Return to North Glen or Reading List or Credo or Another Turn of the Crank


Forenote; by Ed Iglehart (with apologies)
(from a letter to Wendell Berry (1996))

I LIVE IN the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, near the lower end of the valley of the Urr Water, on a small farm that is half woodland. Starting from my back door, I could walk for days and never leave the woods except to cross the roads. Though the Stewartry is known as a farming county, one third of it is wooded. From the hillside behind my house I can see thousands of acres of trees in the Stewartry and neighboring Dumfriesshire.

Sadly, the majority of these are fast growing conifers whose genetic origin is overseas. There are, however, many small and a few larger remnants of semi-wild, semi-native woodland, often including broadleaved species from afar. Many of these trees are standing on steep slopes of the river and creek valleys that were cleared and ploughed at intervals from the early years of settlement until about the time of World War II. These are rich woodlands nevertheless. The soil, though not so deep as it once was, is healing from agricultural abuse and, because of the forest cover, is increasing in fertility. Some have never been ploughed or otherwise 'improved'. The plant communities consist of a few native Scots pines and a great diversity of hardwoods, shrubs, and wildflowers......

Conserving Forest Communities

By Wendell Berry

I LIVE IN Henry County, near the lower end of the Kentucky River Valley, on a small farm that is half woodland. Starting from my back door, I could walk for days and never leave the woods except to cross the roads. Though Henry County is known as a farming county, 25 percent of it is wooded. From the hillside behind my house I can see thousands of acres of trees in the counties of Henry, Owen, and Carroll.

Most of the trees are standing on steep slopes of the river and creek valleys that were cleared and plowed at intervals from the early years of settlement until about the time of World War II. These are rich woodlands nevertheless. The soil, though not so deep as it once was, is healing from agricultural abuse and, because of the forest cover, is increasing in fertility. The plant communities consist of some cedar and a great diversity of hardwoods, shrubs, and wildflowers.

The history of these now-forested slopes over the last two centuries can be characterized as a cyclic alternation of abuse and neglect. Their best hope, so far, has been neglect-though even neglect has often involved their degradation by livestock grazing. So far, almost nobody has tried to figure out or has even wondered what might be the best use and the best care for such places. Often the trees have been regarded merely as obstructions to row cropping, which, because of the steepness of the terrain, has necessarily caused severe soil losses from water erosion. If an accounting is ever done, we will be shocked to learn how much ecological capital this kind of farming required for an almost negligible economic return: thousands of years of soil building were squandered on a few crops of corn or tobacco.

In my part of Kentucky, as in other parts, we never developed a local forest economy, and I think this was because of our preoccupation with tobacco. In the wintertime when farmers in New England, for example, employed themselves in the woods, our people went to their stripping rooms. Though in the earliest times we depended on the maple groves for syrup and sugar, we did not do so for very long. In this century, the fossil fuels weaned most of our households from firewood. For those reasons and others, we have never very consistently or very competently regarded trees as an economic resource

And so as I look at my home landscape, I am happy to see that I am to a considerable extent a forest dweller But I am unhappy to remember every time I look-for the landscape itself reminds me-that I am a dweller in a forest for which there is, properly speaking, no local forest culture and no local forest economy. That is to say that I live in a threatened forest.

Such woodlands as I have been describing are now mostly ignored so long as they are young. After the trees have reached marketable size, especially in a time of agricultural depression, the landowners come under pressure to sell them. And then the old cycle is repeated, as neglect is once more superseded by abuse. The salable trees are marked, and the tract of timber is sold to somebody who may have no connection, economic or otherwise, to the local community. The trees are likely to be felled and dragged from the woods in ways that do more damage than necessary to the land and the young trees. The skidder may take the logs straight upslope, leaving scars that (depending on how they catch the runoff) will be slow to heal or will turn into gullies that will never heal. There is no local interest connecting the woods workers to the woods. They do not regard the forest as a permanent resource but rather as a purchased "crop" that must be "harvested" as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

The economy of this kind of forestry is apt to be as deplorable as its ecology. More than likely only the prime log of each tree is taken-that is, the felled tree is cut in two below the first sizable branch, leaving many board feet in short logs (that would be readily usable, say, if there were small local woodworking shops) as well as many cords of firewood. The trees thus carelessly harvested will most likely leave the local community and the state as sawlogs or, at best, rough lumber. The only local economic benefit may well be the single check paid by the timber company to the landowner.

