Article #197, June 2013
By Bill Cook
The word “industry” seems to be associated, by some, with a set of negative attributes. By attaching the word to “forest”, a much loved resource, the term can create a rather sharp love-hate conflict, often filled with emotional misperceptions. Let’s look at each word separately, before we tie them together.
Among some, industry connotes thoughts of greed and abusive power. While these attributes can certainly be found, they certainly do not fairly reflect the entire playing field. The cynic will see only darkness.
The United States was built, and continues to flourish, from a diverse and prolific industrial base. Most industries are small, hardly in the same league with humungous multi-nationals. Our economy supports all of us, even the most vicious critics. Industry makes the things that we use. There is no such thing as individual independence. As Red Green says; “We’re all in this together”.
Forests, on the other hand, often endear soft fuzzy emotions along the lines of a Henry David Thoreau. These are comfortable thoughts but not quite realistic in terms of survival. While forests can be a font of spiritual renewal and personal solace, they also provide a wide range of products and other services that we all use and need, whether we realize it or not. Forest products are critical to our collective survival.
A century ago, our forests were beaten-up pretty badly in order to build a burgeoning nation. Some would argue, erringly I believe, that they still are. However, by and large, the forests have made a miraculous recovery. This recovery has been due to both effective forest management and natural processes. Threats to forests don’t come from logging and management, they come from other pressures, such as forests pests (both native and exotic) and human development (such as parcelization and retirement homes).
There’s a third term that needs a bit of clarification before we join the terms of industry and forest, and that term is economics. Economics is not a synonym for money. Money is a measure of economic activity but economics is the flow of goods and services among human communities. Some of these goods and services defy monetization but are quite valuable. It’s important to remember that our economy is about us, not something separate from us. It’s not a “us” versus “them” deal.
“Forest industry” represents a remarkably diverse group of business enterprises, but that diversity is another story. In the Lake States, it represents billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs. More important, from my perspective as a forester and biologist, is that it has provided the markets to make forest management possible. Despite the good will of many citizens, good forest management costs money that most forest owners won’t shell out just to do the “right” thing.
We often don’t think twice about removing forest land in exchange for pasture or a second home. Yet, practices that enhance the many values of forests, as forests, often seem to be controversial, even though they regenerate and enhance forest quality.
Contrary to the beliefs of some, letting forests go “natural” won’t provide the quality and quantity of goods and services that our society requires. Our forests have been drastically altered by the practices of a hundred years ago. Shaping them, nurturing them, and managing them are matters of both survival and lifestyle quality. Forest management and timber harvest is more of an imperative than an option. Forest industry is the market driver that allows this to happen.
Wood products, for example, represent the most environmentally-friendly raw material at our disposal. Why should we balk at using wood instead of plastic, steel, concrete, or coal? As other examples, forest management can do wonderful things for wildlife habitat, maintaining water and soil quality, and enhancing visual quality and recreational opportunity. It’s also pretty clear that a well-managed forest landscape can go a long way in mitigating, and adapting to, climate changes.
Markets are not a Pandora’s Box of environmental damages, nor are they the panacea of well-wishers. They do, indeed, provide the products and services that we all use, including about four to five pounds of wood each day per person. Human economies are not perfect but they are essential. Improvements can be made through careful deliberation, not through decapitation.
The Lake States grow far more wood than what is harvested each year, contributing to decades-long inventory increases. The choices, by society, about what to do with this growing inventory, involve issues beyond forestry and forest industry. Forests require long-term planning, which does not fit well with the shorter-term horizons of most people and organizations. The forest future should prove to be interesting, and increasingly controversial.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
906-786-1575 (voice), 906-786-9370 (fax), e-mail: email@example.com
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