by Josef Kuhn
Some of the people I most respect and admire for their work in promoting forest conservation and stewardship of all of our natural resources are foresters. They often refer to themselves as forest ecologists as well as foresters, an important distinction that I want to make as clear as I can in this brief essay.
There are many foresters who are driven by motives and methods that do not truly respect forest ecology. These industrial foresters have developed a culture much like modern agriculture, asserting that they can replace natural forests with tree crops, thereby increasing economic benefits from harvesting trees from these management units which they refer to as forests.
In my view of life, which comes from both western culture and the ancient teachings of many tribal cultures, forests are created by Nature and are a gift from Mother Earth, the Sun and ultimately from the Creator. The natural ecosystems created by this life-giving process over eons of time contain a mix of interacting species best suited to the bio-physical conditions at each unique location. This view makes me and others who respect and value Nature and forest life part of the naturalist culture, which includes ecoforestry. It is very different from the industrial culture which values financial gain above Nature.
As a student working on a degree in forest management back in the 1960’s I became disillusioned with the university’s required courses. They were mostly about how to log forests to maximize industrial profits and produce a steady revenue flow to government ministries. There was one course in forest ecology and one in forest soils, but the rest were mostly about forest engineering and various aspects of financial management of timber and pulpwood resources. I had to change majors and get my degrees in geography and ecology in order to pursue the career path that was best for me.
Forest aesthetics, biodiversity and soil and watershed protection considerations over the long term (seven generations in First Nations’ culture) are not the focus of most of the forest management plans which are being approved by our government ministries today. Outside ‘consultations’ are supposed to address these concerns, but these inputs are not given equal weight with so called economic development considerations.
Ecoforestry on the other hand focuses on watersheds and/or ecological land types, seeking understanding of the interactions taking place in these ecosystems. In our modern information technology world, forest and wildlife ecologists model and monitor natural processes and human impacts in natural resource stewardship/management programs, unless this is precluded by industrial forestry and other ‘development’ interests.
The use of ecosystem models such as geographic information systems (GIS) are absolutely essential if true stewardship of the natural resources our children and grandchildren will depend on for their well-being is ever to be accomplished. In addition, we, as citizens and stewards of our environment, must make sure that the cumulative impacts of logging and all resource extraction activities on our forests, wetlands and waters are being monitored and assessed on an ongoing basis to ensure that our ecosystems remain healthy.
In my opinion, government ministries upon which we rely to protect our forests and related natural resources should be employing more people educated in biological and earth sciences who demonstrate good ecological intelligence and a good grounding in the land ethic, established by Aldo Leopold in 1948. Along with forest ecology and ecoforestry, as well as a focus on ecosystem and human health, they can provide us with the more complete view needed for good stewardship.
Stewardship of primarily natural forests doesn’t require ending forest harvesting. Commercial forestry and other extractive enterprises have a role in natural resource stewardship and land use decision-making, but they should not dominate these processes. Selective harvesting of over-crowded and unhealthy trees on an ongoing basis can provide truly sustainable jobs for local people. Industrial foresters have been saying for decades that the only way to harvest the magnificent west coast rain forests is to clearcut them. It just isn’t so! Selective harvesting is practiced in many of the world’s forests and British Columbia’s outstanding ecoforestry pioneer Merv Wilkinson showed us that selection forestry can produce sustainable ecological and economic benefits in our west coast forests.
The ecoforestry harvesting approach benefits wildlife by letting more energy from the Sun reach the shrubs, grasses and herbs in the lower canopy levels of a healthy forest. It maintains a healthier soil cover, full of life and holding more water and nutrients than the compacted surface left by clearcut logging. These healthy forests are needed for cleaner water and to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere for a healthy climate.
We who care about our forests must insure that our political and business leaders know what kind of stewardship we want – industrial forestry or ecoforestry.
Josef Kuhn is a naturalist, ecologist and elder living in Winnipeg, Manitoba.