Sunday, October 19, 2014

Can't see the wilderness for the trees.


One of the things I love about the US, is the way that you can find places that give you a sense of what the continent was like without any human impact. Can't do this hardly anywhere in Western Europe.
 
There has been much talk lately of 'rewilding'. George Monbiot discussed it in a recentbook which brought the concept to many British readers, while North Americans may have first met the idea in Emma Marris's 'TheRambunctious Garden'. Basically, it is about letting nature rip, re-introducing the wildlife that used to be there, and minimising the human impact. We, in the developed world can afford to do this, as we have a lot of areas our ancestors tried tilling, but we can afford not to, thanks to the efficiency and economics of modern agriculture. Our populations have stabilised too, and of course we have outsourced a lot of agricultural production to the rest of the world.

So, it is interesting to be somewhere which already has been 'rewilded'. Jo and I have recently had spent six days in a cottage in the middle of the woods in the Adirondacks. This mountain range in the north of New York state was, at the beginning of the 20th century two-thirds cut over by incredibly wasteful and destructive timber extraction. Photographs in the excellent Adirondack Museum show whole hillsides covered in stumps and burnt logs. Since elite tourism began to become a major local industry in the late 19th century, pressure soon built up for conservation. Since then, the area has been a fascinating study in how conservation measures have gradually built up a patchwork of protection – around two thirds of the area is now protected public lands, mostly 'wilderness areas', with no commercial exploitation. Wildlife, including bears and moose, are coming back strongly. Most of the private land is covered in trees too.

Woodland in particular has re-established itself with a vengeance. Walking through the woods, it is possible to appreciate the whole succession process. Birches, often the first to grow are being replaced by the longer-lived mature forest species, their trunks littering the ground in some locations. In their place are red maples, hemlock, beech (American beech regenerates from the ground much more so than European) and sugar maple. There are lots of sugar maple seedlings, and this is the tree which is very much the dominant mature forest one in this part of the world.

The trees in the Adirondacks are wonderful and this regeneration is truly fantastic to see, but I almost found myself wondering whether the pendulum has swung too far. From the visitor perspective, the trees rather get in the way of the landscape. Hiking trails are almost entirely in the woods, and so after a while become rather monotonous, and driving along it is remarkably difficult to find places to see the distant mountains. And given that biomass is a near carbon-neutral way of providing heat and energy for power supply, surely some careful and judicious harvesting is in order? Or is the no doubt desperate desire of the US government to mitigate its horrendous record on CO2 production a factor here? as the growing woods must still be gobbling up the key greenhouse gas. Or is the idea of rational harvest of trees a cut too far for eco-purists.


7 comments:

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

It's even more troubled than that in Appalachia, as an essential apex tree, Castanea dentata is completely absent.

As far as clear-cutting, I can't speak for eastern forests, but in western areas, often opening up areas to cutting means improving existing roads or introducing roads into areas that did not exist before. In addition, machines that go into these areas are usually not washed down and are major sources of foreign weed seed introduction into areas where it has not yet been introduced. If we could send a team of lumberjacks in to carefully fell trees and remove them by helicopter like they do while installing lift towers for ski resorts, then it would be a great idea. But until industry can do more than just smile for the cameras when it comes to treading carefully through delicate ecosystems, I'd just as well have them leave them alone and let the forest fires take care of the thinning.

Hans Elbers said...

maybe it is best left as a legacy to future generations. mature trees can be used for timber and fuel or even uses that we don't know of yet. we us enough of the earth as it is.

Howell Harris said...

I agree -- American countryside can be very tedious. My wife and I had a road trip in Oregon some years ago, and on the drive down from Crater Lake we just got sick of nothing but dark green woods lining the road for hundreds of miles. Thought the place would benefit from a bit of clear-cutting.

Julie Weiss said...

That would be so nice to live in a country where the government actively tried to right all (or even a few) of the wrongs it has done and is still doing to the global environment regarding CO2 production. Unfortunately that is not the U.S.! We are just happy to see any trees here, because of our history of clear cutting and our horrendous environmental record. But yes, I think we could all agree that it's time to get over the trauma and think about the present and future, with intelligent tree harvesting in these beautiful areas. Don't think it will happen, though.

Anne Wareham said...

Reminds me of someone I knew of who deplored the incursion of trees along the riverside of the Wye Valley. When 'motoring' was popular in the 1940s you could drive along enjoying views of the river, not obscured.

Of course you can imagine the reactions to his suggestion that some trees be culled...

XXXxx

Laura @ Raise Your Garden said...

I only live a few hours from the Adironacks as well and love camping there with my family. The bears in particular are so exciting to see with their cubs!! However, it's just funny to me, living in the general Niagara Falls area, (NY obviously) that you'd want to come here when you live in Hay on Wye,(I even love the name!) England/Wales....my total dream boat. Letchworth State park is just an amazing place to visit as well if you ever get the chance. I

Unknown said...

Howell Harris: "Thought the place would benefit from a bit of clear-cutting."

No doubt, the place is "tedious" (to you) because it's doing what nature programmed it to do: produce trees. If a place is a garden, its gardener has the freedom to determine what it will be. Can we please differentiate between wilderness and garden? (Myself, I would prefer the trees, but I don't get to decide that, either.)