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.