ONLY GOD CAN MAKE a tree, but any environmental illiterate can plant it in the wrong place. All of a sudden, Americans are
rushing around the country like Johnny Appleseed on applejack. We need to
slow down and think about what we're at before we do more harm than good.
As of old, the nation's mood can be read on the pages of Life magazine. "A vista without a tree," it reports, "is missing something indispensable." Is it? I have never thought so. Most of Earth's terrestrial ecosystems are treeless, and planting trees degrades them. "Where trees are absent there is a desert," says Life. Usually not; and what's wrong with deserts anyway, provided they aren't man-made? "It seems the mind cannot do without [trees], that the image of a tree is embossed on our thoughts, on our ideal vision of the world." True, but that's our problem, not nature's.
All the tree-planting groups appear united in their devout belief that lots of trees equal a forest and that "planting" or "re-planting" a forest is both admirable and possible. The general public believes this, too. So cherished is the superstition that Business Week recently served it up not as opinion but news: "Weyerhaeuser is doing better than Mother Nature," it reported. "Its forests are uniform green rows of straight Douglas firs with no leafy trees or rotting logs." According to Weyerhaeuser, "even the animals like the idea" of slash-and-plant forestry. But this remains unconfirmed by the animals, especially tree-nibbling beavers and porcupines who get rubbed out for rushing the harvest.
The timber industry, which started the replanted-forest superstition, makes hay from it. "Every day that dawns we renew our partnership with the land by the planting and seeding of 250,000 new trees from Maine to California," proclaims Georgia-Pacific, as if it were undertaking some public service. Michael Kellett of the Wilderness Society hasn't gotten very far in his efforts to set the record straight: "When I talk to people about clearcutting they say, 'Yeah, but don't the companies replant trees after they do that?' And I say, 'Yeah, they do in some cases, and that's bad. If they have to replant, they shouldn't be cutting there.' "
Citizen tree planting, on the other hand, is harder to dissect. One challenges it as one might challenge truth and justice-cringingly. A statue of Julius Sterling Morton-the founder of Arbor Day-stands in the Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C. Another, paid for in part by the pennies, nickels, and dimes of schoolchildren from allover the world, stands in Nebraska City. Teachers and kids, clutching packets of indigenous and non-indigenous seedlings given them by the National Arbor Day Foundation, goggle up at the great journalist, politician, and corrector of Divine error. On moving to Nebraska from Michigan, Julius Sterling found he didn't like the way God had made it. Therefore, he called forth - as he put it in 1870 and as the National Arbor Day Foundation proudly reported in 1991-"a grand army of husbandmen... to battle against the timberless prairies."
Call me a curmudgeon, but my hero is Ansel Adams, who helped run the Boy Scouts out of California's Marin Headlands by declaring: "I cannot think of a more tasteless undertaking than to plant trees in a naturally treeless area, arid to impose an interpretation of natural beauty on a great landscape that is charged with beauty and wonder, and the excellence of eternity,."
It's not that tree-planters don't do lots of good by frequently planting trees in the right places, and it's not that they aren't nice people who mean well. It's just that, in their innocence, they are an environmental menace. They are so vulnerable, so easily manipulated by special interests.
They are the sort who go around reciting and reprinting Joyce Kilmer's wretched ditty, "Trees." Or, as in the case of the Arbor Day Foundation, unfacetiously giving "Joyce Kilmer Awards." And they are the sort who run the Wichita, Kansas, organization Trees for Life. "Staff members," reports the Wichita Eagle, "begin their day with hugs. They join hands and pray, expressing hope that they will be proper instruments of a higher power. They sing: 'Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.' Then they begin the business of saving the world."
Consider TreePeople of Beverly Hills, California-the group that organizes
citizen tree-planting parties and puts out a handsome, helpful volume entitled
The Simple Act of Planting a Tree. Since trees sequester carbon dioxide
from the atmosphere and reduce the need for air conditioning, they retard
global warming, explains the book. True. "Every tree planted is another step
forward in the battle to save the planet." Not true.
