological principles of diversity, interactive process, and the forest's cycle through time are violated in order to practice the diminishing return of "sustained yield" forestry—which is, nevertheless, the circular, economic firing squad wherein the insatiable counties are now caught with their fingers glued to the trigger.

"Sustainable-yield forestry" has not been practiced in the Pacific Northwest, because our "sustained yield" (which equates to sustained cut) has come from the ancient forests we inherited from Nature and for which we can claim no credit. In fact, even the stated concept of sustained yield has been violated by continually increasing the cut of these old forests whenever more money was desired.

If, therefore, human society is to survive as we know it, we must become trustees of our natural resources, which means letting go of the exploitive, colonial mentality—use it until it collapses, then someone else can deal with it. Much as we might wish otherwise, humanity is not in control of Nature. If we go back to the original sense of the word "re-source," we will find that the ecological sustainability of our forests is embodied in a word we blithely use but do not fully understand.

The choice is ours today. To all generations of the future, we bequeath the wisdom or the folly of our decisions. What will our choice of actions be with respect to forests:  the continuance of our current exploitation or the unconditional gift of a biological living trust whereby truly sustainable forests are maintained for the children, present and future?


©chris maser 2007. All rights reserved.

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