The Myth of the Tree Shortage

I have been distracted for the last few years by other matters and have just recently returned to my world of natural resource management to discover that the major happening in at least the last two decades has slipped by without notice.

Remember the nineties? The radical environmental movement screaming that the world as we knew it was destined to doom because of the nasty chip mills, the clear cut destruction of the forests, the pollution of our waters caused by cutting trees, and all of the other “chicken little” mantras?

Near the end of that decade, a study was begun in order to find out just how badly the southern forests really were damaged. Not an industry study, “tainted” by profit motive, but a honest-to-goodness government study, pure in heart, uninfluenced by anything but a search for truth.

The USDA Forest Service took the lead in this study and enlisted help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. For over two years, more than 25 scientists and analysts worked on this study. More than 100 scientists from universities, state and federal agencies, industry and conservation organizations provided peer reviews to enhance the accuracy and completeness of this report. Finally, in late 2001, the report was made public and was received with huge waves of apathy.

Why? The report was of no use to the radical environmental community because, with painstaking research and documented facts, it destroyed every assertion they had made concerning the forests of the south. It gave the lie to their “chicken little” scenarios and was impregnable to their attack because of the unimpeachable integrity of those who had created the study. So the radical environmental community just acted as if it had never happened.

But what of the natural resource managers, landowners, and true environmentalists? Are we so cowed by the beating that we have been getting from the fringe that we recognize good things only by some lessening of the pain we endure? Don’t we know vindication when we see it?

The Southern Forest Resource Assessment documents one of the greatest natural resource management triumphs in the history of man.

From the stump landscapes of the early 1900’s, the southern forests have recovered to become one of the wood baskets of the world. Vibrant, never static, quickly responding to changing conditions, the southern forests meet the needs of today and are poised to embrace tomorrow.

The Resource Assessment does not cover the why of this marvelous transformation, but I will tell you why. It is because the southern forests are privately owned. The essential difference between the southern forests and the burning, stagnant forests of the west and looted forests of foreign lands is that of private ownership. Each landowner managing his own lands (and doing it very well as the Assessment shows) for his own perceived self-interest.

Maybe we do not respond to this study because we are used to having things presented to us in sound bites by talking heads. Perhaps we have forgotten that there is work attached to a study and work attached to understanding a study. Let’s do the work.

First, The Southern Forest Resource Assessment is a government study. This means that those who researched and wrote it have no incentive to paint rosy pictures. The future of government foresters, in fact of all government employees, lies in finding areas of concern and alarm that will justify their continued employment. If you work for the government, failure is necessary in order to get the money to continue your life’s work. Successful government programs are killed because there is no need to spend money if the problem is solved.

Witness the “man on the moon” program for the U.S. Government. In government, success means cuts in funding, failure means increased funding. What this suggests is that we should not expect The Southern Forest Resource Assessment to loudly proclaim the success of forest resource management in the South over the last 100 years, but should look for it to outline areas of concern and alarm for the future. This it does very thoroughly.

Next, we should examine the documentation in the Assessment and draw conclusions about what are now the southern forests in light of information about what they used to be. Here is where the good news lies.

We discover that the area of the southern forests has remained surprisingly stable since the early 1900’s.

We are not paving over our forests.

We see that our forests are growing more wood than we are removing from them. In the past fifty years we have increased the balance in our forest savings account by over 73 percent. The interest on this account (growth) should mean that, even with increased harvest, we will still be adding to our balance in the future. Rather than running out of trees, we are growing more than we can use.

In addition, we are learning ways to make our forests more productive. We can grow twice as much timber on our land if the markets tell us to do so.

We see that the South now produces more timber than any other single nation in the world.

The present forests of the south are now the major wood producing area of the world. Contrasted to the forests of my youth and earlier, the change is phenomenal, a real, concrete example of successful natural resource management.

