The Ethics of Logging

I ran into this guy a little over a year ago, just a few months after we moved to our property. I met him at a school, he was a substitute teacher, but he had been a farmer for a time in his life. He seemed like a bit of a drifter, and had probably been many things at one point or another. He was the sort of guy you imagine covering his whole body with bees, standing with arms outstretched thanking the moon goddess for her gifts of light and kale. 

I was talking to him about our property and what we were doing, that we were interested in permaculture and working toward becoming a permaculture farm. He was already somewhat familiar with permaculture and said that the conversation of just how "permaculture" somebody actually is, came up a lot among his farmer friends. 

In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that we had logged the 3/4 acre section of our property that was covered in fir trees (which also triggered our neighbor logging her 1 acre section). He responded: 

That’s not very permaculture of you.

At the time I felt a little insecure. I was admittedly new to the whole permaculture farming thing (still am) and had to ask myself, "was that permaculture of me?" 

Well, big sigh of relief, Allison and I have since learned that yes, in fact logging can be an extremely permaculture move. In fact, logging is sometimes the best possible thing to do. 

Is that a forest?

 Our property in Feb 2013

Our property in Feb 2013

There are two misconceptions about logging I want to clear up: 

1. All forests are created equal. 

2. The forest, as it is, represents the "ideal" state. 

 

 

First, all forests are NOT created equal. In fact, some "forest" really can't be legitimately called forest. It's just a stand of trees. In our case, we had a mostly young (less than 20 years) stand of trees at the back of our property that somebody had planted, probably to grow out for logging or as a potential tax lot. 

A stand of trees like this does serve some purpose, such as erosion control, Co2 conversion and all the other things we like about trees. However, it was not planted with any intentionality, therefore it lacked eco-systemic properties like biodiversity and productivity. At the end of the day it was just a very natural looking mono-crop. That's the reality for a lot of what we call forest, especially young forest that has been replanted without much forethought. A stand like this will sort itself out eventually, but not for another 100 years or more. 

That leads to the second misconception; that forest, as it is, represents the "ideal" state. In some cases this is absolutely true. Pristine, untouched, old growth forest should be preserved. But, the reality of the modern world is that all places have been affected by human activity and most of that impact has been negative. We take this as a given, as though if humans are to settle somewhere they must of necessity mess it up. Because of that, and for good reason, logging has gotten a very bad rap.

But humans can be producers, not just consumers, and that happens when we work with the natural world to create productive ecosystems that are self-sustaining. 

When Logging is a Great Idea

There are cases where logging is actually a great idea. Like when you have a well thought out, intentional plan for replacing a young unhealthy "forest" with a healthy ecosystem that's productive and actually heals the landscape. This system could be designed with timber trees, fruit trees or a combination of the both In fact, there are many different versions of this and we couldn't possibly go into all of them in a single post, but the system we are using is a food forest. 

Where our stand of trees were, we are working to put in a food forest built on contour Swales (look at the Our Farm section to see the design). Contour Swales deserve their own post (and they will get one at some point), but suffice it to say they are water harvesting systems that spread water out over land and soak it into the soil to replenish the water table and passively irrigate food forest systems. 

Food forests themselves are poly-culture forest systems that are designed to produce food and all of the material needed to sustain themselves with no outside input of fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide or the like. They are generally built with a variety of fruit and nut trees as the core, but also include understory of productive shrubs and perennial fruits and vegetables. They also include nitrogen fixing plants that provide mulching material to build soil and keep the forest healthy. It's essentially an orchard designed like a forest. 

Food forest is one example where replacing a young, unhealthy, unproductive forest makes a lot of sense. You can trade a sort of okay but natural looking stand of trees with a very productive eco-system that gives food, replenishes the water table and offers all the traditional benefits of a forest. 

Most logging isn't awesome

While we think logging can be ethical and have sustainable results, logging can do a lot of damage through use of fossil fuels, getting rid of wildlife habitat, soil erosion, etc. These are important considerations and whenever you are using massive machines and destroying the favorite path of a deer, you need to give it a great deal of thought and replace it with something better. The up front environmental impact can be nullified when you have a productive system that can last hundreds of years and potentially feed entire communities. The problem is that rarely happens.

What usually happens is that people want to make lots of money and so they simply harvest large swaths of trees and then replace it with whatever will make them lots of money again. It's a workable economic system, but doesn't do much good to the land and it doesn't feed anybody.

In case you were wondering, this is what our land looked like at the beginning of this summer, a little over a year after logging. We have been working on processing those massive piles of debris into mulch, firewood and Hugelkulture material (we'll do a post on that too :)).