Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Habitat Restoration: Calling the Solution the Problem

See, the Smoky Mountains came back just fine...errr....
after the Federal Government bought/stole the whole mountain
range out from under timber operators,
and started reforesting it wall-to-wall.  Minor detail. 
About 15 years ago, in the height of political correctness, there was a crop of young far-left biologists and ecologists who believed that the earth was far stronger than man.  That the kind of conservation proposed by Leopold, Teddy Roosevelt, and Pinchot was old simply old conservative men thinking they were doing "God's work to man's dominion."

Those wide-eyed folks left college strongly believing that if just "left alone," the natural world could - and would - fix itself.  Of course, as those biologists actually got into the workplace, spent time afield, and realized that human actions have (in places all over the world) made it impossible for natural places to "be what they were" 10,000 years ago (without obliterating mankind and waiting 20,000 years for earth to repair itself), they realized what the conservationists knew 100 years ago.  Our species is special.  Powerful. And if we value natural places "as they once were," then those gullies have to get fixed.  The invasive plants removed.  The soil amended (since the 10,000 year old soil washed away 100 years ago).  People (and their septic systems) moved out of the marsh.  The haz-mat dump cleaned up.   Those biologists came to understand what farmers, philosophers, and scientists have known for four thousand years - natural places are built from the bottom up.  Soil structure and chemistry > soil microbes > microinvertebrates > macroinvertebrates > vertebrates.  Simple damn ecology. Across most terrestrial and shallow water habitats that have been cut, filled, burned, drained, or paved for human use, we can't (if we value soil, water, and wildlife as being any part of our society's future) wait for some random plants to grow on top of the toxic, eroding mess and just say, "There. Better!"  Those young biologists figured it out, or left the field entirely to go be on Whale Wars or something.

Foresters pose for a picture in 1963, evaluating which
pieces of Pisgah National Forest will be reforested
for timber production (commercial forestry on public land),
which areas will be reforested for public recreation
(hunting and fishing), and which areas will be reforested
and subsequently deemed to be "wilderness."
Note: very few areas, "to be left alone."
So it was almost like a flashback to that bizarre era when an anti-conservationist recently said that the Smoky Mountains were a great example of how nature doesn't need saving or restoring - of how it repairs itself, saves itself, and indeed, can take care of itself without the help of self-serving do-gooder biologists and conservationist nerds.  That argument was the crux of a longer series of rants about how:

1) the government should not interfere with land use that seeks to generate financial wealth or jobs, both undefined at any level;

2) natural resource conservation is generally a hoax of leftist whackos involved in the marxist takeover of our country through earth worship;

3) warning: the government will take your land falsely in the name of "conservation" which of course, is a marxist plot against freedom. The government doesn't care about true conservation - just taking away your rights.

I know, those are all bizarre, but please keep reading.  This is a special story about a triumph of American conservation, achieved through a host of Constitutional violations.  Done with purpose.

Commercial loggers tried but failed to harvest every Chestnut out of the Smokies.  The blight, introduced to America
by horticulturalists,  succeeded in that task, just fifty years later.  20 billion trees dead in 30 years.  The Forest Service and dozens of non-profits  have been furiously reforesting and restoring the Smokies ever since -
a fact I didn't think was contested or contestable.

I actually had to read the Smoky Mountains example twice.  Yes, the Smoky Mountains were nearly completed deforested twice.  And yes, it's pretty and full of trees now, as the region holds almost 200,000 acres of old growth forest (not the same as virgin forest), the densest black bear population in the east, and the most diverse population of non-tropical salamanders.   And despite some career academicians' efforts to prove otherwise, it certainly seems to most ecologists, anglers, hunters, and hikers that the Smoky Mountains were saved in time.  The resource is functional.  Intact.  Closely resembling how God allowed it to be in the first place.  Sure, some stream systems were damaged beyond recognition.  The great American chestnut forest was lost - and replaced with Oak-Hickory and other forest types.  Some wildlife species were lost.  But the Smokies pretty much survived our 18th and 19th century onslaughts for raw materials.

Only via the internet can
a 2012 Tea Party member make
comments identical to those
of  a 1996 eco-nazi!
So let's explore how this salvation occurred.  According to at least one angry voice, this simply could not have occurred through the conservation methods he rages against - over-regulation, government intrusion onto private land, and government prohibition (and potential takings) of land use.  Surely - this key example of how nature takes care of itself cannot - CANNOT - stand as an example of mainstream conservation (which he believes to be Marxism). And I'm here to tell you - he's right.  The Smokies were saved by aggressive action by the federal government - of types that we'd never allow for or even imagine in this day and age.  By hook and by crook, by courtroom, checkbook, and threat of imprisonment, the Smoky Mountains were saved. 

