Can’t See the Forest for the Symbols

Can’t See the Forest for the Symbols

8February 2005


The environment and the economy lose when facts are ignored.
By David Rains Wallace
David Rains Wallace is the author of “The Klamath Knot” (reprinted by University of California Press, 2003) and “Beasts of Eden” (University of California Press, 2004).

Tidy symbols tend to be more attractive than messy facts, and this is especially true in environmental politics. But choosing symbols over facts can be self-defeating, on both sides of conservation issues. And it isn’t good for the environment either.

One such symbol is the forest fire. The Bush administration is saying that fires in national forests, like southwestern Oregon’s 2002 Biscuit Fire, threaten local communities and “forest health” and must be controlled by post-fire management such as salvage logging. The facts are messier, however. The mixed conifer forest in the Siskiyou Mountains, where the Biscuit Fire occurred, is mostly “fire-adapted” — that is, it benefits from fire, ecologically speaking. (And if fire suppression hadn’t been practiced for nearly a century in the forest, the 2002 blaze wouldn’t have been as destructive to human purposes as it was.)

What the Bush administration is really after with salvage logging is access for the timber industry to pockets of old-growth trees. Yet there are no good reasons to allow such logging in the Siskiyou National Forest. The evidence shows that it isn’t the best way to protect humans from fire or to promote forest health — the forest can take care of itself, and communities can be protected by clearing safety zones around them.

The drawbacks of logging on the steep slopes, like those of the Siskiyous, are also well documented. Logging causes erosion and other damage that results in the destruction of salmon spawning streams and the salmon fishery. Besides, as authorities like Forest Service biologist Jerry Franklin have been saying for years, wood imports and new building technologies have combined with old growth’s scarcity and remoteness to make it no longer all that important to the timber industry.

So why would the Bush administration push salvage logging? Back to symbols: Cutting old growth is symbolic because it suits the anti-environmentalist “wise use” agenda. And this is partly the environmentalists’ fault because such pointless targeting of old growth is a reaction to environmentalists’ own symbol mongering. They chose “ancient forest” as their tidy poster child and fundraising rallying cry, and also along the way neglected messy facts. Old growth is wonderful and vital, but it is not the be-all and end-all of forest preservation.

Wild forests are mosaics of tree species, and it’s tree diversity that allows forests to adapt to change. The Siskiyous are part of the Klamath Mountains, which has the world’s highest known diversity of temperate conifer species. Clear-cutting and salvage logging are bad for the Siskiyous and the Klamaths not so much because they damage ancient forests but because they threaten what’s been called the gene pool for western North American forests.

The Klamaths are also home to old savanna, old brush, old grassland and old wetlands that are at least as important as old forests: They contain so much biodiversity that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has designated the New Hampshire-sized region as one of the world’s 200 most significant botanical areas. A logging road passing through these habitats might wipe out more species than it would passing through a forest.

The Klamaths and the Siskiyous have already suffered because of other aspects of environmental symbolism. “Megaflora,” like redwoods and sequoias, are the celebrity representatives of ancient forests. The patchy old growth in the Klamath and Siskiyou region doesn’t sustain these species. It was passed over for preservation while Redwood National Park, Sequoia National Monument and the Headwaters Redwood Preserve got the environmental movement’s attention and the federal government’s protection.

After decades of fighting over tidy symbols, neither the environmentalists nor the “wise use” types are getting it right in the Klamath and Siskiyou forests. The environmentalists should be protecting and preaching about complex diversity. The conservatives should be all for saving rather than harming a real economic engine: resuscitated stocks of wild salmon and steelhead. The fishery means food on the table and money in the bank for a lot of people on the West Coast, and not just Democrats.

We need to trade in our simple polarizing symbols for complex realities. That’s the only way to integrate conservation and economics for the long term — for the good of the land and the humans who depend on it.


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