Good News on Forests, Fish Not So Much

One of the great ignored environmental success stories of the late 20th Century was the return of forests in the U.S. Now a new study indicates that there are more trees growing in most rich countries today on the day you were born. The counterintuitive truth is that as the world develops economically it becomes woodier. Big exceptions are Brazil and Indonesia. The U.S. harvests more timber than either of these countries, but good management procedures ensure that more American wood is available each year.

There are lots of reasons for the return of the forest, but an important one is that more than half (58%) of all American timber comes southern pine plantations. These satisfy a big part of the demand for wood. Eighty-nine percent of these forest lands are privately own and each year we plant 3.3 million acres after the annual harvests. These are ecologically friendly operations that can continue to supply the timber America needs essentially forever, while providing protection for water and wildlife. This is a model for the world.

We also have heard some really bad news. According to one study, most of the fish we currently consume will be extinct before 2048. This prediction may well turn out to be as prescient as the "Population Bomb" or the "Limits of Growth", but fisheries are currently in decline and it is a problem. Forest & fishes are not so different. When forest are a public good - i.e. not owned by anybody or "belonging to everybody" - they are exploited and destroyed. It is the typical tragedy of the commons. When you own something, you are more careful with it.

Assigning ownership rights to wildlife resources has helped save African elephants and it probably will work with endangered sea turtles. After all, we do not worry much about cows, chickens or other barnyard animals going extinct. Actually we do not have any worries about some sorts of fish, such as trout, bass, tilapia or catfish. Why is that? Maybe it has something to do with ownership.

Without ownership, governments can set catch limits on fish, but each fisherman has incentive to try to get the most he can. He has little personal incentive to rebuild stocks. We can do better.

Iceland saved its fishing industry by adopting a system of individual, tradeable quotas. It is not exactly ownership, but since the quotas can be bought and sold, their value depends on the health of the fisheries. That gives the "owner" an incentive to keep the fish as healthy as possible and keep out any interlopers.

So let’s do for fish what we have done for forests. And let’s get those guys in Brazil and Indonesia on board. BTW - even India and China are doing better these days and Brazil has no excuse. Loblolly grows magnificently on plantations in southern Brazil.

If you are not inclined to read the forestry report, you can listen to the report on NPR.

Posted by Jack at November 19, 2006 12:41 AM
Comment #195632

Darn it Jack: I was just getting ready to ask why you were ignoring the forestry news but iguess you have been working on it.

Posted by: jlw at November 19, 2006 1:08 AM
Comment #195655

Yes the forests are back! (They have been for sometime but good news like this slow to reach the masses) Unfortunately in third world areas they are not. Deforestation around Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is more to blame for the loss of the snow than what the alarmists claim is the reason. In many areas of the world, fisheries are helping to keep over fishing from occurring. In Israel there are huge fisheries on many Kibbutzim and Moshavim. They sustain their needs and export. Hopefully this will become economically viable for more in the future.

Posted by: InfoMan at November 19, 2006 10:06 AM
Comment #195657

Ummm, the forests are back?

The Primordial forests have been gone since the 1800’s in America.

While a pine tree plantation might be a forest, in some books, It’s not the same thing.

I don’t think America has ever really had a problem with forests, at least not in my mind. I know some want pristine forests, but that means living in a remote cabin and 19th century technology. I’ve never wanted to live that way. I admire those who can, and sometimes think about trying it for a time. But then I think about the work and drudgery involved and soon wake up in a cold sweat.

The loss of rain forest is the same thing that went on is this country’s developement. I don’t know where we get off telling others not to destroy what we did. My grandmother, who lived in Appalachian Kentucky before there were roads, electricity, or Schooling beyond the 8th grade, always wonder what the hell people who talked about the “good old days” were talking about.

If you want to live in a Primordial forest, I suggest you move to one. Likely you’ll soon long for civilization.

