The Republican View: Hearing both sides of the forest debate

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“I speak for the trees”- The Lorax

You had to know that was coming with all the forest controversy of late.

Tompkins County has a forest management plan in place that would require cutting some trees on county-owned forest land in Newfield and Caroline. The plan has supporters on the legislature, but several members have come out against the plan. Now the question is, who is the Lorax in this situation?


Let me start by saying that there are no Once-lers on the county legislature looking to make Thneeds. It’s been a main tenant of those fighting active management of the county forest lands that cutting the trees is not worth the money the county will gain. It’s the argument that is the most disingenuous in the controversy; the “profit” of about $50,000 is not the rationale of anyone on the legislature. To suggest such is assuming the worst of the people in county government who support active management. These folks have dedicated most of their lives, and some their whole careers, to the environment. Their object is the same as those who want nature to take its course, an old-growth healthy forest.


This has been an interesting controversy to watch unfold as I have no strong feeling on the issue either way. I see the argument for either direction and understand the science behind the two positions. I see more emotion on the side of keeping the trees in place, but I see the science being stronger for the management of these forest lands. I also believe the emotion and the science are both important factors in decision making.


Should we manage a forest? I don’t see that as really the argument unless you are asking: should we continue to manage these forests. The management of these stands started as soon as the old growth forest was first cut down in the 1700s. Some of the plantings in question were samplings in the 1930s and are nearing the end of their lives. The 1930s plantings were also “forest management.” Are we arguing that the management plan of the 1930s is superior to what we know today? I hope not.


My colleague Dan Klein used the old adage “the best tree is the one you planted 20 years ago,” in a recent op-ed. I’ve heard many in the argument for not cutting the trees say they want them kept for their grandchildren. But that’s exactly what those arguing for a management plan want too, and they want to get started today so those native hardwoods will be in place for your grandchildren. Both “sides” want this forestland to mature to old growth forest. It’s really a matter of approach and putting to use the knowledge we’ve gained over the past century.


I believe the best point by Dan, Amanda Champion and those against the logging of some of these forests is: will leaving these forests as is, do any harm? They say the red pine will die off and new hardwood samplings will take over. If that’s the case, then it looks like the answer is no, there won’t be any harm. It will add combustibles to the forest floor like in California, but the risk of forest fire here is less than in California. The decaying trees will release carbon back into the atmosphere, where cut trees made into lumber would sequester it, but the release would be a slow and a natural process.


However, this point may be overshadowed by the idea that if we can do something that scientists say will help, shouldn’t we? Local forestry experts are unified in their opinion that active management will make for a healthier forest that will shave centuries off it maturing to old growth. Will we bear the brunt of that action with new cut trees and access into the forest? Yes, but our kids and their kids will reap the rewards with a healthy forest. Old growth simply wasn’t a consideration in the 1930s. Both approaches think it should be now. If left alone, yes, the forest will revert back to its natural state. But if you could cut centuries off of that, wouldn’t you?


This will now remain an open question. The county put the management of these forests out to bid and received none, so for now, the status quo will remain. For now, we have a forest on its way to old growth in about two centuries. “Plant a new tuffulla. Treat it with care. Give it clean water, and feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.” The two sides in this disagreement both want to grow a forest. Just how long will it take for the Lorax to come back is the question.


The Republican View is published in the last edition of each month. Find The Democratic View in the first edition of the month.

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Dan Klein

I like this column. And I have two comments.

Part of the problem with the way this whole situation was packaged is that we have lumped together the future of two very different pieces of the County-owned forest. About 80% of the forest is already native northern hardwoods. I do not think we should be engaging in commercial logging of the hardwoods at all. The smaller part are the remnants of the native pine plantations from the 1930’s, and the debate about what to do with that part of the forest is more nuanced. I don’t think we should log the pines either, for reasons I outline at tompkinsoldgrowth.org. But when we say we want native northern hardwoods as an end-product, it is worth digging in a little further to understand that we already have that on most of the forest in question.

I think proponents of logging can make the argument that if they are correct in their predictions, then they can “speed up” the establishment of old-growth forest by decades. I think that argument is also problematic, but it is not crazy. However, anyone who claims that logging will speed up the establishment of old-growth by “centuries” is not basing that on anything reasonable. If someone thinks they can speed up the establishment of old-growth forests by centuries by logging, please send them to me so they can help me understand why they would say that.

Wednesday, January 30
Tom

Thanks Mike for your thoughtful perspective. While you do make sound points, I think that we need to fully explore the idea that harvesting trees would sequester the carbon that their natural decay would release into the ecosystem. In order to harvest lumber and sequester it through construction or other use, you would want to factor in the carbon cost of running the saws to cut the trees, the fuel for the logging trucks, the mill, the trucks carrying the lumber to a wholesaler, then to the constructions site and finally for the building process itself. I don't think you would tip the scales toward a benefit through this idea of sequestration. There is no easy answer and the debate will continue I am sure. In the mean time...plant a tree...or two.

Friday, February 1