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Boreal Forest in the global context Note 1

Keywords: carbon cycle, economic efficiency, geographic distribution, history, wilderness preservation.

J. STAN ROWE Note 2

Box 11, New Denver, B.C. V0G 1S0, Canada

As Kenneth Hare pointed out in the early 1950's, the European and American outlook tends toward the temperate. Why bother with the boreal forest when it is virtually confined to marginal territories: northern Russia, Alaska, Canada, and the Nordic countries at the edge of Europe - vast empty spaces that are home to less than 1% of the world's population? The geographer Hustich calculated a few years ago that only about 16 million people live in what as a European he called "the middle north," the boreal region, where the greatest concentration of warm bodies is in Finland.

Suddenly, over the last few years, public interest in the boreal forest has blossomed worldwide. As our breakneck technology exploits and mutilates the world, one facet of it - the electronic media - spreads the bad news globally. Once interest had been aroused in the fate of the equatorial tropical rainforest, a slight shift of the TV campaign reveals scenes of forestry mayhem in our own backyards, raising the disturbing question, "What's going on north of Amazonia? What's with the world's other great forest belt, the boreal forest?"

Should we take a circumarboreal jaunt, passing through Alaska, the mid-Canada corridor, Labrador and Newfoundland, central and northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, then travelling from Leningrad east to the Ural Mountains, and beyond them across Siberia to Kamchatka on the Pacific, we would be continually immersed in the taiga; in needle-leaved forests of pine, spruce, fir and larch, frequently intermixed with broad-leaved poplars, birches, alders, willows, and mountain ashes. In circling the north from continent to continent the species names given to the woody plants change, but the "look" of the forests remains familiar to anyone who has studied the paintings of Canada's "Group of Seven" artists, or journeyed around northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. And just as a wanderer in northern Canada will continually get her feet wet so will she everywhere throughout the boreal zone, which accounts for by far the largest part of the peatland areas of the world.

The boreal genera were present at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years BP. On Axel Heiberg Island, James Basinger is studying 45 million-year-old mummified forests. By the late Eocene, 40 million years BP, the climate was distinctly colder and the boreal species spread rapidly, displacing to the south the Arcto-Tertiary forest whose fragments survive today in eastern North America, eastern Asia, and southeastern Europe.

Thus the circumpolar taiga was formed. Is it not astonishing that this boreal forest, 60 million years old - actually 4.6 billion years in the making - should in the matter of a century be threatened with total change, and for all we know, total destruction, due to humanity's acquisitiveness and ignorance? That a thinking species, ourselves, should be so insensitive, so thoughtless, about things other than our own kind is - for any who pause to think about it - mind-boggling.

In Canada, almost half the boreal forest is mapped as "subarctic," as open lichen woodland, and considered "noncommercial" and for many years has been logged, grazed, and otherwise "managed." In 1980 Teuvo Ahto, a Finnish ecologist, reported that in northern Finland subarctic forests are logged, drained, and fertilized, "excessive" regeneration of birch being killed with herbicides sprayed from aircraft. In forest circles this is called "vegetation management." Were we managers of forest ecosystems rather than trees, the poisoning of plant and animal components for which we see no use would be forbidden, taboo.

Today's boreal forest zone comprises 8% of the global forest land, 26% of the world's closed-crown forests, and at present yields 28% of the world's industrial logs or roundwood. There it stands, a storehouse of about nine billion tonnes of carbon in trees, soil, and peat. Russia has 73% of the closed-crown boreal forest, the Nordic countries 5% and Canada 22%. Most of Canada's forested land, 82%, is boreal.

Problems of land use are everywhere the same as human numbers rise and material expectations increase. Agriculture and forestry share an identical world view, both bereft of roots in ecologically sensitive practices, both geared to efficiency in the pursuit of higher production and quicker profits. "But is this not necessary to provide jobs?," some ask. The question needs close study because our attitude toward jobs is equivocal. Even as political parties promise to "make" more jobs, the industrial system does its best to eliminate them by computerization, robotization, and globalization in the name of "increased productivity," meaning more output per person. Agriculture has led the way in jobless growth and agriculturalists proudly proclaim that each modern farmer can feed 80 people - freeing them to take low-paying service jobs or to be unemployed in the cities. Similarly with the forest industry; the mill capacity is doubled and the number of workers per unit of output is halved. This is progress, where the middle class is steadily decimated and the world is reorganized into the rich rich and the poor poor.

Economic efficiency not only speeds up the mining of the Earth's resources, it deprives people of meaningful work. Furthermore, by setting up machines as models, it steadily pushes people in the direction of a mechanistic totalitarian form of social organization. In the words of Eric Fromm, "we have not yet been able to make machines that behave like people, but we are working on making people behave like machines; and when we have made people behave like machines we will have no difficulty in making machines that behave like people."

While economic voices insist that we must become more and more competitive, more and more productive, more and more efficient, prophetic voices are telling us to resist by being less competitive, less productive, less efficient in using the land and water ecosystems that surround us. How can we launch ourselves on the saving path of inefficiency? The appropriate symbol, the one by which social forces may be mustered to fight technological efficiency, is wilderness. The wild in nature and in humans is the antithesis of the enslaved society that the technocratic state will bring. Strict preservation of wilderness - for example; setting aside large chunks of the boreal forest as national parks or provincial wilderness - poses a direct challenge of nonuse to conventional economic thinking. But much more radical is the assertion that we support the notion of preserving the earth and its remaining wild parts on the grounds of inherent worth, of no-necessary-utility, for this challenges those people-first values that are degrading the world and ourselves. To work for preservation is to throw up a barricade in the fight to defend planetary life, and to fly a banner symbolic of the way all humanity should be protecting the earth. Protection of the wild not only contributes to ecological consciousness in all land uses but also puts that consciousness into practise as restraint - confronting and denying the legitimacy of conventional "progress". In the words of Weyland Drew, a good "revolutionary index" to indicate how far we have come, and how far we have to go, is the percentage of wilderness set beyond the bounds of development within the domesticated landscape.

We should feel the same pain when the atmosphere and the seas are poisoned as when people are poisoned. We should feel more pain at the destruction of wild ecosystems such as the taiga than at the demise of any organism, No matter how sad the latter occasion, for with destruction of ecosystems we cut away the very root of creativity, of life.

When we take our eyes off ourselves, looking away from the human species to important surrounding things, we can perhaps begin, as Herb Hammond has suggested, to think like the boreal forest, to empathize with and minister to it."Hold that taiga!"

1 This article first appeared in "Brazil of the North" published by Colleen McCrory on behalf of Canada's Future Forest Alliance, Box 224, New Denver, B.C. V0G 1S0, Canada.

2 The author, J. Stan Rowe, worked for the Canadian Forestry Service until 1967 when he took up an academic appointment at the University of Saskatchewan. Dr. Rowe is the author of many scholarly papers and journal articles and the book, Home Place: Essays on Ecology, General Publishing, $14.95.


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Copyright © 1997 J. Stan Rowe