November 30, 2003

Define Pristine....

Juan Non-Volokh over at the Consipiracy has an interesting post on Natural Rainforest or "Pristine Myth"?. He points to an article in Science that debunks the myth that prior to European colonization, the forests of the Americas, both old growth in North America and rainforests in South America, were "pristine". In fact, there is significant evidence that they were highly managed by the natives.

I recently saw an article (which I've lost the link to) about the Hutcheson Memorial Forest in New Jersey, which had much the same point. The old growth forest was turned into a preserve with a "no-management" policy. Unfortunately (to some), it turns out that the old white oaks which originally dominated the forest do so at least partly due to human intervention. Some of the trees are close to 300 years old and show evidence of ground fires at 11 year intervals -- most likely controlled burns by Native Americans. Under the "no-management" policy they are being squeezed out by maples and beeches which are much less unique to old growth forests.

Anyway, the point is that the interactions in these systems are complicated, and thinking that acting a certain way will "preserve" what we think it will is often not justified by the facts. Humans have been having an impact on the natural world for thousands of years and even a policy of "do-nothing" is still a policy, and one that will cause change in ways we probably don't expect.

Posted by richard at November 30, 2003 05:24 PM

the relevant distinction is not between 'do nothing' and 'do something,' but rather do the responsible and minimally damaging thing, vs. do a great deal of harm.

the effects, and the moral status, of those 'natives' and clearcut loggers are clearly not the same. a healthy forest is a healthy forest, whether the flora composition might change.

Posted by: Julia Ott at December 1, 2003 11:55 AM

Of course. I certainly wasn't trying to say that all courses of action are equally good — you can certainly mismanage a forest.

The point, though, is that now the people in charge of Hutcheson need to make a harder decision than just "no-management". Do they want to create an idealized forest of white oaks, which are rare but, it turns out, requires management, or do they want to take the as-little-management-as-possible approach and be stuck with what nature gives them (even if it doesn't match their imagined pristine forest)?

I also think the whole thing is interesting because it says something about Rousseauian romanticism and the state of nature. Sometimes our first-blush views of nature, human or arboreal, are off base, which is worth keeping in mind.

Posted by: richard at December 1, 2003 12:12 PM

So I've been meaning to respond to this for days, and now I'm like 14 blogs behind, due to Rich's sudden prolificity (is that the noun?).

Anyway, here's my bit on this subject: it's foolish and extremist to suggest that any old "footprint" left by homo industrialis is a blow to the Earth's purity. We have as much of a right to make our presence known as any other species. And it's an overly value-laden analysis that says a native, agricultural or subsistence-level footprint is always OK, but anything more would "adulterate" the environment. Fine. Whoop-de-doo, as I've been wont to say quite a bit lately. The problem is defining the appropriate size and shape of our footprint, and going to the limits of what we could do to the environment is not the answer — we could blow the damn planet to smithereens if we wanted to.

I've made two separate trips to South American rain forest lately. On the first, a lecturer told us that "primary" (read, virgin) forests in the Amazon harbor less biodiversity than do the "secondary" areas that are recovering from recent deforestation. The reason is that the trees dominating the primary forest canopy do not admit sufficient light to accommodate the lower-growing species. They are light hogs, and they crowd out the competition.

But the Amazon dilemma does not turn on the distinction between primary and secondary forest. It turns on the distinction between forest of any kind — ebullient secondary or ho-hum primary — and no forest at all. The Amazon forest has the thinnest imaginable layer of topsoil on it. Underneath that smidgen of soil is hard clay. Most of the nutrients in the forest reside in the trees themselves, and the trees rely upon one another, through massive interlocking root systems, to stay vertical.

Slash and burn agriculture tears down the forest infrastructure and incinerates the forest's basis for regeneration. The payoff? A crop or two before you have to go burn somewhere else. This is the true problem, and solving it seems to be a more immediate concern than fine-tuning forest management. Not that the two goals are mutually exclusive: promoting sustainable use of the rainforest is probably the best way to save it, as it demonstrates more concern for local economic conditions than do our high-handed calls for absolute conservation, after those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have already cut down all our trees.

If Volokh's mission here is, as I suspect, to score scientific points against the tree-huggers, hooray for him. But it seems a petty, go-nowhere point when placed against the larger problem of massive scale deforestation.

It seems a common theme in life that you have to draw blood to get new blood. The primary/secondary forest biodiversity distinction is a good example. The same is arguably true of language: a survey of the English language turns up linguistic strata that correspond with repeated invasions of the British Isles. The result is a much richer language than the walled-in French counterpart on the other side of the Channel. So a little conquest and assimilation is good for the mother tongue. Just don't tell that to a language group facing genocide.

Posted by: Brad A. at December 4, 2003 11:35 PM