Now we should look at the Assessment to determine just what the areas of concern and alarm in this report actually are and make judgments about just how alarmed and concerned we should be. The most interesting thing I found was that none of the radical environmental “chicken little” scenarios even made it to the concern and alarm stage of the report. Chip mills, clear cutting, and harvesting trees did not even make the first cut of activities to be alarmed and concerned about. No surprise to those of us in the natural resource management business, but, I am sure, a major disappointment to those who make up ELF (Earth Liberation Front) and their ilk.

The Southern Forest Resource Assessment goes on to find many areas of concern and alarm in the southern forests, critters facing extinction, changes in land use, disease and insect infestations, fragmentation of forest areas, increasing recreational and other uses of forest lands, the list goes on and on. Remember they had almost three years to discover these areas of concern and alarm and no one accuses them of being lazy. But the big area of alarm and concern was determined to be the increasing use of forest for urban expansion. In fact, the Assessment says that urbanization poses the single largest and most permanent threat to the sustainability of the southern forests. Let’s work on this a little.

The Assessment predicts (based on a forecasting model) that a total of 31,000,000 forested acres will be gobbled up by cities over forty-eight years. Ignoring the fact that all forecasts of natural resources more than five years into the future have one common failing—they are wrong—let’s look at these numbers a little closer. The Assessment shows that the southern forests contain a total of 214,000,000 acres so our 31,000,000 acres lost to urbanization represents 14.48 percent of the total. But this loss is spread over forty-eight years, so the annual loss of forest area to urbanization is only 0.3 percent.

But there is more. At the same time that the nasty cities are eating our forests, open farmland is being planted to trees or allowed to revert to forest at a forecasted rate that will increase the forest land 25,000,000 acres in this same forty-eight year period. Ignoring again the fallacy of paying attention to forty-eight year forecasts, this means that the forest recaptures 25,000,000 of the 31,000,000 acres that it lost to urbanization during the same time period. This represents a net loss of 2.8 percent of our forest lands or, over the forty-eight year period, an annual loss of 0.06 percent of our forest lands. Not a number that strikes terror in this old heart, especially since it is, by the nature of its computation, wrong.

I do not wish to intimate that there are no areas of concern or alarm in our southern forests. I think that the Southern Forest Resource Assessment does an admirable job of identifying these areas. But I would assert that the solutions to these concerns and alarms lie in the realm of encouraging the folks who created our marvelous southern forests, the private landowners, to be aware of and perhaps to address these concerns. This means letting the markets make it worth their while to do so.

The traditional approach to concerns and alarms has been to pass laws and restrictions to private action. This always results in bureaucracy, waste, stagnation, and eventual destruction of the resource in question.

Case in point—the National Forests of the western United States.

The correct response to areas of concern and alarm in our southern forests is to keep government out of the way and allow the landowners to deal with the opportunities and respond to the markets that areas of concern and alarm usually obscure.

I recognize that privately owned forests represent chaos in the minds of those who wish to find certainty in this uncertain world. There is no telling what is going to happen next! You can look back at the past and make projections and estimates. You can build models to forecast the future and point to the results with concern and alarm, but you cannot predict what private owners operating in free markets are going to do.

We all like things to be neat and tidy, so our response to chaos is usually to try to fix it—to bring order to the chaos. But it has been discovered, for example, that the beating of our heart is a chaotic system and does not respond well to efforts to make it neat and tidy. It seems that systems that need to be agile and efficient (in case one encounters a saber tooth tiger) must be unstable and chaotic. I suggest that the heartbeat of our economic system is similar and fixing it, making it neat and tidy, is not the best way to make it work.

We should learn to accept and embrace this lack of order and tidiness as the price we pay for a system that is responsive and efficient. History and The Southern Forest Resource Assessment have shown that just because our southern forests are not predictable does not mean that they do not work. From the chaos of private ownership has come the brilliant success of the southern forests during the last one hundred years.

Keeping government regulation and control out of our private forests is the key to providing the future forests that we and our descendants want, the nation needs, and the world can use as the shining example of how natural resources should be managed.