Posted by: gergle at November 19, 2006 10:33 AM
Comment #195662

It would be wonderful if you didn’t play with the truth
The U.S. harvests more timber than either of these countries

talking about the deforestation in Brazil
The problem in Brazil is that the deforestation is NOT harvest (at least THAT would provide some benefit for the loss of all that Tree cover)
but in Brazil the trees are slashed and burned (adding CO2) in order to open up pasture land for cattle, for our fastfood Cheap eats ($1.00 cheese burgers)

the fact that TREES are growing — so what??
The fast growing trees are “punkier” and more knot filled than the slower older trees, the “forests” are nothing more than tree-farms that are totally ill-suited for any recreational use — nor is there much in the way of original wildlife living there
(this is in the Private and PUBLIC tree-farms here in the northwest)
I have also seen acres of “more trees” growing on individual lots here in this area as people are “investing” in 5-10 acres of Christmas trees — These are farm fields that are only growing trees that are for “U-CUT” christmas tree lots — these trees are grown for a few years, cut down at Christmas, and then relegated to the land fill — yet I am sure they are counted as part of the “increasing tree growth”
Having more trees growing now than when you were first born sounds good, but it only covers the blink of an eye in terms of tree growth, and of this countries enviornment.
Why don’t we look at the cover prior to our “expansion westward” — of the hardwood forests in the East that have been lost and “replaced” with pine tree farms
Some hardwood forests have returned — as they grew back over abandoned farmland — but that hardly makes up for the hardwood forests that were originally covering the land.
I realize that there is some good stuff going on, and SOME good landowners trying to “do the right thing” —
But lets not overblow this good stuff in an effort to downplay the reality of the loss (at an increasing rate by the Bush administration) and his efforts to open up even more areas of PUBLIC lands to overlogging (in the name of “healthy forests”) and resource extractions such as coal, oil, gas and stripmining.
There are too many clearcuts around here to coverup jack
Too many mudslides, clogged salmon streams, too much too much
I get an opportunity many in this area don’t
I get the “opportunity” to fly over this area on missions — and the view from the air is tragic.
Also eye-opening — because many clearcuts are strategically placed so as to not be visible from major roadways — so most of the public really has no idea How rampant and how bad the situation is.
But the eye-in-the-sky sees what the road-warriors cannot.

It was interesting
A few years ago one of the companies turned over their forest management to a bunch of accountants who felt it would be better to “liquidate” and reinvest in something more “lucrative” — and so they embarked on an accellerated logging schedule and did not consider the location of many of their efforts
Right along Interstate 90 — the MAIN west-east interstate — OUCH!!
man did the public hammer come down HARD!! and there was NO EXCUSE — no way to rationalize with
“proper forest management” as it was anything but.
It was totally “liquidate in order to reinvest in something with “better return” — it was bottom line “business decision” treating the forest as nothing more than a stock portfolio — and it got ugly.
nice try, I am sure there is nice work going on in pockets of the country
But this is to let you know that there is WAY MORE rape and plunder going on that needs to be stopped and something done to make sure that resource extraction and “harvest” is done in a more responsible and SUSTAINABLE manner.

For instance
Coal Bed Methane extraction in Wyoming is ruining the farms and ranches
This is accelerated by the Bush Administrations wholesale sell off of Public Resources to the extraction industry

Posted by: russ at November 19, 2006 10:44 AM
Comment #195663

as i was indicating above
Try truth for a change

One of the great ignored environmental success stories of the late 20th Century was the return of forests in the U.S. Now a new study indicates that there are more trees growing in most rich countries today on the day you were born.

You say “return of the forests” but then only say that “more trees are growing” — — talk about NOT being able to “see the forest for the trees”!!!!
what a joke
as noted many times before — at least what we have here in the Northwest are NOT return of “forests”
but growth of a monochromatic, overdense, rows of trees — a cornfield of trees
No one would call them “forests”

Posted by: Russ at November 19, 2006 10:46 AM
Comment #195665

You don’t have to live in a “primordial forest” to understand the need to make sure that the forests remain healthy
the current practices are STILL not done in a responsible, managed, SUSTAINABLE way, nor done in a way that makes sense for TRUE FOREST Health.
Now on a private forest, we can only hope to provide regulations that limit the impact to the rest of us
However for PUBLIC forests we can and should insist on practices that maintain useage for all Americans to be able to use the forests for recreation — hunting, fishing, hiking, etc.

