Genetic Goldmine

        I was taking a walk the other day, before the snow finally began to build up in the woods. I found myself at the far end of our property and decided to continue on, trespassing now, into the property to the south of ours, which is in the process of being clearcut. I have avoided this area in recent months because I find it depressing to walk through any area that has been so badly mistreated, but this time I decided that I had better, if only to reassure myself that our own lines were still intact.

        They were, at least as far as I could tell. Once out there, though, I decided to take a look at the extent of the ravishment. Even proponents of clearcutting will agree that the initial process results in almost total destruction of the forest or woodlot, and this one is no exception. I have become used to sights of smashed and broken trees, useless for anything except as compost for the soil, of the soil itself stripped, gouged, and rutted by heavy equipment, and of brush piles heaped here and there along the roadway. None of it is pretty and, to my mind, much of it is needless, a mindless byproduct of a process that has only one justification: quick profit at the expense of longterm, sustainable yield or the integrity of the land itself.

        Still, the landowner reigns absolute in such matters. Lip service regulations apply to what can be cut along water courses - and that is about it. There is nothing to protect neighbouring properties from any negative impact of such an operation. In my case, the back end of my property is now wide open to any potential tree thief or other undesirable presence and there is little that I can do about it, apart from resigning myself to the impossible task of twenty-four hour a day monitoring of property that rests more than three kilometers from my home. I can post the line - and will do so - but, as any property owner can tell you, that is a largely futile effort.

        I think that what continues to bother me most about such activities though is the mindless preoccupation with instant profit, at the expense of all else. On other occasions over the years I have argued that sensible, sustainable, harvesting processes in a woodlot will yield far higher profits over a twenty year period, without destroying the capital, than a one-shot clearcut ever could. On this occasion, let me illustrate the issue in another way.

        I walked past a large pile of hardwood that had been hauled out to roadside to await the attention of a subcontractor who was blocking all such wood to sell for firewood. There was an American beech tree in the pile. American beech is the hardest of the hardwood trees in our forest, once valuable as a source for fine furniture and florring boards. In recent years more than 99% of them have been infected by a disease which causes large black cankers in the trees and which eventually kills them. It is very rare to find a beech of more than a few centimeters in diameter which remains clear of this disease.

        This particular speciman, now destined for nothing more than a firewood pile had recently been a giant of its kind. The butt end measured better than ninety centimeters in diameter, almost as large as beeches can grow. The logs that I could see on the pile were straight and with only a slight taper. More importantly, the tree was one of less than 1% of modern beeches which had been able to resist the disease. In the woodpile, this tree was worth what it would contribute to a cord of wood. Left standing so that it could spread its disease resistant seeds it would have been worth literally millions of times more over the next hundred years because of this resistance to the disease.

        One of the saddest legacies of clearcutting - on any scale - is the destruction of this sort of biodiversity. The saddest part of it all is that whoever ends up burning it, in all likelihood, won't even realize that he or she is burning a genetic goldmine.

                This article appeared in the Campbellton Tribune, in Mike's "Grains of Sand" column. It is reproduced with Mike's permission.


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