On my copy of The Simple Act of Planting a Tree there's a green sticker that says, "Free tree seed coupon included. GEO." The "O" of GEO has longitudes and latitudes through it, as if it were Planet Earth. Is GEO an environmental organization? A plant nursery? A born-again magazine? No; it's a car made by the bloated U.S. automaker that lead the successful fight to sabotage fuel-efficiency legislation-the single short-term measure that would have done most to retard global warming. But now General Motors has turned over a new leaf and found beneath it magic seeds from three trees that may or may not belong in your area.
pollution would be reduced by no more than five percent annually. Bush
figured on spending a dollar each to plant some of the trees in cities.
But you don't just jam an acorn in the sidewalk and amble down the street.
You must start with a robust sapling, then water, fertilize, spray, and prune.
And by the time you're done- especially if you're working in the North, where
air conditioning isn't much used-you likely will have burned more fossil fuel
than the tree will save, in which case you will have proved Reagan right.
Even when you don't count maintenance costs, the planting of urban trees is enormously expensive. Despite volunteer labor and help from city employees, TreePeople managed to spend $325 on each of four hundred Canary Island pines it planted in Los Angeles to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday. Maybe the $130,000 would have been better invested in lobbying the town fathers to make Los Angeles safe for trees by cracking down on air polluters. According to a report by the World Resources Institute, the average big-city tree survives seven years, and for everyone that gets planted, four die.
If the President is genuinely worried about global warming, why did his administration help Detroit nix fuel-efficiency standards? And why is America standing alone among rich nations in refusing to commit itself to near-term reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions?
"The old White House position was this isn't a problem and we're not going to do anything about it anyway," remarks Environmental Defense Fund scientist Michael Oppenheimer. "The new position is yes, this is a problem, but we're still not going to do anything about it."
A MORE EFFECTIVE means of greenhouse postponement than planting trees is not cutting them-at least when they are very old. The ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest are the most efficient carbon sinks on Earth. In Oregon, for instance, their liquidation results in 17 percent of the state's total carbon dioxide pollution. Roots, bark, and branches are burned or oxidize quickly. And from the machine-ravaged soil, which is suddenly exposed to rain and sunlight, stored carbon surges back into the atmosphere. The President's unpared tree-planting initiative conceivably could have sequestered 165 million
tons of carbon by the year 2000. Old- growth logging at current rates will
release 220 million tons.
But weaning clearcutters of old- growth or even getting them back on sustainable yield is unthinkable to the Bush Administration and to the timber industry, which, naturally, is all excited about America the Beautiful. Recently, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that required state agencies, via diverse "advisory committees," to explore ways of reducing Oregon's greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent. One option the transportation committee came up with was a statewide ban on driving cars. A radical alternative, to be sure. But they considered it, stuck it into the computer, and looked at the numbers. The advisory committee for forestry couldn't even talk about not cutting ancient forests.
No one has more experience in tracking the timber industry through Washington, D.C., than Brock Evans of the National Audubon Society. When I asked him for an assessment of the President's tree-planting proposal, he responded as follows: "I thought it was as phony as a three-dollar bill because there wasn't any new money to plant trees. All it did was take money that had already been earmarked for tree planting, stick it in a special program, give it a new name, and call it 'a new initiative.
Global ReLeaf excites the timber industry even more than America the Beautiful because, in a way, the American Forestry Association is the timber industry. AFA represents forestry as an art and a science rather than an excuse. It's a place for foresters to talk about "wise use," although some of the uses that get talked about are pretty foolish: Clearcutting, for instance, which AFA misidentifies as "a [sometimes] necessary harvest method." And "even- aged management," which it defines as just another "silvicultural system."
There are notable exceptions, but AFAers appear singularly unconcerned about how their industry replaces complicated and diverse communities with make-believe "forests" of the sort America loves to plant-clone monocultures in chalk-lined rows. As Weyerhaeuser vice-president (and AFA director)John McMahon proudly puts it, "We're getting away from relying on the uncertainties of natural reseeding."
