What does it mean to stop clearcutting?

Author: Gladwyn d'Souza | Category: Education | Environment | Date: 07-30-2020


What does it mean to stop clearcutting? In The Hidden Life Of Trees, Peter Wohlleben writes, ‘The older the tree, the more quickly it grows. If we want to use forests to combat climate change, we must allow them to grow old.’ The first sentence talks about a single tree. The second about an entire forest. But Wohllenben is an advocate of system thinking. The part for him is one cog in a larger machine of life on planet earth.

Wohlleben is writing about the lumber industry’s proclivity, and associated cigarette science (a lucrative form of misleading science that favors industry), to harvest older trees. Contrary to advertising older trees don’t stagnate. They grow more quickly ‘and generate three times more biomass than trees that were only half that size.’

Much of our society is organized against older trees. Suburbs are the concept that one person can do anything to a plot of land within the zoning restrictions. The first casualty is the trees on the plot. My neighbor bought his house when the prior resident passed away. His first act was to cut the large oak in the front yard and plant a pair of small lawns. His second act was to clear the back yard and put in a large lawn and deck. Eight trees later you’d have thought he was done. No. He then proceeded to remove six large oaks in the adjacent alley starting with the premise that a falling branch could damage his house. Four years ago PG&E provided another premise, that tree limbs could start a fire by downing the parallel power line. The adjacent alley is now bare.

A lawn is the largest crop grown in the US. It consumes the most fertilizer and pesticides of any crop in the US. It is the ubiquitous stamp of suburbia. It signals the sterilization of wilderness and the homogeneity of thought. Along with the picket fence the lawn stands as an enduring symbol of white America that we are exporting world wide. Every weekend my neighbor fires up his gas polluting lawn mover, wacker, and leaf blower to cut and clean his lawn; and then proceeds to throw it in the green garbage bin. Garbage trucks are the heaviest vehicles in circulation, their movement primarily responsible for the deterioration of roads and a contributor to diesel pollution in suburban air quality. The cut lawn now contaminated with various blown, worn, and discarded plastics is trucked to be composted far south of Gilroy. The finished contaminated compost is returned and can be picked up at the Recology facility in San Carlos. Removing a tree results in multiple layers of degraded ecosystems. The aesthtics of the resulting system is learned not natural. 

The earliest degradation is to biodiversity as species that depend on the tree disappear. We used to have a bevy of stellar and scrub jays, the occasional Baltimore oriole, and frequent red tail and white tail hawks. Most have disappeared as the tree cutitng in the neighborhood accelerated with home turnover. The garbage contract utilizing the compost facility south of Gilroy was negotiated in 2010 moving from separated waste streams to combined streams sorted at the Recology facility. The compost facility has been in the news because of the small latino worker community surrounding it that suffers high levels of cancer, pregnancy disorders, and asthma. The initial contract included tier pricing but these were watered down to be meaningless by 2016 so as 'not to be unfair to large families' according to the then mayor of Belmont. Without the soaking of storm water that trees provide, the runoff to the bay increases heavy metal pollution from brake and tire dust, and the pesticides for growing the perfect lawn. None of these externalities are accounted for when a tree is felled in the city. 

When you go get a permit to remove a tree the city only asks you to plant three fifteen gallon saplings (an inch or two in diameter) or or pay into an equivalent fund ($60-100). The belief is that the older tree has filled out it’s role in the biosphere and the saplings can now sequester carbon. As Wohllenben shows this is false. Much is lost when a tree is removed. According to the pro-tree removal USDA seven different forest ecosystem carbon pools are disturbed starting with the above-ground live tree and then degrading the below-ground live tree, standing dead, understory, down dead wood, forest floor and soil organic carbon - for the baseline period. Much of this degradation process starts when the road goes it and is accelerated by the heavy caterpillars utilized for tree removal. Other processes such as the zoonotic transfer of virus occur when the forest system is disturbed and life is crowded out by encroaching sub-urbanity. 

A forest and a tree is much more than a carbon sink. Or put another way there is a lot more life to a carbon sink. “Trees serve as natural sponges, collecting and filtering rainfall and releasing it slowly into streams and rivers, and are the most effective land cover for maintenance of water quality.” https://www.americanforests.org/blog/the-important-relationship-between-forests-and-water/ Water, especially clean water, is essential to life. Biodiversity is one consequence of forests. Groundwater and the hydrologic cycle is another. Currently the disturbed hydrologic cycle is resulting in some of the first fires in remaining Amazonian strands; and has become a mainstay in places like California, Australia, the Russian tundra and the Arctic!

A safer and more resilient option exists in countries like Costa Rica and Ecuador. There, when you build a house, you have to donate into a fund that purchases a portion of the forest from which your water will come. These countries today have the highest per capita of intact forest in the world. Within cities we need to better manage our older trees requiring an equivalent quantity of carbon to be sequestered in parkland for every tree removed.

What does it mean to stop clearcutting? It means to see trees within a larger system of life on planet earth. Removing a tree disturbs the balance of life and water. It means to develop in the words of Aldo Leopold a land ethic. https://www.aldoleopold.org/about/the-land-ethic/land ethic expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Leopold called “the land.” Without a land ethic, the environment is destroyed locally, one tree at a time.



Victoria Lin
Thank you for explaining clearcutting in small, digestible bits at a time. It was a good reminder of what clearcutting is and why it's awful for our planet.
Jake Kim
Thank you, Gladwyn. This article significantly increased my knowledge of trees and the dangers of clearcutting.
Sue C.
Gladwyn: Your definition of clearcutting is one of the best that I have ever come across. Also, your explanation of what a "lawn" means is apropos, trenchant, and humorous!
Zoe Byun
Thank you for writing this article Gladwyn! I learned a lot more about clearcutting and the detrimental impacts it has on nature by reading this.
Clayton Lau
Wow! It was very enlightening to read about the consequences of composting.
Nathan Choi
This article is very informative. Thank you!

Add Comment: