Educational Need Fulfilled in Bill Berger’s Understanding Forests

by Rocky Smith, Colorado Wild, Inc.

Many people are aware of the value forests play on earth, and wish to get involved in their protection. There is a need for a good introductory book on the value of, and the threats to, our forests. Bill Berger fulfills this need with Understanding Forests, a Sierra Club book.

He covers many subjects that should be understandable to the average reader. Chapter one, "The Bounteous Forest," discusses the value of forests to life on earth. Other topics include deforestation, forest economics, old growth, salvage logging, the pros and cons of various cutting methods (including a chapter on clearcutting), forest restoration, and tropical and international forestry. To keep the current forest controversy in perspective, Berger also includes chapters on how the U. S. Forest Service began, and the history of forest conservation efforts in the U.S.

The chapter on the Forest Service notes its propensity to cut timber and build roads (including "temporary" ones) at the expense of maintaining ecologically intact forests. He notes that some of this could be remedied by better leadership, but some will not change until "the economic interest of those controlling the forests are aligned with the public’s long-term interest in forest welfare." This statement identifies the depth of the problem: a paradigm shift is needed to truly protect our forests. This won’t happen until the majority of Americans realize that our forests provide essential ecological benefits.

An important issue in forest protection is sustained yield versus sustainable forestry. Berger notes that the former merely produces a steady stream of commercial products (like wood fiber), while the latter requires more than just good logging techniques. Berger believes that sustainable forestry can be done, and he emphasizes that knowing what not to cut is critical. Large forest areas must be preserved, and fragmentation (cutting forests into pieces too small to use by wildlife with large home ranges) must be minimized. Forest fragmentation is a major problem in the U.S.; it is a major cause of loss of wide-ranging carnivores such as lynx, wolverine, and grizzly bear.

Berger discusses strategies for saving forests, including the pros and cons of the Club’s position of ending commercial logging on public lands. Unfortunately, if implemented without a concomitant reduction in demand for wood products, that position would only move the problem elsewhere, probably to Canada or a third-world country where laws and other methods for protecting forests are minimal.

Berger believes that demand for wood can be reduced, by finding alternatives to using trees for paper, which accounts for half of all wood use in the U.S. Alternatives such as hemp and kenaf are available. Hemp is resisted because the plant can be smoked. However, hemp grown for fiber purposes contains very little tetrahydracannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Berger includes a list of actions people can take. Among them is to join organizations; a list is provided in an appendix. Better research and editing could have improved the book. But this does not detract from the book’s value as a primer on forest conservation.

For information on protection efforts in Colorado, call me at 303-839-5900. I have helped form Colorado Wild, Inc., an organization devoted to conserving the State’s forests.