Posted by: russ at November 19, 2006 10:58 AM
Comment #195668


I agree with your grandmother. I love forests and trees, but wilderness is a place to visit, not live.

You know that Thoreau really didn’t like wilderness, as we define it. He preferred the mixed farm and forests. There is a good lecture re called Thoreau’s Country A mixed landscape where people live with nature is also my preference too.

Rich urban people tend to like wilderness, which some of them visit occasionally. They dress in expensive high tech materials and now carry GPS. They are IN the wilderness, but not OF the wilderness. That is why they love it so much.

Pine plantations are similar to long term farm fields, although even more eco-friendly than even the most organic field. They protect water and soil resources. They provide places for wildlife and they produce the wood we need. But they are not the same as a natural forest. We need some natural forests and some places need to be protected. The front line protecting natural forests are plantation forests, since wood has to come from someplace.

A well managed commercial forest is a net plus for the environment. In a given working forest some percentage will be more or less left alone in order to protect water resources. Along the streams are mixed hardwood forests that never are cut.

What people need to remember is the MOST land is privately owned and private owners MUST be able to use that land to produce income. If you make it impossible or difficult for owner to do that, you will force them to disengage. Then you will get the tragedy of the commons, where people try to exploit what they can and get out of the way, all the time talking about their wonderful environmental credentials.

Posted by: Jack at November 19, 2006 11:14 AM
Comment #195671


People live on earth, lots of them. They need to have places to live and they will consume products. It is not useful to advocate widespread preservation. It just will not happen. We can wisely use our environment. I do not doubt that some clearcuts are badly done. But you may not know what you are looking at. A clearcut is unattractive for a couple of years. Some sorts of wildlife love the newly cut forest. Other types are displaced. Some erosion occurs in any forestry operation. This will be true with clear cut or anything else. The only difference is that you will notice in the clear cut.

We need some places with old growth timber, some places with new forests and some in between. These will not always be the same places. Today’s clearcut will be an old growth forest some time after we are probably dead. You will NEVER see it come back. But today’s old growth may well have been a clearcut before you were born.

Re preservation - if we want to preserve some things, we cannot try to preserve everything. The preservationist do not deserve that high moral ground they often claim. It is an easy but intellectually dishonest point of view to demand preservation all over the place. We have to make choices.

Different forest types require different management. I spent the last couple weeks cutting trees near my stream management areas. I was not pulling the timber out. The reason I was doing it was to improve the health of the forest. Over the past centuries, this forest was used by the local farmers who practiced selective cutting. You would have liked it, but you would have been wrong. They cut the biggest trees and left the rest to grow. The trouble is the biggest trees are not necessarily the oldest or the ones ready for harvest. I cut dozens of runt trees. They are old but will never be big, either because of their genetic makeup or because they are stunted for some random reason. It is very unnatural. You can see that selective cutting can be a type of negative unnatural selection. It allows the survival of the inferior runts. After this work is done, this particular forest can be left alone, but it would take a long time to recover w/o the help of my saw and sweat.

I did not compare the forest today to those of 1620 because it is a silly comparison. With 300 million Americans, you cannot expect that a squirrel will be able to jump branch to branch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains. If that is all that will make you happy, get ready for a life of disappointment. We cannot restore that environment. We can (and are) creating a sustainable forestry that will give Americans wood, clean water, hunting opportunities and beautiful views as long as there are Americans. That is the truth, if you can handle it.

