THE BLOG

Up a Tree Without a Paddle

A few years ago in America one of those immensely brave young girls who care passionately about trees climbed down from the giant Redwood in which she had lived for two years. By living there, on a platform, Julia Butterfly Hill had saved that tree from logging. By the time she came down though, all that was left was a small patch of trees immediately around her tree and all the rest of the forest was felled. She came down from the tree in 1999, having succeeded in saving what was intended to be a symbolic example of a thousand year old tree, but which turned out to be pretty much the only tree that would be saved as logging proceeded all around her. The day after she descended even that level of triumph was lost when someone who hated trees and forests (and the young people who love them) took to the saved tree with a chainsaw. The thousands of Julia Hills around the world are doing wonderful things with great courage, but I think their efforts are counter-productive in forests (in contrast to Julia's work to save the Los Angeles community farm recently, where I think the tree-climbing tactics, with Darryl and Joan, are just right).

A natural forest represents a huge community of organisms ranging from the most microscopic to the largest tree. The incredibly complex interaction between all those thousands of organisms is what maintains the forest (and enables it to eventually recover after disasters like floods, storms and fires). The difference in viewpoints between those who see a forest as just a vista of standing logs waiting to be harvested, and those who see a complex ecosystem which must be preserved before it is too late, is at the heart of environmental debates about forest conservation.

If the forestry industry can't see the trees for the wood though, it is equally true apparently that conservationists can't see the forest for the trees.

In protests everywhere young people literally hug trees, believing, it seems, that there is some quality to a tree which allows a mystical connection with humans. They think, as a result, that saving individual trees is the important thing. In this belief they are playing into the hands of the loggers and woodchippers. This is not just because the tree hugging, actual and metaphorical, can be made to seem, and indeed is, ridiculous. The everyday view is that a tree is simply a column of wood, and the idea that you can communicate with it is basically as silly as communicating with a power pole or a fence post. The conservationists then are providing just two alternatives - trees as objects of worship and trees as raw material for saw mills or chipping machines. Faced with that choice it is easy for the forest industry to convince the public that there is really no contest. It certainly suits the forest industry for it to be able to help the media portray all opposition to what they are up to in forests as looney tunes dingbats. Indeed one suspects that if the opposition wasn't there in that form already it would suit forest interests to hire a bunch of young people to play the role. The more forest is destroyed, and the fewer trees are left, the more anguished and fervent the opposition becomes, the more the forest industry receives no serious examination.

Furthermore the identification of the individual tree as the object of concern for conservation introduces the concept that a tree is a tree is a tree. We will cut trees down but people are planting other trees, of one kind or another, somewhere else, so where is the net loss? Something with a trunk and some leaves, who cares? We leave a few specimens of the original species in a clump somewhere, or as a fringe hiding the thousands of hectares of pine trees like a fake town front in a Western movie.

Trees can be replaced too - ernest schoolchildren planting trees of all kinds in school yards and elsewhere believe I guess that they are compensating for the trees that have unfortunately to be cut down somewhere else to provide jobs. But they are not.

Also, the benign image presented of logging, that it is just delicately removing a few mature trees from the forest, leaving young ones to grow up in the sunlit openings created and replace them, in an endlessly sustainable cycle, although 180 degrees removed from the reality of clear felling, is partly established in the public's mind by the sight of someone chaining themselves to an individual tree specimen.

When the young, bizzarely dressed tree huggers say that the forests are being destroyed, all that forest industry spokespeople have to do, serious in their business suits, is to make the claim that trees are being replanted so what is the problem? Serious scientists are reluctant to be seen on the side of tree huggers, reluctant to refute outrageous claims like this and to point out the real issue in the forests which is the loss of total biodiversity on a now massive and accelerating scale.

The scientists are not helping in another way. Scientific advances in cloning plant tissue, and establishing seed banks of endangered species of plants are also misleading. A cloned plant or one grown from seed doesn't prevent the species going extinct, because the plant grown in the nursery or laboratory is naked. It has none of the organisms that are associated with it in an ecosystem, from microorganisms that live on and in it, to animals that rely on it for food or shelter. If the habitat in which it lives is lost to the bulldozer then you might as well throw away the packet of seeds. They give a false sense of security, and encourage the belief that the forest can be exploited for every last gram of cellulose, and then the scientists can miraculously reconstitute the biodiversity of the area by just adding water. They can't.

I don't want to be critical of the young people who are trying to fight physically to save the last of the forests. They are incredibly courageous. I wish I was half my age and had half their bravery to fight in the same way. But what I do think is that they are fighting the battle in the wrong way and in doing so are inadvertently helping the process they so passionately oppose.

The issue is not individual trees. Never was. A forest is far more than the trees which are simply the most obvious components. Every tree carries a community of organisms, the presence of every tree shelters other plants on the ground, the leaf litter falling to the ground nourishes the soil and shelters still other animals. Dead trees, standing or fallen, provide further shelter and food. The whole forest is a massively complex system. Forestry operations (including hazard reduction by fire or thinning) destroy that complexity. There have to be whole areas set aside to protect the biodiversity. Areas without exploitation.

We must insist on this. In the view of media, politicians and public that the issue is individual trees and these can be replaced, if necessary, lies the seeds of a looming environmental disaster. The scientists need to come out of the laboratories and start saying this loudly and clearly. They need to show just a fraction of the passion the young people show, and stop suggesting that science can come to the rescue after the event of extinction. The young people who are so passionate need to come into the universities and start learning ecology, so they can point out clearly and articulately the dangers of the present exploitation of forests and woodlands as whole ecosystems. Quickly, all of you, before it is too late.