L. Neil Smith's

Number 24, March 15, 1997.

Ninety-Nine Percent of America's Trees Destroyed!

By Vin Suprynowicz

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         On March 4 the Gannett News Service publicized a report released by the Washington-based World Resources Institute, contending "Only 20 percent of the world's original forests remain intact, and nowhere is the damage worse than in the continental United States, where 99 percent of its frontier forest has been destroyed or ruined."
         "It is shocking," exclaimed Nigel Sizer, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute. "We can now say from the best experts around the world that fully four-fifths of the world's original forest cover - 80 percent! - is either gone completely or been damaged beyond repair. When is the world going to decide enough is enough?"
         Maybe in ... 1920?
         "We generally regard 1920 as being the trough," the low point from which the ongoing 80-year reforestation of the Northern Hemisphere is now measured, explains Roger Sedjo, senior fellow and director of the Forest Economics and Policy Program at Resources for the Future, a non-partisan research group which has been described as "the environmental Brookings Institute."
         "The old tobacco fields and the old cotton fields of the South are now in pine," Mr. Sedjo explains. "In New England, the forests have been increasing since about 1850. ... As the West opened up, New England was no longer competitive as an agricultural producer and those lands started reverting into forest. You're seeing coyote and deer, many types of wildlife in much more abundance than they were 50 years ago in the Northeast. ...
         "The area in forest today is probably comparable to what it was in 1920, but there's no question that we have much more wood in the forest, much larger trees and so forth, than we did in 1950," reports Mr. Sedjo, who was chosen to write the chapter on forests in Ron Bailey's 1995 book "The True State of the Planet."
         So, if the forests have all grown back, why do the World Resources Institute - and the babes in the wood over at Gannett - claim there's a "frontier forests" crisis?
         "I think they're trying to keep the pressure on that this is a crisis, and every once in awhile they need to have something new, whether it's 'frontier forests' or whatever. ... It's almost like somebody has a timetable there, and every month-and-a-half somebody's going to come up with another crisis," Mr. Sedjo volunteers.
         "You might as well say the world has lost all its 'original' people," agrees Jonathan Adler, director of Environmental Studies at the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute. "Is there something truly ecologically different about trees that grew up after Native Americans lit fires (to clear agricultural lands) in both North and South America; were the forests that grew back after that somehow very different from those that grew back post-European colonization activity?" asks Mr. Adler, incredulously.
         "None of these forests are 'original forests'," Mr. Sedjo explains. "Native people had huge impacts on the forests. In Central America you had all kinds of land-clearing activities. ... The native peoples in North America consciously set fires to improve the range lands. ... In fact colonists purchased cleared land from native peoples; it was easier than clearing their own."
         "I see this report as, 'Well, we can no longer say the world is losing its forests, so we'll just talk about 'natural forests'," volunteers Mr. Adler of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
         "Where the worst forest problems arise is where there's insecure land tenure, where there are no property rights. In this country, the worst problems are where you have the federal government owning the land or significantly managing the land. Most of the forest growth is occurring in the Southeast, where most of the land is privately owned.
         Where forest acres are still being reduced, in places like Indonesia and Brazil, it's generally the result of purposeful government policy, both Sedjo and Adler agree.
         Back when the Daniel Day Lewis motion picture of "Last of the Mohicans" was released, the producers had to make an embarrassed retraction of an initial press release claiming the film had been shot in a virgin forest in North Carolina. In fact, there are no virgin forests in Carolina; the film had been shot in the misty depths of a towering, mossy forest on land re-seeded by its timber company owners in the early years of this century.
         If we blindfolded the alarmist fund-raisers over at the World Resources Institute and parachuted them into that forest, could they determine scientifically whether or not it was a "frontier" or "original" forest? Of course not.
         This latest alarm makes as much sense as declaring the world has lost all its "original rivers," based on the shocking discovery that all the "original water" has run to the sea while no one was looking, and been surreptitiously replaced by highly-inferior "replacement water."

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.

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