Posted by: Jack at November 19, 2006 11:40 AM
Comment #195680

If you clear cut a acre of mature forest, the next year, it’s a miricle, there are a thousand times as many trees on that acre. They are a foot tall and 1/4 inch in diameter.

The American timber industry is huge and yet, how much timber do we import each year?

Posted by: jlw at November 19, 2006 12:29 PM
Comment #195682

How much land will be required to replace the ocean harvest with fish ponds?

Posted by: jlw at November 19, 2006 12:34 PM
Comment #195699


I think it is quite possible to maintain some areas as forest. Yes, we all like to “get away” to some remote area and “commune” with nature. America is no longer unexplored wilderness, however. While for a man, geting lost in a National Forest can be overwhelming, in real terms, we are not that far any longer from civilization in this country.

Unless you want to reduce the population to the levels of the 1800’s, you cannot have the same conditions. The truth is no one wants that.
We will learn and change ideas on “nature” management over the years, but it is an artifice, and important to remember.

My grandmother was a smart old woman. I feel very fortunate to have known her and that I have a connection to a different era of life. When I was a small child in the sixties, we would travel up curvy gravel roads to my grandparent’s, dodging coal trucks careening down the mountain roads. When we got there, we had to use an outhouse, well water and watch them kill a chicken, and milk the cows for dinner. We would pass the time breaking beans on the porch while visiting, or go out and collect paw-paws as they talked about a life that seemed eons from mine.

My gr. gr. gr. gr. grandfather settled into “Caintucke” (the Indian name) by traveling with Daniel Boone through the Cumberland Gap. There is a story of him building a house chimney of the shiny black stone washed clean in the creeks. When he lit a fire in the hearth, the house burned to the ground. He had discovered the cannel coal that is there. My grandparents heated their house with that coal until they moved in with my aunt in their old age.

As a child I would wonder the hills of my grandparents farm imagining I was Daniel Boone. I’ve always loved the Kentucky hills, and its incredibly easy to get lost in the hollows with woods so thick that you can’t see someone or something 20 feet from you. It can be very isolating and scary even.

The pioneers had a knowledge that few of us have today. Their survival depended on it. My parents knew agreat deal about the roots and plants used for food and medicine. They had a much different view of the forest than we do. I try to hold on to that grounding today.

I wouldn’t enjoy much butchering my own meat, or clearing a flat to raise staples on, but it is how we survive. We just hire others to do it for us now, and live lives with a great amount of leisure.

The third world still lives like that. I think it’s a mistake to take the lives we live for granted or to fool ourselves into believing we are a long way from that.

Posted by: gergle at November 19, 2006 2:46 PM
Comment #195703


Yes. We could import zero foreign timber. American forest owners & timber companies would make more money and American consumers would pay more.

Mature forests do not last forever. Most of the big old forests are not as old as you think. Maybe it would be nice if we did not need to use any resouces and we could just leave everything alone. Of course, given what we have done already, N. America will NEVER return to its 1607 environment. In fact, the Indians used to manage the forests, anyway, so it was not a natural environment even then. But if you leave it alone now, you will get lots of paradise trees, kuzo vines and those nasty Chinese longhorned beetles.

What is natural anyway? 10,000 years ago much of N. America was covered by ice. Now it is not. Which is the natural state?

You cannot replace ocean fisheries with fish ponds. That is why we have to figure out how to protect ocean fisheries. The command and control regulations we are doing now is not working out so well.


Very sensible.

Posted by: Jack at November 19, 2006 3:09 PM
Comment #195728

Jack: I have no illusions of saving or preserving our forests and neither should you. Yes we will preserve enough of the hardwood forests here and around the World for as long as the wealthy have a desire for their woods. For the rest of us southern pine is just fine. Until the need for living space and food production to meet the demands of a ever increasing human population exceedes the need for wood.

