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    The Corruption of Wood


    It's not enough that strip-mined hillsides can be replanted with a spindly monoculture of fiber stalks, pushed up with chemical fertilizer and defended with massive aerial spraying of herbicides and other broadly toxic pesticides.

    The richly interwoven web of life that is the ecosystem of an intact Pacific Northwest forest restrains steep slopes, builds and maintains top soil, filters water and buffers peak stream flows, maintains cool understory temperatures, broods freshwater and anadromous fish, supports myriad species of resident and seasonal birds and wildlife, and sequesters carbon from our overtaxed atmosphere.

    We know scientifically that the intact forest is essential to the health of salmon, seabirds, and in turn even orca populations, as well as for elk and owls. In turn, it has been shown that historically the remains of spawning salmon fertilize the forest, their oceanic isotopes detectable in trees tops far from a watercourse.

    Decline and simplification of the forest causes decline in salmon, which causes further decline in the forest, and so on. Ecology is all about feedback loops — not free lunches.

    Myths and Faith

    Similar in a way to climate change, some of the eventual impacts of widespread clearcutting are separated from the extraction act in time and location. After all, in many forest areas west of the Cascade range, when a patch of trees is cut down, it starts to grow back spontaneously within a few years.

    Yet each time the woods are clearcut, and when they are replanted as "managed forest," slopes erode, soil is lost, streams are silted and down cut, fungi, invertebrates, fish, fowl and mammals are scattered, starved, and killed.


    The underlying faith that forest regrowth as provided by Nature for millennia is something inevitable, is reminiscent of the great faith that the free lunch of fossil fuel energy can go on indefinitely.

    And — like the faith that humankind will somehow be held harmless from the inevitable outcomes of continued mountaintop removal and tar sands mining, ubiquitous petrochemical pollution, and use of the atmosphere as a vast open sewer — the faith in forest returning is buttressed and protected by great heaps of pseudoscientific mythology.

    The reality is that on much land in the Pacific Northwest, particularly the industrial forest lands of Oregon managed under the pernicious Oregon Forest Practices Act, even where there is a dense stand of conifers, there is truly no longer a forest — in the sense of the diverse, resilient, tree-centered life-giving landscape, in which the Douglas fir, for instance, evolved millions of years ago.

    Myths of Timber

    The myths of timber are many and widespread. Interestingly, professional foresters we have spoken with are often dismayed by the prevalence and frequent repetition of so much misinformation. Yet very few are willing to speak above a whisper, in a regional wood products culture where timber barons control much wealth and political power, such that failure to toe the industry line is expected to result in quick, decisive ostracism and loss of livelihood.

    Myth of Thinning

    It is often stated that forests need to be actively thinned to grow robustly, to prevent wildfire, to resist beetle attack, to improve ecological structure, or for other reasons. A failure to thin is sometimes seen as a travesty of forest mismanagement.

    First, the forests that show the greatest apparent need for thinning are typically those that were industrially planted with purposefully-close tree spacings. This close planting is done for purely silvicultural reasons, including crowding out competitor species to achieve an intentional monoculture, and suppressing conifer branches as a short-cut to producing knot-free lumber.

    Second, when trees grow naturally in dense stands, for instance in some cases after a major "stand-replacing" disturbance, the trees naturally weed themselves out in the race for sunlight, as they have for millions of years. Human assistance in the process is optional at best.

    Third, in many cases, thinning actually hurts progress toward the stated goals. Thinned forests, with more open canopies, are commonly warmer and drier than before thinning, potentially increasing fire susceptibility. And when variable size thinning, as opposed to bottom-up thinning, bows to commercial pressure and takes from among the largest, oldest trees in a stand, it's virtually impossible that the actual outcome will be reaching "old growth characteristics" sooner.

    This also connects with the Myth of Fire, below.

    Myth of Rural Economies

    The din of proclamations that logging must be increased for the sake of rural economies, rural employment, or to fund rural county governments is frequently deafening.

    Right now, three Congressmen in Western Oregon, including southern Oregon Republican Walden, centrist Democrat Schrader representing Clackamas County, and supposedly-progressive Peter DeFazio, are shopping around a legislative proposal to effectively privatize over a million acres of federal public forest lands, and turn them over to industrial timber operations. The stated rationale is a share of the logging proceeds are needed to fund county governments.

    Several lines of definitive evidence show up the Myth of Rural Economies.

    First, strong economic studies have shown that the indirect costs loaded onto rural communities by heavy clearcut logging actually overwhelm the local economic benefits from timber-related jobs, etc.

    Second, many years of statistics clearly illustrate that timber-related employment has gone down in years when harvest levels have been flat or even increasing. This is due to high levels of automation in modern mills, increasingly sophisticated heavy equipment in the woods and log yards, and large shipments of raw logs from private timberland, and laundered logs from public timber land, to mills overseas. For perspective, in Oregon, the largest producing U.S. state for saw logs and dimensional lumber, jobs in the wood products industry are only about 3% of statewide employment total.

    Third, the sad fact is that rural county governments across western U.S. timber areas are broadly dominated by timber interests, with timber barons and/or their designees maintaining safe majorities. Many of these counties have drastically low tax rates, having lived for decades off of federal subsidies. They point to poverty in their communities as evidence of government need — as if the two were synonymous — overlooking both untouched concentrations of private wealth, and that the resource extraction process itself is a driver of community and worker impoverishment.

    The Myth of Spotted Owl — that protecting owls, murrelets, and other endangered forest-dependent species is a driver of rural economic woes — is an oft-repeated, equally groundless subsidiary fiction.

    Myth of Fire

    Wildfire is erratic, huge, terrifying, and devastating — classic mythological territory.

    Moreover, the underlying trends of gradual and accelerating warming across most temperate timber lands, coupled with widespread overall and/or seasonal drying, suggest strongly that wildfire, always part of the rhythm of natural continental landscapes, will be increasing.   >>>

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    ArchWeek Image

    Seen from the air, the checkerboard pattern of Western Oregon forest highlights unsustainable cut rates on the mostly-stripped industrial forest sections, as compared to the alternating greener BLM public land sections. Each section is a one mile (1.6 kilometer) square, with an area of 640 acres (259 hectares).
    Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The strength and flexibility of wood allows Shigeru Ban to create designs like these bundled columns transitioning into a curvaceous structural roof grid at the Haesley Nine Bridges Golf Clubhouse in Yeoju, South Korea.
    Photo: Jong Oh Kim Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The Pe Ell landslide, originating in an SFI-certified timber harvest area, destroyed two homes on the far side of Washington State Road 6.
    Photo: Courtesy Washington State Dept. of Transportation Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in Wyoming's Grand Tetons National Park was designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.
    Photo: Nic Lehoux/ Courtesy ORO Editions Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Downstream in a heavily-logged watershed, flooding of the Chehalis River in December 2007 blocked interstate highway I-5 for days near Centralia, Washington.
    Photo: Courtesy Washington State Dept. of Transportation Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Pine used for primary structural members in the Leopold Legacy Center was harvested from trees planted decades earlier by Leopold for use as lumber. Other wood in the complex was harvested sustainably on site.
    Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Pine used for primary structural members in the Leopold Legacy Center was harvested sustainably on site. Other wood in the complex was harvested from trees planted decades earlier by Leopold for use as lumber.
    Photo: Kevin Matthews/ Artifice Images Extra Large Image


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