Emperor’s New Clothes

Sometimes we believe things in order to maintain an image of ourselves or to reinforce a set of values that we find attractive. When faced with reliable information that conflicts with these perspectives, how many are willing to change their opinion?

The endearing Hans Christian Andersen tale of two tailors and a vain King is a classic fable translated into dozens of languages. The tailors pretend to weave a glorious set of clothes than only the “stupid” would not be able to see. Accordingly, the King, his court, and his people didn’t want to appear “stupid”. So, they readily agreed that the non-existent clothes were excellent. This is until a child voiced the observation that the King was naked. 

Similarly, forest management has a substantial number of social misperceptions that puzzle foresters. Some of these misperceptions are even held by other resource managers, highly educated individuals, and entire suites of society. These foresters “see through” the fallacy of certain popular mythologies. Yet, so many people continue to believe them, sometimes passionately. 

The solutions, however, are not so simple as simply crying “The King is naked”. The relationship between forests and humans is complex. Here are a few “items of clothing” that seem particularly “invisible” to the science of forestry. 

One, nature does a better job than humans do. It’s a fancifully magnetic idea but not necessarily true. One must ask the definitions of “nature”, “better”, and “job”. Our forests are anything but “natural”, having been repeatedly disturbed by human activity over the centuries. “Better” might be defined in terms of benefits to forests and people. These are not the goals of nature, as nature has no goals, but they are the goals of forestry. Management is required to increase benefits to forests and people. The “job”, perhaps, is working toward “better”. This job will most certainly not be accomplished through a hands-off process. 

Two, forests are wildernesses. If wilderness is defined as an ecosystem largely untouched by human activity, then clearly our Lake States forests are far from wilderness. They’re not even “natural”, by some definitions. A wilderness is not simply a bunch of trees without buildings. There are several dominant natural processes that occur in forests. To direct those processes towards specific goals is what management is all about. Management intensity varies widely, depending upon sets of goals.    

Three, diversity is critical, always good, and systems of low diversity are bad. This is holy ground where treading must be done lightly. Not all forest systems have inherently high levels of diversity, meaning their healthy condition is one of low diversity. A good example is jack pine on one of our many glacial sand plains. 

 Forest systems that have been degraded or damaged often possess lower levels of diversity. This may be a functional problem in delivering an optimal level of ecological services, or so the story goes.  And, do you count exotic species? The research behind diversity equaling stability is less robust than the popular opinion. Alternatively, if one simply looks to Europe, filled with successful economies and societies, their ecosystems have been severely degraded over many centuries. Ecosystem degradation does not seem to have hampered the progress of human development too much. This would be less true in other regions of the world.

Fourth, forestry contributes to climate change. This is certainly true but in many beneficial ways. In fact, forest management is a major reason for optimism in the effort to mitigate and adapt to changing climates. Managed forest landscapes sequester more carbon than non-managed landscapes, in the long run. In addition, there are many other economic, environmental, and socioeconomic benefits to managed forest landscapes. 

Fifth, logging destroys wildlife habitat. “Destroy” is a harsh word and not entirely accurate. It is true that mature forest habitat is temporarily changed, but the change is to a younger set of habitats that benefit a different suite of species, including some species of special concern. Over time, forest succession and, hopefully, management will re-establish those mature habitats.  It’s cyclical. 

Sixth, clear-cutting should be banned and harvests should all be done “selectively”. This is a tough one, as it sounds good on paper to many people.  Nevertheless, there are those forest types whose regeneration strategies are adapted to natural catastrophes. Take away the catastrophe and those forests dwindle. Selectively harvesting aspen or jack pine will cause degradation. 

Then, there is the trouble with the word “selective”. Too often, the biggest and best trees in a stand are selected. Foresters call this “high-grading” and shun the practice. Although, there’s been many forest owners pleased with this outcome. 

Seventh, there exists a general consensus that cutting trees is bad. Conversely, there are many very good reasons to cut trees, and few bad ones.  Cutting the wrong trees in the wrong place, in the wrong way, at the wrong time can, indeed, lead to negative consequences. Tree cutting and forest management done under the care of professional forester is a much different deal. 

Eighth, going “paperless” is not environmentally sound nor is it a “green” practice. Using wood-based products, including paper, actually has many environmental benefits. Wood, as a raw material, is the most environmentally-friendly choice available. 

Forests and forestry are not as simple or straight-forward as the point made by Hans Christian Andersen. However, the idea of the “emperor’s new clothes” has a strong influence on the care and treatment of our forests and, perhaps, other natural resources. It may be rewarding to endorse socially-acceptable beliefs about our forests. However, caution is warranted, lest we find ourselves naked. 


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