Tag Archives: #logging

Telling Tales

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The Białowieża Forest in Poland is still the kind of place, one of the last in Europe, which looks like it is truly straight out of a fairy tale. And when European fairy tales were being written about forests in all their vast complexity, forests still looked like Białowieża Forest.

Several months ago, I wrote about the Polish government’s plans to log large amounts of ancient woodland in the protected Białowieża Forest. In spite of considerable opposition and lawsuits from conservationists, scientists, and European government agencies, the logging went ahead.

Now that the logging has been underway since early summer, the European Union has slapped sanctions on Poland in the amount of €100,000/day (USD 119,000/day) for violating EU law.

The Woodcutter’s Hut (2008)
Artist: Su Blackwell

The government insists on cutting trees against a background falling timber prices, and in spite of the gains in eco-tourism in and around the forest – not to mention the scientific importance of a forest still home to astounding biodiversity. The undertaking certainly raises the question as to how much money is being made on the sales, and by whom. It’s bad enough to watch Poland log Białowieża, Europe’s largest remaining primeval forest and a UNESCO World Heritage site, for old-growth wood and short-term profits.

It’s worse to see Poland’s environment minister, Jan Szyszko, use spurious claims to justify the straightforward gain and greed of the plan. In a similar vein to the Japanese government easily refuted assertion that whaling is still necessary for scientific research while it sells off the resulting whale meat at high prices, Poland’s government claims that the felling of old trees is required to control a spruce bark beetle outbreak.

In the habit of many of today’s governments, any media or scientific coverage that contradicts official plans is simply labelled as fake news. As the truth become more uncomfortable, the lies become more implausible.

The Snow Queen (2008)
Artist: Su Blackwell

The government’s odd argument that the forest isn’t really worth declaring ‘primeval’ because “it was made by local people, and we have facts and books that show that people were there from the beginning,” says less about the forest and more about a spokesperson grasping at a narrative straw.

Fairy tales were written to guide listeners and readers through moral dilemmas, to instruct on dark impulses and their consequences. The issues at the heart of the Polish government’s current tale are the ones we know so well: Greed, and the stories people tell to get what they want.

Felling Heritage

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People used to intimately know places like the Bialowieza Forest, the last primeval forest in Europe, the wild places that made us what we are.

Now these place are relegated to small corners. They mainly inhabit our stories, little bits of baggage we carry with our culture through the millennia.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Spanning the border between Poland and Belarus, the Bialowieza forest is home to the Europe’s tallest trees and is a refuge to countless species of birds, mammals and invertebrates. Although not unaffected by war, especially during and after WWI when most of its native bison were exterminated, the forest has remained largely intact and untouched for over 10,000 years.

This is the kind of mixed forest and rich ecosystem that once covered most of Europe, and this last remnant of 140,000 hectares (540 sq. m.) was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.

It’s a living museum piece, a sprawling natural monument to the world as it was when humanity was young.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Now that humanity is more mature, we have nation-states and borders, and the forest that was once a free-roaming thing is considered the territory of one place or another, whether or not UNESCO, or the European Union, or environmental activists, consider it to belong to all of humanity and the world.

In this case, the fact that some of the Bialowieza Forest is on the Polish side of an international border is critical. After decades of protection and management, the Polish government approved a massive increase in logging in the forest. This logging would go far beyond forest management activities meant to control pests or promote growth – 180,000 cubic metres (6.4m cubic feet) of wood over ten years.

Bialowieza Forest.
Photo: Emily Sun

Ignoring arguments put forth by environmentalists, scientists, universities, NGOs and a petition signed by 160,000 Polish citizens, the Polish government won a victory this week in a court challenge that would have granted environmental NGOs the legal status to challenge decisions made by the Polish Environment Minister, and to demand further environmental impact reports.

The next step will be charges brought by the European Union and possible sanctions for the violation of Poland’s agreements under the Natura 2000 program.

But, as with all such procedures, these things take time. And any pristine area where logging commences is an area that will be irretrievably altered. Bit by bit, what was a rampant cathedral to pre-humanity wildness becomes a memory, a smaller place, diminished by our hunt for resources and the money they bring.

Will the Bialowieza Forest become just one more living place packed away and stored our collective human memory?

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Serious Buffoonery

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A gathering of orangutans is called a buffoonery. A buffoonery of orangutans implies some very high amusement, and indeed, I imagine if enough of the ginger apes were to get together, hilarity and hijinks might ensue.