Posted by: jlw at November 19, 2006 6:45 PM
Comment #195740

I read an interesting study in Natioal Geo. a year or two ago. It cocerned a carbo reaseach project. After addin all the carbon sources in N. America there was a definite “sink” somewhere. There should have been much more CO2 around. Where was it. After a careful search it was found being locked up in growing forrest.Seems our forebearers logged huge tracts in the mid-Atlantic states for Agriculture. As the focus of Ag. moved westward into the plains states those forrest have been allowed to grow back.locking up huge amounts of carbon. They suggested that one way to actually diminish CO2 and global warming would be to actually increase logging and replanting provided the forrest products get used for things like building that would store the carbon for long periods.Also seems that mature forrest are actually a carbon wash. They give off as much as they store. Growing forrest is the key. This is counter-intuitive and will freak out many envoirmentalist but the concept has merit nonetheless.

You mentioned the fish species going extinct. I read the report. Extinction is not what is expected but the loss of economic viability. In other words not enough fish to be worth catching.

Posted by: BillS at November 19, 2006 8:04 PM
Comment #195741


I know lots of folks, not rich, who will preserve parcels of hardwood forest and many of whose families have been doing it for decades or centuries. You are too pessimistic about private landowners. I know lots of forest landowners. I do not know anybody who is maximizing his profit at the expense of nature. There are some, but certainly not the majority. But most are trying to be good stewards. Stewardship is a higher calling than mere preservation. A clear cut might be the best option for a particular piece of land at a particular time.

Posted by: Jack at November 19, 2006 8:08 PM
Comment #195742

Please excuse the spelling. I’ve a two year old on my lap and she just does not understand the importance of dialoge.

Posted by: BillS at November 19, 2006 8:08 PM
Comment #195746


I cannot spell nor proofread. I never criticize anybody for those things.

You are right about young forests taking up more CO2. That does not mean we should take down old forests, however. We need balance.

There is another double benefit to young plantation forests. We can use biosolids and farm waste as fertilizers. This causes the trees to grow faster, producing more wood and sequestering more CO2 and at the same time recycles waste that otherwise would be a problem.

We are rapidly learning how to make our processes more sustainable. There is lots of reason to be optimistic.

Posted by: Jack at November 19, 2006 8:19 PM
Comment #195787

Jack: My post above was, I admit rather stupid. I agree with your reply. I wrote another post right after it saying so but I must have not hit the button.

I believe it was you that suggested that $60,000 was about what it takes for a family to live a comfortable lifestyle, assuming good management and possibly some wise investing.

Do you have a guess as to how large a woodlot would have to be to maintain such a lifestyle?

Posted by: jlw at November 19, 2006 11:23 PM
Comment #195801


Unfortunately, you probably cannot maintain much of a lifestyle on woodlots alone. You have to have to have another source of income. Tree farming is an investment and a passion. I think if you actually figure out the costs of the investment and the time you spend doing it, you do not make much money, although your kids might.

If you are really interested, there are some of the income sources. In my state, you can lease your land to hunt clubs. The money from the hunt club will basically pays the property taxes, but having hunters on your land is good because they control the varmints and that includes people who would dump garbage on your land, start fires or try to grow marijuana. They will also maintain the roads, help trap the beavers etc. In some parts of the country, people rake pine straw and sell it as mulch. I know some people also make chips and “natural” charcoal or grow mushrooms or ginseng. The ginseng market used to be very good, but it has more or less collapsed in the last couple of years.

Forestry is an art, not a science. A lot of people have a lot of opinions. These are only mine. When the loblolly are around 8 years old, you can expect the canopy to close (i.e. create enough shade to kill the brush. Then you have a couple of options. You might consider a controlled burn, which is what nature and Native Americans would do. You also might want to apply biosolids.

Trees grow different in different places and you get different results deepening on the weather and luck. Trees have also improved. Anyway, you can probably do your first thinning at around 16 years. You can expect to break even on this, maybe make a little, but not much. You need to thin, otherwise your trees will be weak. It is like the garden with flowers too close together. After the thinning, you hope not to get ice storms the next winter, as that might serious degrade your trees. Some people will do a prescribed burn again. It is good for the wildlife and it makes the forest more attractive. It is also kind of fun. Assuming nothing happens to your forest, you can do another cut at 25 years. This time you get pulp (for paper), chip and saw and some saw timber. You will probably make a couple hundred dollars an acre. You can again burn and apply fertilizer.

