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Fixing Nature

A recent forestry bill introduced to Congress, the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act (pro and con), got me thinking about the vexing question of human involvement in the natural world. The bill is aimed at promoting the recovery of forests from natural disasters, such as fires or hurricanes. A number of the provisions, such as enhancing monitoring of forest conditions and making cross-jurisdictional coordination easier, are unobjectionable. The core of the bill, however, is the recovery strategy it promotes: the bill's ideal is that after a fire (or other disturbance, but given my interests I'll focus on fire), crews would go in to log the dead and downed trees, then replant the area.

There are reasonable economic (if you don't log quickly, it will rot) and safety (a major fire can often increase the fire danger by killing a lot of the trees that were too juicy to burn, thus leaving more available fuel for the next fire) reasons for post-burn logging. But the rhetoric of the bill's sponsors is -- perhaps in an attempt to head off the likely objections -- phrased largely in terms of the environmental benefits. This makes an appealing image -- a healthy natural ecosystem has been wiped out by a disaster, and needs help regaining its fragile balance.

A strong trend in ecology has challenged the equilibrium model underlying the bill sponsors' version of environmentalism. This lends a more sophisticated air to the knee-jerk enviro reaction of "don't touch the forest." Disturbances like fire and hurricanes, we now know, are not exogenous forces that unexpectedly mess things up. They're part and parcel of the development and renewal of the ecosystem. Sweden is an excellent case study on this point. Earlier this century they attempted to improve their forests by removing snags and replanting after major fires -- only to find the ecology impoverished by the removal of what turned out to be critical elements of habitat. Active cleaning up of the forest here runs the same risk, of achieving a quick and aesthetically satisfactory recovery at the price of impairing the long-term ecology.

The presumption of natural resilience, however, also has its drawbacks. It presents recovery operations as a new exogenous interference, without which the forest could go happily on its way. But most of the forests in this country are already compromised by human activity. They're fragmented and hemmed in by settlement, choking on pollution, and deprived of key elements of their biodiversity. The disturbances, too, are not necessarily the ones that the forest evolved to handle, as human modification of the landscape and management practices have changed the type of fires that occur. America's forests are the creation of America's society, and therefore they cannot necessarily be left to handle their own maintenance. We are inextricably bound up in our forests' ecology, and therefore have to take responsibility for it -- a responsibility that may require active management at times.

This doesn't mean I'm in favor of the bill. A lot comes down to the particulars -- how hard is it really to do the necessary restoration work under present law? And are the projects that will be made possible under this law really aimed at improving the health of the environment, or is that just a cover for economically-motivated tree farming? I'm pessimistic on both counts, given the larger conservative approach to forestry that this bill springs out of. I'm especially wary of any measure that claims to streamline and speed up environmental projects, as that line of reform is at root an attempt to let big government and big business get on with their partnership of running things without having to deal with the pesky public. Certainly speed is sometimes important -- but that's all the more reason to get the public involved at stage one of the planning process, well before the disaster hits.


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