But as most people know by now, orangutans don’t have much to laugh about. Between deforestation and the illegal animal trade, it’s all been looking a bit grim for the old man of the forest.

A buffoonery of orangutans Artist: Kim Rebecca

A buffoonery of orangutans
Artist: Kim Rebecca

Many years ago, I spent some time working in the biofuels sector, and palm oil was gaining market shares over other types of biodiesel.

Palm oil has some advantages in that palm oil trees can be grown and harvested year round and the yield per acre is better than many other oil crops, including soybeans and rapeseed.

But even back then, we all knew that palm oil had some very serious drawbacks. Besides a couple of technical disadvantages (for example, palm oil biodiesel isn’t as resistant to cold weather as other biodiesel oils, and it has to be transported over rather large distances from plantation to end user), there is one key problem with palm oil: The best growing climates for palm oil plantations are sometimes shared by rainforests. Which means that palm oil production is often based on mass deforestation.

I remember asking an oil trader from Indonesia, a fellow who was proposing some major trade with my company, about this small hiccup in what was supposed to be a renewable, eco-friendly fuel production. What role did safeguarding habitat, for orangutans and countless other creatures and plants, play in sustainable palm oil production?

His response? He laughed and told me that the majority of the Indonesian rainforest had been chopped down and converted to plantations already, so I didn’t need to worry about it anymore. The damage had been done, it was time to make some lemonade out of the environmental lemons we had on hand. As for the animal and plant life? Maybe they’d live in the new plantations, if they didn’t hinder the farming.

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia
Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

The company I worked for at the time decided we didn’t need to deal in palm oil at all. It’s nice to take a stand, but in any case, palm oil isn’t just being used for biodiesel fuel. Its uses are many and like the little lies told for social convenience, palm oil can be found almost everywhere.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization founded in 2004, around the same time I had that disconcerting conversation, undertook an initiative to decouple palm oil production from deforestation. And while the Indonesian trader may have thought he was selling me on palm oil futures, it turns out he was only partially correct. Not all rainforests had been eradicated, and orangutans aren’t really tolerated on plantations.

The RSPO has had some real success lately in achieving the goal of getting companies to agree to use only sustainably produced palm oil that does not result from deforestation. And this, in turn, is good for wildlife and rainforests alike.

Indonesian palm oil crop Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

Indonesian palm oil crop
Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

I suppose a fatalistic approach to matters as they stand might be a comfort to some. After all, if all is lost, why worry about losing any more? Make hay while the sun shines.

A buffoonery of a different sort.

I’m glad organizations like the RSPO, the companies that have decided to join the initiative, and the many wildlife conservation groups in these areas don’t have the same fatalistic sense of humor as my ex-conversation partner.

For an on-the-ground look at deforestation in progress, here’s a good documentary on the complexities of the issues in Papua New Guinea, On Our Land.

Fish Owl Equation

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The Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) is an intimidating creature of tufted ears and daunting size – the largest known owl in existence, it stands at up to 75 cm (2.5 feet) and has a wingspan of over 180 cm (6 feet). It is also a flying barometer of forest health.

Blakiston Fish Owl hunting Source: Internet Bird Collection

Blakiston’s Fish Owl hunting
Source: Internet Bird Collection

Its dining habits – it feeds on salmon and other fish from running rivers – require pristine forest and river health.

A study has shown that the large trees in which the fish owl nests are the very ones that create the best river environments for salmon life cycles, and thus add another facet to why these trees are important to the fish owl. When the trees age and fall into rivers, their girth and length creates the deep backwaters and rapid-flow passages the salmon require.

If the Blakiston’s fish owl is disappearing from its ranges in the Russian and Chinese far east, and in northern Japan, it is mostly due to habitat disruption. Other factors are the big bird’s inability to avoid getting caught in power lines and fish nets.

Blakiston fish owl Photo: © Jonathan C. Slaght, WCS Russia

Blakiston’s fish owl
Photo: © Jonathan C. Slaght, WCS Russia

The fish owl is an impressive if shy indicator of the well-being of the forest, an element in an equation that includes salmon, other owl species and large mammals.

At  the heart of the equation are the old-growth trees. And what is the solution to this equation?

Reduced logging, recovery programs for river systems, restricted human access to remote protected areas.

Elements we often have difficulty adding up to action, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.