But the small landowners themselves may not receive the optimum benefit, for the prevailing assumptions and economic conditions encourage or require them to sell all their marketable trees at the same time. Unless the landowner is also a logger with the know-how and the means of cutting timber and removing it from the woods, the small, privately owned woodland is not likely to be considered a source of steady income, producing a few trees every year or every few years. For most such landowners in Kentucky, a timber sale may be thinkable only once or twice in a lifetime.

Furthermore, such landowners now must, as a matter of course, sell their timber on a market in which they have no influence, in which the power is held almost exclusively by the buyer The sellers, of course, may choose nor to sell-but only if they can afford not to sell. The woodlands are in much the same fix that Kentucky tobacco producers were in before the time of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association-and in much the same fix as most American farmers today. They cannot go to market except by putting themselves at the mercy of the market. This is a matter of no little significance and concern in a rural state in which 90.9 percent of the forestland "is owned by approximately 440,000 nonindustrial private owners, whose average holding is 26 acres."

I have been describing one version of present-day commercial forestry in Kentucky-what might be called the casual version.

But we also have in view another version. This is the big-money, large-scale corporate version. It involves the building of a large factory in a forested region, predictably accompanied by political advertisements about "job creation" and "improving the local economy." This factory, instead of sawing trees into boards, will reduce them to pulp for making paper, or it will grind or shred them and make boards or prefabricated architectural components by gluing together the resulting chips or strands.

Obviously, there are some advantages to these methods. Pulping or shredding can certainly use more of a tree than, say, a conventional sawmill. The laminated-strand process can make good building material out of low-quality trees. And there is no denying our society's need for paper and for building materials.

But from the point of view of either the forest or the local human community, there are also a number of problems associated with this kind of operation.

The fundamental problem is that it is costly and large in scale. It is therefore beyond the reach of small rural communities and so will be run inevitably for the benefit not of the local people but of absentee investors. And because of its cost and size, a large wood-products factory establishes in the local forest an enormous appetite for trees.

The very efficiency of a shredding mill-its ability to use small or low-quality trees-necessarily predisposes it to clear-cutting rather than to selective and sustained production. And a well-known inclination of such industries is toward forest monocultures, which do not have the ecological stability of natural forests.

As Kentuckians know from plenty of experience, non-exploitive relationships between large industries and small communities are extremely rare, if they exist at all. A large industrial operation might conceivably be established upon the most generous and forbearing principles of forestry and with me most benevolent intentions toward the local people. But we must remember that this large operation involves a large investment. And experience has taught us that large investments tend to take precedence over ecosystems and communities. In a time of economic adversity, the community and the forest will be sacrificed before the factory will be. The ideal of such operations is maximum profit to the owners or shareholders, who are not likely to be members of the local community. This means what it has always meant: labor and materials must be procured as cheaply as possible, and real human and ecological costs must be "externalized"-charged to taxpayers or to the future.

And so Kentucky forestry, at present, is mainly of two kinds: the casual and careless logging that is hardly more than an afterthought of farming, and the large-scale exploitation of the forest by absentee owners of corporations. Neither kind is satisfactory, by any responsible measure, in a state whose major natural resources will always be its productive soils and whose landscape today is one-half forested.
Kentucky has 12,700,000 acres of forest-almost 20,000 square miles. Very little of this is mature forest; nearly all of the old-growth timber had been cut down by 1940. Kentucky woodlands are nevertheless a valuable economic resource, supporting at present a wood-products industry with an annual payroll of $300 million and employing about 25,000 people. In addition, our forestlands contribute significantly to Kentucky's attractiveness to tourists, hunters, fishermen, and campers. They contribute indirectly to the economy by protecting our watersheds and our heath.