AFA is the oldest citizen's conservation group in the country, and one of the most sedentary. It hasn't moved much from the days when Gifford Pinchot wrote about it. Nor even from the days, twenty years back, when it fired Mike Frome from its currently well-edited magazine, American Forests, for defying an official decree "not to write critically about the U.S. Forest Service, the forest industry. the profession, or about controversial forestry issues." In the opinion of a noted professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, it was the noncontroversial nature of tree planting - that tempted AFA to launch Global ReLeaf in the first place, "AFA," he says, "is a group that's sort of moribund, that should have grown along with everyone else and didn't. And they're struggling to find something to put them back into the limelight."
But where. other than under the limelight, does Global ReLeaf intend to go? It appears bereft of any direction, other than cluster-bombing the planet with trees of whatever sort are handiest. In 1990 it awarded forty-two grants totaling $753.732 to forty communities. Some of the money was used to preclude natural succession in South Carolina's Francis Marion National Forest by planting 137,500 trees in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. For $5 you can call a 900 number and get a Global ReLeaf tree planted in your name, except you don't get to choose species or location or even talk with a real person. By 1992 AFA hopes to have 100 million trees in the ground, who knows what kind or where.
One Global ReLeaf report gushes about this manic tree planter who, admirably enough. "aches to see vast forests [of the planted variety] cover old clearcuts" but also "aches to see them cover burns, deserts, and even remote spots that have not known trees for tens of thousands of years." He takes Boy Scouts into Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest to replant the area "devastated" by the 1980 eruption of Mount St, Helens, thereby teaching them precisely the wrong lessons. And he "honors" dead soldiers by planting "Canadian maple trees" in Kentucky. |
MOST tree-planting groups boast of working closely with Global ReLeaf. And many, such as "Trees for Tucson," are more appropriately thought of as appendages of Global ReLeaf.
I first learned about Trees for Tucson by attending one of its presentations at the annual convention of Keep America Beautiful. The mission: to plant 500,000 desert-adapted, low-water-use trees by 1996." Participate and you will
save money, save the world!" A few problems here. First, tree growing in
Tucson tends to be difficult and energy intensive because most of the city
proper is naturally treeless. Nature and/ or God didn't just forget to put
trees in Tucson; other, better-adapted vegetation evolved instead. Second,
of the trees the group is pushing- southern live oak and South America thornless mesquite-are not only alien to the state but allergenic to people. "Tiny-capsuled
eucalyptus and Chinese pistache, also recommended, are alien
even to the hemisphere.
The twenty-year-old National Arbor Day Foundation-which selected Global ReLeaf for one of its "Arbor Day Awards"- has committed itself to "covering America with trees." Annually, the foundation distributes some seven million not necessarily indigenous seedlings to over a million members, exhorting them to plant the trees because "helping to neutralize today's ominous new climatic forces is the single greatest contribution you can make to the future of your loved ones, man- kind, and the Earth itself!" Last year taxpayers kicked in when the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the foundation grants totaling $291,518. Before that the department had left public tree planting in the not-so-able talons of Woodsy Owl, who in 1980 tried to sell the bird-brained idea that Americans should rush out and plant 75 million trees to celebrate the U.S. Forest Service's 75th birthday.
Among the "public services" rendered by the foundation are what it refers to as "plant-trees-to-fight-the- greenhouse-effect" announcements by honorary trustee Eddie Albert "on hundreds of TV stations across the nation." Albert has experience in this sort of thing, having starred in a piece of Weyerhaeuser ecoporn entitled "To Touch the Sky," in which, standing beneath old-growth conifers, he proclaims: "This forest is dying. The enchanted forest of yesterday is being replaced [here the camera pans one of the company's clone plantations] by the fast-growing forest." Albert then effuses about "remarkable" machines that fell a tree with "one bite" and explains that each American consumes a ton of wood products per annum. At this point a bird chirps.
After Yellowstone's 1988 fire season, America turned out to "replant" the forest. At least twenty-five companies and hundreds of individuals volunteered their services, among them the governor of New Jersey, offering pines
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