Feature

THE FUTURE OF OUR
FORESTS

By Ted Kerasote

"America's vast green treasure house can be made self-perpetuating . . . with scientific help," proclaimed a 1967 booklet from Weyerhaeuser, the timber and paper company. In fact, unlike oil or minerals, trees are the ultimate renewable resource. Some species, including aspen, one of the five species highlighted on the following pages, are prolific and prevalent enough to meet today's commercial demands. Such gifts from the forest provide the house you live in and the magazine you are holding.

But as a logger once noted, milk doesn't come from cartons, and pigs don't lay bacon. If you're going to build a deck or a hot tub, a tree has to fall. In this issue, Audubon seeks to give consumers the information they need to buy certified wood--the fruit of careful, selective forestry that takes into account preserving wildlife, water quality, and other resources.

Unfortunately, many logging operations take a much heavier toll, as we note in the following profiles of five forests where native trees are at risk. Imagine logging 625-acre swaths of old-growth aspen that are home to dozens of migratory birds just to make paper and strand board. That's what's happening in a virgin boreal forest near Swan River, Manitoba.

Ultimately, these forests and trees share a fate that will be determined by you, the consumer. You may have to go the extra mile to find lumber bearing a certified-wood logo or to call a company to trace the flow of wood back to the place where it grew. But when you do, you can be heartened by the part you are playing in protecting a forest.

Western Red Cedar Thuja plicata
THE TREE THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

Western red cedar, photographed by Brian Smale

The lives of the indigenous people, urbanites, mammals, birds, and fish of the Pacific Northwest are all intimately tied to the western red cedar. Without exaggeration, this species can be called one of the planet's most important trees, and the overcutting of the western red cedar in the Elaho Valley near Vancouver represents the destruction of an entire ecosystem.

Here, in coastal British Columbia's temperate rainforest, 1,000-year-old cedars soar to 100 feet, their trunks fluted and their bark reddish-brown and shaggy. Commercially, the trees are valuable for their soft, straight- grained, and aromatic wood, which is easy to work with, takes a satiny finish, and holds paint extremely well. Even untreated, cut cedar is immune to decay for decades. Historically, the region's indigenous people used cedar for homes, bows and arrows, totem poles, and 65-foot voyaging canoes. Today western red cedar is widely used as paneling in homes, and it remains North America's most popular wood for shingles.

The tree also plays a vital role for wildlife. When a red cedar grows big and old, it develops heart rot, thus creating homes for pine martens, black bears, and owls. Woodpeckers feed on carpenter ants that live in the tree, and numerous birds and squirrels eat its seeds. The endangered southern populations of mountain caribou depend on the lichen found in low-elevation old-growth cedar and hemlock forests during early winter. When alive, the moisture-loving cedar shades streams, keeping the water cool for fish and aquatic insects. Dead and fallen cedars provide the woody debris that sustains bacteria and insects, which, in turn, become food for other creatures. Indeed, even after a life that can last a millennium, a red cedar keeps on giving for centuries. Downed trees anchor the soil, and their decaying wood replenishes the earth with incredibly rich nutrients, nursing the growth of new trees.

Six timber companies--Weyerhaeuser, Canadian Forest Products, Fletcher Challenge Canada, International Forest Products, West Fraser Timber, and Western Forest Products--continue to log western red cedar on the coast of British Columbia. In the province's interior, Slocan Forest Products and Louisiana-Pacific log this cedar. British Columbia's Ministry of Forestry insists that old growth abounds in parks; environmentalists say the parks are primarily rock and ice.

Boycotts in Europe and Canada have forced companies to reconsider their cutting of old-growth cedar. More sustainable logging practices are now being negotiated between conservationists, timber companies, and the province.

Still, a recent report by the World Resources Institute called the rate of cutting of Canada's old-growth forests unsustainable.

In the meantime, consumers should buy old-growth western red cedar only in its certified form, which is available in extremely limited supplies. As Wayne McCrory, the well-known Canadian bear biologist, says, "Using 800-year-old wood for cedar shakes to put on your roof is totally irresponsible, especially when there are so many other substitutes." If you need a new roof, try asphalt shingles, which usually last longer and are more fire-resistant.

 

Sugar Pine Pinus lambertiana
THE NOBLEST PINE

Just south of the Oregon-California border, on Indian Creek, a tributary of the Klamath River, stands a dignified grove of enormous trees. Some of them are skeletons, killed by a blister rust that affects some species of pine.

The sugar pine can grow to more than 200 feet, and it litters the ground with 20-inch-long cones. The species derives its name from its sweet and edible resin, which John Muir liked to chew, though wildlife seems to avoid it. Muir called the sugar pine "the noblest pine yet discovered, surpassing all others . . . in kingly beauty and majesty." But his rhapsodic line hardly describes the species' ecological and commercial value.

Ranging from central Oregon to northern Baja California, sugar pines are used extensively by cavity-nesting birds such as the northern flicker and the red-breasted nuthatch, and especially by birds that nest in tall snags. Species that forage on its bole include pileated and hairy woodpeckers, red-breasted sapsuckers, red-breasted nuthatches, chestnut-backed chickadees, and brown creepers. White-headed woodpeckers, field mice, and pine squirrels eat the tree's seeds, and fishers, martens, weasels, raccoons, and black bears hunt on or near sugar pines.