But however valuable our forests may be now, they are nothing like so valuable as they can become. If we use the young forests we have now in the best way and if we properly care for them, they will continue to increase in board footage, in heath, and in beauty for several more human generations. But already we are running into problems that can severely limit the value and usefulness of this resource to our people, because we have neglected to learn to practice good forest stewardship.

Moreover, we have never understood that the only appropriate human response to a diversified forest ecosystem is a diversified local forest economy. We have failed so far to imagine and put in place some sort of small-scale, locally owned logging and wood-products industries that would be the best guarantors of the long-term good use and good care of our forests. At present, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of the timber production of our forests leaves the state as logs or as raw lumber.

Lest you think that the situation and the problems I have outlined are of interest only to "tree huggers," let me remind you mat during most of the history of our state, our rural landscapes and our rural communities have been in bondage to an economic colonialism that has exploited and misused both land and people. This exploitation has tended to become more severe with the growth of industrial technology. It has been most severe and most obvious in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, but it has been felt and has produced its dire effects everywhere. With few exceptions our country people, generation after generation, have been providers of cheap fuels and raw materials to be used or manufactured in other places and to the profit of other people. They have added no value to what they have produced, and they have gone onto the markets without protection. They have sold their labor, their mineral rights, their crops, their livestock, and their trees with the understanding that the offered price was the price that they must take. Except for the tobacco program and the coal miners' union, rural Kentuckians have generally been a people without an asking price. We have developed the psychology of a subject people, willing to take whatever we have been offered and to believe whatever we have been told by our self-designated "superiors."

Now, with the two staple economies of coal and tobacco in doubt, we ask, "What can we turn to?" This is a question for every Kentuckian, but immediately it is a question for the rural communities. It is a question we may have to hold before ourselves for a long time, because the answer is going to be complex and difficult. If, however, as a part of the answer, we say, "Timber," I believe we will be right.

But we must be careful. In the past we have too often merely trusted that the corporate economy or the government would dispose of natural resources in a way that would be best for the land and the people. I hope we will not do that again. That trust has too often been catastrophically misplaced. From now on we should disbelieve that any corporation ever comes to any rural place to do it good, to "create jobs," or to bring to the local people the benefits of the so-called free market. It will be a tragedy if the members of Kuntucky's rural communities ever again allow themselves passively to be sold off as providers of cheap goods and cheap labor. To put the bounty and the heath of our land, our only commonwealth, into the hands of people who do not live on it and share its fate will always be an error. For whatever determines the fortune of the land determines also the fortune of the people. If the history of Kentucky teaches anything, it teaches that.

But the peculiarity of our history, so far, is that we have not had to learn the lesson. When the Old World races settled here, they saw a natural abundance so vast they could not imagine that it could be exhausted or ruined. Because it was vast and because virtually a whole continent was opening to the west, many of our forebears felt free to use the land carelessly and to justify their carelessness on the assumption that they could escape what they ruined. That early regardlessness of consequence infected our character, and so far it has dominated the political and economic life of our state. So far, for every Kentuckian, like Harry Caudill, willing to speak of the natural limits within which we have been living all along, there have been many who have wished only to fill their pockets and move on, leaving their ecological debts to be paid by somebody else's children.

But by this time, the era of cut-and-run economics ought to be finished. Such an economy cannot be rationally defended or even apologized for. The proofs of its immense folly, heartlessness, and destructiveness are everywhere. Its failure as a way of dealing with the natural world and human society can no longer be sanely denied. That this colonial system persists and grows larger and stronger in spite of its evident failure has nothing to do with rationality or, for that matter, with evidence. It persists because, embodied now in multinational corporations, it has discovered a terrifying truth: If you can control a people's economy, you don t need to worry about its politics; its politics have become irrelevant. If you control people's choices as to whether or not they will work, and where they will work, and what they will do, and how well they will do it, and what they will eat and wear, and the genetic makeup of their crops and animals, and what they will do for amusement, then why should you worry about freedom of speech? In a totalitarian economy, any "political liberties" that the people might retain would simply cease to matter. If, as is of ten the case already, nobody can be elected who is not wealthy, and if nobody can be wealthy without dependence on the corporate economy, then what is your vote worth? The citizen thus becomes an economic subject.