You get saw timber at 35-40 years. This is the big payoff. If you did it today you might get $3-4000 per acre. The price depends on the time of year as well as the market. In the south it rains in the winter making it hard to get in the woods. If you have good roads and they can harvest in the wet months, your trees are worth more. Then you replant and start over again. If you make it to the final harvest, you will pocket a fair profit, but there is a good chance that either you or your trees will not actually get to that point, at least not together. You also need to spend a fair amount of time and money fighting invasive species and protecting your streams. I enjoy some of this work. I like to shift the rocks and I make my boys do the hack and squirt to kill off the paradise trees etc.

Many woodland owners inherited the property and/or it is part of the family farm. Most of those who buy them as an “investment” (as I did) just like the woods. Woodlands are really a very good investment, but they are not liquid and it takes a long time to pay off. Owing a forest gives you a longer term viewpoint. You realize that you just cannot rush some things, that trees have their own logic and that the various troubles of today probably are not all that important.

I studied forestry in college, but one day they got us all together and told us that there were not many jobs in forestry and since almost all foresters were white males, affirmative action would probably make it very hard for many of us. One of the guys joked that the only way most of us could work in forestry was to buy a forest. I gave up forestry and worked at something completely different for 22 years. Finally my house appreciated enough that I could get a second mortgage and buy my forest. I love to go down there and do little things. I prune and dig. Next year I plan to make a bass pond. I am studying on that now. It is not enough to dig the whole and toss in some fish. I have been spending a lot of time this year on stream restoration and bank stabilization.

My forest is my retirement fail safe. I figure that I will spend my retirement nest egg in such a ways that it lasts until I am 85 years old. If I am still alive at that time, my trees will be ready to harvest and that money will take keep me in tomato soup and whiskey until the grim reaper harvests me.

I know this is more than you need to know, but asking me re forests is like trying to get a drink out of fire hydrant. If you are considering a forest purchase, I would say do it if you can. This is something that really cannot wait. You will not live forever and trees will not rush on your account. You can invest in stocks, but you cannot walk across your stock porfolio and it probably supports little in the way of wildlife.

Re making money, my guess is that you would need around 800 acres of forest to make a consistent living. You would have to have it very carefully calibrated so that you could be harvesting and planting just about every year. You would need 800 acres in actual plantation and probably need to own at least 1000 acres all together, because some of your land would be devoted to stream protection, roads and infrastructure. Pines grow very well in most of the south. I think the best places are in Arkansas or Mississippi, where the trees grow very well and rural land is still cheap.

I would, BTW, welcome any advice or insights from others who own forests or aspire to them. That would not be a very political thread, but very interesting for me.

Posted by: jack at November 20, 2006 12:37 AM
Comment #195818

Jack: Thanks for answering the question with such detail.

Posted by: jlw at November 20, 2006 2:02 AM
Comment #196067

Jack, you say that as the world develops economically that it becomes woodier. I wonder if you are confusing correlation with causation. England, for example, was de-forested because of human expansion/exploitation. Perhaps it is true that a certain type of economic expansion leads to more trees. I don’t know.

Posted by: Trent at November 21, 2006 2:13 PM
Comment #196101


You are right. In the earlier stages of development, with expansive but inefficient agriculture and forestry, we just need to but trees for both fuel & construction and to clear land for agriculture. Modern agriculture produces a lot more food on a lot less land. This allows some land to revert to forest. Modern forestry can grow the same volume of wood in half the time. This frees the land for the more natural forests or low impact activities. Lots of good results from development for both the environment and the economy.

Posted by: Jack at November 21, 2006 6:59 PM
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