Ever since the California gold rush, wood from sugar pines has been valued as much as any in the West. Cut extensively throughout the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges, the tree has been used to make mine props, railroad ties, and shingles. The produce industry still favors the wood for packing crates because it does not affect the flavor of the fruit and vegetables it holds. Millions of board feet of sugar pine were used to ship oranges and raisins; store coffee, tea, and spices; and make musical instruments. The sugar pine's light weight and resistance to shrinkage make it ideal for many other uses, including doors and windows, fine paneling and furniture, piano keys, and organ pipes.

Part of the sugar pine's range is protected in national parks and wilderness areas and old-growth forests that are spotted owl habitat. But logging continues in national forests and on private holdings. According to Connie Millar of the U.S. Forest Service, "It doesn't matter if the operations are big or small. If they've got sugar pine, they're going to be cutting it."

The question isn't whether sugar pine should be cut, but rather how much and at what age. The issue--which triggered a three-day conference held by the U.S. Forest Service in 1992--is assuming even greater importance given the devastating effects of blister rust. This pathogen, introduced into western North America in 1910, is wiping out stands like the one on Indian Creek. On rare occasions, individual sugar pines appear genetically resistant to blister rust, and the U.S. Forest Service prohibits logging these trees on its land. But Bohun Kinloch, a research geneticist with the agency, believes that as many sugar pines as possible should be spared, since even those that aren't resistant to blister rust can contribute to the genetic diversity of a local population.

 

Aspen Populus tremuloides
SUCKERS FOR WILDLIFE

Speckling mountains with flaming gold, pouring over canyon rims, and meandering through dark coniferous forests like sea currents of lighter green, aspen is the most widespread tree in North America. The species ranges from Alaska to Mexico and from British Columbia to Newfoundland. As "pioneer trees," aspens are among the first species to take root after fires and logging. In mountain environments, aspens' lateral roots create "suckers," or vertical shoots. Some of these suckers grow into mature trees, forming an extensive network of interconnected roots that can fan across the landscape for hundreds of miles and can produce new trees for more than 1,000 years. The ability of aspens to regenerate makes them one of the safest choices for buying sustainable commercial wood.

How strange, then, that the aspen might be in danger. Since many of the accessible parts of North America's temperate rainforest have been cut, and much of the remaining old growth is being placed off limits, lumber companies have turned to the little-known Canadian taiga, the subarctic evergreen forest where aspen are prevalent, as the fiber cache of the 21st century. One area that has been especially hard hit is a more than 2 million-acre swath of boreal forest near Swan River, Manitoba, where Louisiana-Pacific is cutting aspens for the wafers that go into oriented strand board (OSB), a strong, plywoodlike building material.

Ironically, industrialists and some environmentalists have touted OSB as "ecofriendly" because it uses, in the parlance of the timber industry, weed species such as aspen--thus sparing old-growth species such as cedar and Douglas fir. However, 75-year-old aspens like those near Swan River are old growth for the species (the tree has a lifespan of about 100 years). They provide nesting sites for many species of warblers, vireos, and other birds that find cover among their foliage, which protects the birds from aerial predators like owls and hawks. Old-growth aspen trunks, which can be as thick as three feet, are home to cavity-nesting ducks such as buffleheads, wood ducks, and goldeneye, and a variety of woodpeckers such as the downy and the hairy. The trees' twigs and foliage are browsed by elk, moose, and caribou. Beavers, rabbits, and other mammals eat the bark, foliage, and buds; those animals are preyed upon by martens, fishers, lynxes, and black bears. Indigenous people, who make up 70 percent of the Canadian taiga's human population, also depend on this wooded landscape, which is now being removed in mind-boggling clearcuts that reach hundreds of acres and are transforming the boreal forest into a fragmented checkerboard. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have leased more than 104 million acres of their woodlands for cutting--an area that's slightly larger than New England, New York, and Pennsylvania combined. "What we have is forestry as strip mining," says Gray Jones, the executive director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee.

It can be hard to trace the origins of pulp and paper made with aspen. But strand board is sold under company logos, which tells you where to call. Since companies are under considerable market pressure these days to be environmental, they're more responsive to inquiries than in the past. Besides Louisiana-Pacific, another major cutter of this forest is Saskfor Macmillan, which is owned by Weyerhaeuser. Canadian conservationists are pressuring the forest industry and their provincial governments to log more sustainably by leaving older trees and using smaller clearcuts and longer rotations.

 

Longleaf Pine Pinus palustris
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION

Longleaf pine, photographed by Karen Kuehn

In the 1600s, when European settlers first arrived, the long-leaf pine ecosystem, known as a "prairie with trees," covered 93 million acres from Virginia to central Florida and as far west as Texas. Open savannas filled with wire grass, bluestem, and wildflowers lay under widely spaced, 100-foot-high pines, their bark orange-brown, their needles as long as 18 inches and arranged in bunches of three.