A totalitarian economy might "correct" itself, of course, by a total catastrophe-total explosion or total contamination or total ecological exhaustion. A far better correction, however, would be a cumulative process by which states, regions, communities, households, or even individuals would begin to work toward economic self-determination and an appropriate measure of local independence. Such a course of action would involve us in a renewal of thought about our history and our predicament. We must ask again whether or not we really want to be a free people. We must consider again the linkages between land and landownership and land use and liberty. And we must ask, as we have not very seriously asked before, what are the best ways to use and to care for our land, our neighbors, and our natural resources.

If economists ever pay attention to such matters, they may find that as the scale of an enterprise increases, its standards become more and more simple, and it answers fewer and fewer needs in the local community. For example, in the summer of 1982, according to an article in California Forestry Notes, three men, using five horses, removed 400,780 board feet from a 35.5-acre tract in Latour State Forest. This was a "thinning operation." Two of the men worked full time as teamsters, using two horses each; one man felled the trees and did some skidding with a single horse. The job required sixty-four days. It was profitable both for the state forest and for the operator During the sixty-four days the skidders barked a total of eight trees, only one of which was damaged badly enough to require removal. Soil disturbance in the course of the operation was rated as "slight."

At the end of this article the author estimates that a tractor could have removed the logs two and a half times as fast as the horses. And thus he implies a question that he does not attempt to answer: Is it better for two men and four horses to work sixty-four days, or for one man and one machine to do the same work in twenty-five and a half days? Assuming mat the workers would all be from the local community, it is clear that the community, a timber company, and a manufacturer of mechanical skidders would answer that question in different ways. The timber company and the manufacturer would answer on the basis of a purely economic efficiency the need to produce the greatest volume, hence the greatest profit, in the shortest time. The community, on the contrary-and just as much as a matter of self-interest-might reasonably prefer the way of working that employed the most people for the longest time and did the least damage to the forest and the soil. The community might conclude that the machine, in addition to the ecological costs of its manufacture and use, not only replaced the work of one man but more than halved the working time of another From the point of view of the community, it is not an improvement when the number of employed workers is reduced by the introduction of labor-saving machinery.

This question of which technology is better is one that our society has almost never thought to ask on behalf of the local community. It is clear nevertheless that the corporate standard of judgment, in this instance as in others, is radically oversimplified, and that the community standard is sufficiently complex. By using more people to do better work, the economic need is met, but so are other needs that are social and ecological, cultural and religious.

We can safely predict that for a long time there are going to be people in places of power who will want to solve our local problems by inviting in some great multinational corporation. They will want to put millions of dollars of public money into an "incentive package" to make it worthwhile for the corporation to pay low wages for our labor and to pay low prices for, let us say, our timber. It is well understood that nothing so excites the glands of a free-market capitalist as the offer of a government subsidy.

But before we agree again to so radical a measure, producing maximum profits to people who live elsewhere and minimal, expensive benefits to ourselves and our neighbors, we ought to ask if we cannot contrive local solutions for our local problems, and if the local solutions might not be the best ones. It is not enough merely to argue against a renewal of the old colonial economy. We must have something else competently in mind.

If we dont want to subject our forests to the rule of absentee exploiters, then we must ask what kind of forest economy we would like to have. By "we" I mean all the people of our state, of course, but I mean also, and especially, the people of our states rural counties and towns and neighborhoods.

Obviously, I cannot speak for anybody but myself. But as a citizen of this state and a member of one of its rural communities, I would like to offer a description of what I believe would be a good forest economy. The following are not my own ideas, as you will see, but come from the work of many people who have put first in their thoughts the survival and the good health of their communities.

A good forest economy, like any other good land-based economy, would aim to join the local human community and the local natural community or ecosystem together as conservingly and as healthfully as possible.

A good forest economy would therefore be a local economy, and the forest economy of a state or region would therefore be a decentralized economy. The only reason to centralize such an economy is to concentrate its profits into the fewest hands.

