Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Forest Restoration Work Runs into a Buzzsaw

Being able to responsibly manage public lands, and national forests especially, requires being able to take the long view -- to think and plan in time increments of 50, 75, 100 years. And that's a major problem in the United States, given the public's short attention span, its expectation of instant gratification and, in the case of forest management, its frequent unwillingness to sacrifice short-term aesthetics for long term benefits.

This story in the Boulder Daily Camera illustrates what I mean.

Boulder County, working in tandem with the state's Forest Service and researchers at Colorado State University, is removing hundreds of trees in the Bald Mountain Scenic Area in an attempt to "return the area to its pre-settlement state," reports the Camera. But some folks living nearby, and who visit the area, can only see the short-term scenic impacts, which they object to. Their untrained eyes see Colorado's dense forest thickets as healthy, normal and desirable, even though these stands are unnaturally overgrown, making them especially prone to wildfires and disease. They can't understand that the short-term removal of some trees will improve overall forest health in the long-run. All that matters to the critics is what the forest looks like now, today, when they go hiking there. They frequently harbor naive, romantic, mystical notions about nature, which make arguments for science-based management moot.

And this illustrates, in a nutshell, the public relations challenge facing federal land agencies that need to confront a forest health crisis but frequently find themselves stymied by the threat of litigation, or protests from people who can't take the long view. These factors, along with the usual tape and "analysis paralysis," leave us powerless to address the crisis. Unless we can overcome these hurdles, millions more acres will die and burn in Colorado and elsewhere.

One additional point.

It's odd to see so many environmentalists pulling their hair out about an alleged climate "crisis" of vaguely understood origins, predicated on computer models that predict what might happen hundreds of years in the future, while a much more tangible and preventable ecological catastrophe unfolds right before their eyes. In one case, they demand immediate and dramatic action, claiming that a decisive human response now will make all the difference in the world. In the other case, they counsel passivity, claiming that man can do little to save Western forests from bark beetles and wildfires. Although we're unsure of the origins of climate change, and of man's contribution to it, we're told we must act. Although we fully understand the forces destroying our national forests, and the man's considerable part in creating the crisis, we're told that we must not, we can not. act.

It's an interesting (and probably revealing) social and psychological phenomenon, which I wish I had the time and expertise to explain.

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