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Old-Growth Trees Debate

Saw 'em or save 'em? The question is not answerable, but it’s fun to hear two fervent partisans argue their perspectives.

path in Muir Woods, image
Photo caption
Nearly one million people a year visit Muir Woods, where some of the coastal redwoods are over 600 years old.

saw 'em
The Western United States alone contains millions of acres of sylvan cathedrals, from the petite Muir Woods in Northern California to Alaska’s mammoth Tongass National Forest. Protected stands of old-growth timber are most certainly a treasure. They’re also a bit like western Europe’s stone cathedrals, which start looking awfully similar by the time you’re touring the fourth or fifth. And since we’ve already preserved plenty of homes for spotted owls, squirrels, and field mice in designated parks and wilderness areas, let’s not go all hoarder by adding more.

One environmental group contends that only 4 percent of America’s “original forest cover” remains, and others describe these areas as “primeval” or “ancient.” Please. The pyramids are ancient, dinosaurs primeval. The roughly 200 million acres of forested public land doesn’t contain that many pre-Columbian trees, and none pre-Clovis. Not all public trees belong in protected parks.

What’s more, the trees are just wood, not something soft, furry, and truly huggable, like a panda. And speaking of endangered species, loggers—whose jobs are almost as deadly as crabbing with Captain Phil—need work.

Critics of logging on public lands say the process costs the U.S. Forest Service more in maintenance and administration than it earns from logging companies. Sure. But it’s a silly argument, given that subsidizing heartland farms is official government policy.

Forests are dynamic and ever changing due to disease, pests, drought, and fire, which means that we, as their custodians, need flexibility. By 2111 what is now a mature forest will be entering old-growth assisted living. And sad to say, trees eventually die.

If they’re allowed to fall and rot, the carbon dioxide sequestered in the wood will eventually create more climate-changing greenhouse gas. Good environmental and domestic economic policy may suggest preempting the inevitable. Harvest the trees and lock the carbon into attractive redwood decks and stylish U.S.-made coffee tables, taking jobs back from those Scandinavian pirates at Ikea. —Jay Stuller

save 'em
As arguments go, few can match its glibness: If you’ve seen one redwood (or old Douglas fir or ponderosa pine), you’ve seen ’em all. Problem is, it’s not just about seeing—at least, seeing in the sense that you drag your butt out of the gas-guzzler, gaze benignly at the big trees, take a digital snapshot, and cruise to the next roadside attraction.

Old forests aren’t just opportunities for photographic drive-bys. Their worth lies in protecting watersheds and wildlife, in sequestering carbon, and in providing recreational opportunities. Their value is also a matter of rarity and uniqueness.

Squabbling over extant old-growth acreage evokes the phrase popularized by Mark Twain, “lies, damned lies, and statistics”—but no matter how you parse the numbers, roughly 5 percent of America’s mature forest remains. The argument that trees are trees is as specious as saying that Mom’s home cooking and a fast-food burger are equivalent because they provide the same calories.

Do we need a steady supply of domestic timber and jobs in logging country? Hell, yes. But you won’t get either by pillaging the few remaining old-growth forests. The inventory of ancient trees is so limited, loggers would be applying at Walmart not long after the chain saws revved up. Besides, most timber processing facilities can no longer handle big logs: Mills have all been retooled to cut and plane the second- and third-growth “peckerpoles” that are now the industry’s standard feedstock.

What’s required is more commercial plantations and a rational policy that allows thinning of second-growth forests on public lands. This would provide a reliable stream of timber, keep loggers in the woods, and accelerate the old-growth characteristics of the thinned stands.

It may be that with smaller trees removed, remaining trees get bigger sooner. They could, in turn, support more endangered species, increase wildland fire resistance, assure better water quality, and lock up more carbon.

So we can have our trees and cut them too—we just need to cut the right ones. We should also resist the deeply flawed argument that furniture and two-by-fours are the highest use for any and all trees. Without getting all Emerson-and-Thoreau about it, some trees transcend their most utilitarian applications. We shouldn’t liquidate our old-growth forests for the same reason the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica aren’t salvaged for their stone: Their cultural value is greater than the raw resources they represent. —Glen Martin

Photography by Mariusz Jurgieiewicz/Shutterstock

This story was first published in June 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.