A good forest economy would be owned locally. It would afford a decent livelihood to local people. And it would propose to serve local needs and fill local demands first, before seeking markets elsewhere.

A good forest economy would preserve the local forest in its native diversity, quality, health, abundance, and beauty. It would recognize no distinction between its own prosperity and the prosperity of the forest ecosystem. A good forest economy would function in part as a sort of lobby for the good use of the forest.

A good forest economy would be properly scaled. Individual enterprises would be no bigger than necessary to ensure the best work and the best livelihood for workers. The ruling purpose would be to do the work with the least possible disturbance to the local ecosystem and the local human community. Keeping the scale reasonably small is good for the forest. Only a local, small-scale forest economy would permit, for example, the timely and selective logging of small woodlots.

Another benefit of smallness of scale is that it preserves economic democracy and the right of private property. Property boundaries, as we should always remember, are human conventions, useful for defining not only privileges but also responsibilities, so that use may always be accompanied by knowledge, affection, care, and skill. Such boundaries exist only because the society as a whole agrees to their existence. If the right of landownership is used only to protect an owner's wish to abuse or destroy the land, upon which the community's welfare ultimately depends, then society's interest in maintaining the convention understandably declines. And so in the interest of democracy and property rights, there is much to be gained by keeping especially the land-based industries small.

A good forest economy would be locally complex. People in the local community would be employed in forest management, logging, and sawmilling, in a variety of value-adding small factories and shops, and in satellite or supporting industries. The local community, that is, would be enabled by its economy to realize the maximum income from its local resource. This is the opposite of a colonial economy. It would answer unequivocally me question, To whom is the value added?

Furthermore, a local forest economy, living by the measure of local economic health, might be led to some surprising alterations of logging technology. For example, it would almost certainly have to look again at the use of draft animals in logging. This would not only be kinder to the forest but would also be another way of elaborating the economy locally, requiring lower investment and less spending outside the community.

A good forest economy would make good forestry attractive to landowners, providing income from recreational uses of their woodlands, markets for forest products other than timber, and so on.

A good forest economy would obviously need to be much interested in local education . It would, of course, need to pass on to its children the large culture's inheritance of book learning. But also, both at home and in school, it would want its children to acquire a competent knowledge of local geography, ecology, history, natural history, and of local songs and stories. And it would want a system of apprenticeships, constantly preparing young people to carry on the local work in the best way.

All along, I have been implying that a good forest economy would be a limited economy. It would be limited in scale and limited by the several things it would not do. But it would be limited also by the necessity to leave some wilderness tracts of significant acreage unused. Because of its inclination to be proud and greedy, human character needs this practical deference toward things greater than itself; this is, I think, a religious deference. Also, for reasons of self-interest and our own survival, we need wilderness as a standard. Wilderness gives us the indispensable pattern and measure of sustainability.

To assure myself that what I have described as a good forest economy is a real possibility, I went to visit the tribal forest of the Menominee Indians in northern Wisconsin. In closing, I want to say what I learned about that forest-from reading; from talking with Marshall Pecore, the forest manager, and others; and from seeing for myself.

The Menominee originally inhabited a territory of perhaps ten million acres in Wisconsin and northern Michigan. By the middle of the nineteenth century, as the country was taken up by white settlers, the tribal holding had been reduced to 235,000 acres, 220,000 acres of which were forested.
The leaders understood that if the Menominee were to live, they would have to give up their old life of hunting and gathering and make timber from their forest a major staple of their livelihood: they understood also that if the Menominee were to survive as a people, they would have to preserve the forest while they lived from it. And so in 1854 they started logging, having first instituted measures to ensure that neither the original nature nor the productive capacity of the forest would be destroyed by their work. Now, 140 years later, Menominee forest management has become technically sophisticated, but it is still rooted in cultural tradition, and its goal has remained exactly the same: to preserve the identification of the human community with the forest, and to give an absolute priority to the forest's ecological integrity. The result, in comparison m the all-too-common results of land use in the United States, is astonishing. In 1854, when logging was begun, the forest contained an estimated billion and a half board feet of standing timber. No records exist for the first thirteen years, but from 1865 to 1988 the forest yielded two billion board feet. And today, after 140 years of continuous logging, the forest still is believed to contain a billion and a half board feet of standing timber Over those 140 years, the average diameter of the trees has been reduced by only one half of one inch-and that by design, for the foresters want fewer large hemlocks.