Today the longleaf pine ecosystem comprises just 3 million acres. It has been lost to agriculture, industrial forestry, and development, says Jeff Hardesty, director of ecological management for the Nature Conservancy. What remains are scattered stands of trees, some measuring thousands of acres in extent. Some of the plant species that grow alongside the longleaf pine, such as Apalachicola rosemary, are endangered. In addition, longleaf country is home to an array of reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Some 1,100 species in the Southeast, many associated with longleaf pine, are of "conservation concern," including the federally listed eastern indigo snake, the flatwoods salamander, and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

This woodpecker thrives in the open, parklike long-leaf forests, where it carves cavities in the live old-growth pines, using them for both nesting and roosting. The tree's long needles make superior nesting materials, as well as thick duff for browse and cover. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys, fox squirrels, and bobwhite quail also abound in the remaining longleaf pine forests.

Called "southern," "yellow," or "pitch" pines by timbermen, longleaf pines have been a mainstay of the American forest industry because the tree's straight grain and dense wood make it a superior building material. For years it was used for lumber, bridge trestles, posts, and wharves along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Turpentine, pine tar, and pitch extracted from longleaf pines thinned paints and caulked wooden ships worldwide. The long-leaf is still used in the construction industry and for utility poles. Its extravagant needles, known as pine straw, are coveted as mulch for flower beds and trees.

Longleaf forests rely on frequent fires to expose mineral soils for the germination of seeds, so modern fire suppression has taken a heavy toll. Above all, the conversion of southeastern forests to vast monoculture plantations of loblolly pine is reducing the biological diversity that sustains a wide variety of the region's wildlife.

These trees are destined for pulp. Longleaf is being replaced by loblolly pine here in Mobile County, Alabama, on a site owned by the University of South Alabama Foundation (a private fund-raising institution affiliated with the university but not actually overseen by it).

To prevent further fragmentation of the longleaf ecosystem, public-private partnerships have sprung up among the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state fish and game agencies, the forest industry, and the Nature Conservancy. The Longleaf Alliance, based in Andalusia, Alabama, acts as a clearinghouse for these entities and provides silvicultural and economic consulting, demonstrating how well-managed long- leaf stands can be more profitable for landowners than loblolly or slash pine because they produce so many valuable needles and better wood. These stakeholders are key to restoring the longleaf ecosystem, since half the remaining longleaf pines grow on private land. Certified long- leaf lumber and pine straw are now entering the marketplace, and consumers can help restore this ecosystem by choosing a product certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or a third-party certifier such as SmartWood.

 

Northern White Cedar Thuja occidentalis
THE TREE OF LIFE

The northern white cedar isn't well known by the average hiker because it lives in hard-to-reach country. Nonetheless, it has been one of the most important arboreal species in the Northeast and upper Midwest. It's used for shingles, poles, split-rail fences, and boats--particularly canoes--because of its very light weight and its resistance to decay. It remains a mainstay of the log-home and outdoor-furniture industries; L.L. Bean, for instance, uses it in its camp and patio line. An oil distilled from the cedar's needles is used to make perfumes as well as pharma- ceuticals like Vicks Vapo Rub, and the tree's leaves and bark are high in vitamin C, a property that inspired the tree's name. While exploring the St. Lawrence River in 1535, Jacques Cartier and his crew drank cedar tea to cure themselves of scurvy, prompting King Francis I to name it arborvitae, or "tree of life."

An often perfectly conical tree that can rise 70 feet and live for almost 1,000 years, northern white cedar grows along tangled stream banks and in swamps all the way from Maine to Tennessee and up the St. Lawrence River valley to the Great Lakes. One such forest is in the Shingleton State Forest near Shingleton, Michigan.

Eighty-four species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians rely on northern white cedar stands like this one, feeding on its seeds, leaves, and inner bark, and nesting in its snags. Grouse and owls, pileated woodpeckers and winter wrens, white-winged crossbills, and more than a dozen kinds of wood warblers feed on or make their homes in northern white cedar stands, as do shrews, bats, martens, snowshoe hares, wood frogs, and blue-spotted salamanders.

But no animal relies on the tree more than the white-tailed deer, which uses it for forage and for shelter, yarding under its boughs during the winter to conserve energy and avoid predators. Where populations of deer have grown dramatically, the animals eat all the regenerating cedar, mowing down one stand after another. Ray Miller, a research forester at Michigan State University, points out that despite the damage whitetails cause (as is evident in the Shingleton stand), there is tremendous pressure from sportsmen to manage for high deer numbers. What is sacrificed is a healthy forest.

Richard Donovan, the director of SmartWood, a forest-certification program, echoes Miller's concerns about the double whammy of logging cedar while letting deer populations grow. "If we continue to use northern white cedar without dealing with the fundamental challenge of regeneration, we may soon be dealing with an issue of its biological endangerment. We have to improve the forestry side of the equation, and control deer populations, as politically unsavory as that may be in some quarters." The logging of cedar on public lands has been reduced to help stands regenerate. Yet with less cedar in the marketplace, the price of the wood has risen, driving up the cut on private lands.


© 2001  NASI

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