Habitat project by Smoky Mtn
Ruffed Grouse Society.
Didn't happen by itself. 
Let's start with the biggest piece of the Smoky Mountains - Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  GSMNP (Protected, 1940.  Restoration began: 1940) was a combined effort by two figures universally loved by Southerners - John D. Rockefeller and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.   Private moneys (from carpetbaggers like Rockefeller) were combined with tax dollars, and the federal government purchased as much land as they wanted to.  When this resulted in a less-than-ideal land holding, the evictions began.  First, the timber operators were forced off the land - land which they held legal title to own.  They were not paid to leave.  When the progress (in acreage) continued to be a bit slow, homesteaders and farmers were also evicted - in most cases (not all), those people held title to private land.  Right there, in the middle of what a few short-sighted people believe is a monument against modern conservation, is actually a conservation nightmare - conservation in total ignorance of its social and economic impacts.

Yup.  Just "fixed itself."  Duh! 

Just to the north of GSMNP is Pisgah National Forest (Protected: 1915. Restoration began: 1885), where I've spent a good chunk of time fishing over the years.  Pisgah - the amalgamation of several smaller National Forests, is a bit of an enigma.   Also a shining monument to anti-government control, the core of the forest acreage came in 1915, when the Vanderbilts felt compelled to sell 500,000 acres to the federal government at a price "significantly below its value."  This practice, if not entirely voluntary, is now illegal in environmental conservation (or any type of condemnation), as it is recognized to be a "government taking." (however, at the time, was completely legal, given Mahon v. Pennsylvania Coal).   Things are better now.  If the environment is worth protecting, then people should arguably be paid to give it away.

Productive timber land (forest) in the United States.
Don't care about habitat?
Hope you don't use paper, either.

So, then, onto the Nantahala National Forest , which rings the southern end of the Smoky Mountains. The US Forest Service purchased about 15% of the property directly from the US Treasury Department in 1920.  Yup.  You read that right.  The federal government made judgments against landowners, evicted them, and took the property via the Treasury Department.  That is so much more freedom-loving than than modern day conservation!

And yet, despite all of these incursions against legitimate property ownership and property rights, conveyed across multiple states and across the span of decades, the Great Smoky Mountains stand as a testament to difficult decisions being made about the conservation of great American places and resources.   The Forest Service wasn't foolish at the time - many of the enabling legal documents refer to timber stocks for future, unknown wars, hydropower needs and opportunities, and the simple, authentic preservation and restoration of an important American resource.

But don't tell that to the guy who touts the Smoky Mountains as an example of why we shouldn't care, because someone "left it alone" and "it fixed itself."
Visitors to Pisgah National Forest's "See What's to Come" exhibit (1967) learn about the importance of soil
conservation, wildlife management, and forest restoration.
Omitted was the part about, "Aww shucks just leave it, it'll be fine, I'm sure."
And in case you missed it the first time: 

I photoshopped out the sign next to it that said, "This area "Left Alone" by the US Forest Service." 


The Reverend Fowl ™ said...

This article is a rarity whereas you do not ignore real, human creatures, they’re superiority, dominion, and authority. Corporations are mystical, legal persons that are increasingly displacing real people. It won’t be long before there is a new breed of conservationalists that has the brain power and ethic to always publish the societal systems and aboriginal title of an ecology.

Kirk Mantay said...

Thanks Rev. We do have dominion. From God, I believe. Just because a tree grows back doesn't mean it's the same as the tree that was there before, or the same as a tree we could plant after amending the soil and protecting the stream next to it. Looking at a tree and saying "a tree equals a tree" ignores our tremendous power over nature, and nature's incredible sensitivity to our footsteps (good or bad). Saying that "nature will eventually triumphed" is only a true statement if one assumes that humans will go away and that nature has 50,000 - 100,000 years to figure itself out in our absence.

Chris said...

Facts... they tend to get in the way of a good rant, you know... Thanks for the perspective--nice work.

Steve Kline said...

This is a great post, with some very salient points. I had the good fortune to spend a lot of time professionally on the Tongass National Forest, in Southeast Alaska, a forest that has been subjected to roughly 60 years of heavy timber operations.

The Tongass is a rainforest, and does not need to be reseeded or replanted to "come back." Sure, it grows back in a big hurry and after only a few seasons, clear cut hills are lush with vegetation.

But without human intervention (usually by guys in US Forest Service uniforms with big chain saws), the forest grows back all wrong.

I saw places that had not been restored that were so dense, you couldn't walk through them. Heck, a dog couldn't make his way through. It had essentially become a wall of vegetation.

There were hundred year old hemlock trees that were fifteen inches in diameter because they had grown up so close to one another. Now they were just waiting to get blown over in the wind, so that the whole process of overstocking could begin anew.

Without restoration, what was a highly functioning ecosystem is replaced with a biological desert.

What's more, is that the fires that are burning across Colorado, are likely linked in part to a lack of restoration activity, and severely overstocked fuel conditions.

cofisher said...

Nice post, especially for a western guy with little perspective.

Kirk Mantay said...

Like many things in our world, sometimes the right thing gets done the wrong way. The overall point stands though - it did not happen by accident in some majestic triumph over humankind (Steve Kline's comment above also reflects this).

No Video Content For You

Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...