About 20 percent of the forest is managed in even-aged stands of aspen and jack pine, which are harvested by clearcutting and which regenerate naturally The rest of the forest is divided into 109 compartments, to each of which the foresters return every fifteen years to select trees for cutting. Their rule is to cut the worst and leave the best. That is, the loggers remove only those trees that are unlikely to survive for another fifteen years, those that are stunted or otherwise defective, and those that need to be removed in order to improve the stand. Old trees that are healthy and still growing are left uncut. As a result, this is an old forest, containing, for example, 350-year-old hemlocks, as well as cedars that are probably older The average age of harvested maples is 140 to 180 years.

In support of this highly selective cutting, the forest is kept under constant study and evaluation. And loggers in the forest are strictly regulated and supervised. Even though the topography of the forest is comparatively level, skidders must be small and rubber-tired. Loggers must use permanent skid trails. And all logging contractors must attend training sessions.

The Menominee forest economy currently employs-in forest management, logging, milling, and other work-215 tribe members, or nearly 16 percent of the adult population of the reservation. As the
Menominee themselves know, this is not enough; the economy of the forest needs to be more diverse. Its products at present are sawed lumber, logs, veneer logs, pulpwood, and "specialty woods" such as paneling and moldings. More value-adding industries are needed, and the Menominee are working on the problem. One knowledgeable observer has estimated that "they could probably turn twice the profit with half the land under management if they used more secondary processing."

Kentuckians looking for the pattern of a good local forest economy would have to conclude, I think, that the Menominee example is not complex enough, but that in all other ways it is excellent. We have much to learn from it. The paramount lesson undoubtedly is that the Menominee forest economy is as successful as it is because it is not understood primarily as an economy. Everybody I talked to on my visit urged me to understand that the forest is the basis of a culture and that the unrelenting cultural imperative has been to keep the forest intact-to preserve its productivity and the diversity of its trees, both in species and in age. The goal has always been a diverse, old, healthy, beautiful, productive, community-supporting forest that is home not only to its wild inhabitants but also to its human community. To secure this goal, the Menominee, following the dictates of their culture, have always done their work bearing in mind the needs of the seventh generation of their descendants.

And so, to complete my description of a good forest economy, I must add that it would be a long-term economy. Our modern economy is still essentially a crop-year economy-as though industrialism had founded itself upon the principles of the worst sort of agriculture. The ideal of the industrial economy is to shorten as much as possible the interval separating investment and payoff; it wants to make things fast, especially money. But even the slightest acquaintance with me vital statistics of trees places us in another kind of world. A forest makes things slowly; a good forest economy would therefore be a patient economy. It would also be an unselfish one, for good foresters must always look toward harvests mat they will not live to reap.

Notes:
William H. Martin, Mark Matuszewski, Robert N. Muller, and Bradley E. Powell, "Kentucky's Forest Resources" (unpublished paper), 1 have taken statistics and other information on Kentucky forests from this paper and also from William H Martin, "Sustainable Forestry in Kentucky," In Context (Center for Economic Development at Eastern Kentucky University, winter 1993), I, 5-6; and William H. Martin, "Characteristics of Old-Growth Mixed Mesophytic Forests," Natural Areas Journal 12, no. 3 (July 1992): 127-135.
Dave McNamara, "Horse I Logging at Latour," California Forestry Notes (Sept. 1983): 1-10.
Scott Landis, "Seventh-Generation Forestry," Harrowsrnith Country Life (Nov/Dec. 1992): 33. l also made use of Marshall Pecore, "Menominee Sustained-Yield Management, "Journal of Forestry (July l992): 12-16.



Return to North Glen or Reading List or Credo or Another Turn of the Crank

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Valid CSS!