The decline in virgin forest lands from 1620 to 1850...

[imgcontainer left] [img:virginforest1620and1850320.jpg] [source]William B. Greeley: The Relation of Geography to Timber Supply, Economic Geography[/source] The decline in virgin forest lands from 1620 to 1850… [/imgcontainer]

The brutal attack on forests after European settlement here is one of the darkest chapters in U.S. environmental history. The loss of forests triggered localized climate change, soil erosion, flooding, and massive forest fires, like the one in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in October, 1871 – the worst recorded forest fire in North American history.

Who now could imagine what it must have been like for the first pioneers to look from the decks of a tiny sailing ships that had bobbed for weeks across the Atlantic into forests of huge trees that came right to the ocean’s shorelines? It must have been truly awesome, mysterious, and likely frightening.

For the first several generations after European contact, the forest must have seemed endless. It stretched from the East Coast, over the Appalachians, and into the Midwest, transitioning into prairies and plains before starting again in the Rockies and extending to the West Coast.  What would become the United States contained about 822 million acres of forest, covering more than a third of the land.

[imgcontainer left] [img:virginforest1920today320.jpg] …from 1920 to 1925. [/imgcontainer]

Forests were an enemy of farming, the dominant employer across the United States until well into the twentieth century. Trees had to be cleared to grow crops. The first task of any frontier farmer was to girdle trees so they would die and then cut them down to build a cabin, barn, and fences. Stump pulling was a persistent chore for years on these farms. Unused wood was set aside as firewood or burned as waste.

In their book, Land Economics (1940), Richard T. Ely and George S. Wehrwein noted that the “forest was a hostile thing occupying the ground which [the farmer] needed for corn and beans, even though it furnished him with game, fuel, and building material.  All was fair in the struggle against this handicap, and no weapon, not even his sharp ax, was more powerful than fire.  So the use of fire against the forest became a part of the ritual of the poor man.  He has literally burned his way west….”

At the same time, the colonies entered the “Age of Wood,” using wooden tools to build towns, bridges, and water wheels, as well as other wooden tools and the machines of early industrialism,  before productions of iron and steel became widespread. Wood byproducts, such as charcoal, fired iron furnaces. Chemicals from wood provided dyes, tar, fertilizers, lye, and other products. The colonies, especially New England, became wood exporters of masts for ships, staves, clapboards, shingles, and, later, sawn timbers and ship timbers. The abundance of wood in North America was crucial for Europe, which was largely cut over. Growing demand eventually resulted in tremendous waste and the emergence of “cut and run” timbering practices that left hillsides denuded, opening the way for floods and fires.

[imgcontainer] [img:burnedforest530.jpg] [source]U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. LOC Prints and Photographs[/source] Destructive logging followed by fire destroyed this forest and triggered soil erosion [/imgcontainer]

America has long had a love-hate relationship with its forests. In the predominant view, forests weren’t to be admired. They were there to be used. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated in 2002 that there are 749 million acres of forest land nationwide, about 651 million acres of forest-use land and the balance in special use, such as parks and wildlife areas. USDA noted that total forest land, including multiple-use areas, declined from colonial times until about 1920, increased from 1920 to 1960, then trended downward until 1987, but increased between 1987 and 2002.

America’s conservation movement slowly emerged out of the ravaging of our forests in the last half of the 1800s. Progressive Republicans such as President Theodore Roosevelt, forester Gifford Pinchot (head of the U.S. Forest Service and later Pennsylvania governor), and John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club) built a legacy of caring for forests that survives today.

“Caring for forests” varies, however, depending on how the land is managed and for what purpose. For example, demand for wood saw logs used in construction fluctuates from year to year. The crash in housing construction has hurt the timber industry badly in the past few years. This is hard on the big businesses that manage huge forest tracts, and on timber workers, too.

In their book Community Forestry in the United States (2003) Mark Baker and Jonathan Kusel link healthy forest ecosystems with healthy communities and workers. This approach is quite  different from that of the cyclical global timber industry, which relies on federally subsidized National Forest lands and private tree farms that are not necessarily managed for natural diversity or wildlife. The cyclical nature of the timber economy creates inefficiencies as mills are closed and workers laid off.

[imgcontainer left] [img:BereaUp320.jpg] [source]Timothy Collins[/source] Berea College’s Forest in Kentucky is a timber farm that is managed for recreation and provides wildlife habitat. [/imgcontainer]

Community forestry, however defined, essentially recognizes the importance of local decision-making about how the forest is used. For example, forest land might actually be owned by a town or a group, based on European or Native American concepts of common ownership. In 1790, Danville, New Hampshire, established two small town forests. Currently, the Menominee Tribal Enterprises manage about 200,000 acres of forestland in Wisconsin for the people. Community forests are more common in Canada, but can be found wherever a group of citizen-owners share the common goal of managing the forestland not only for themselves but for the benefit of the wider community.

While the idea is old, community forests may be more important today than ever in rural communities. Local and regional forests take on increasing importance in a world that has grown far more crowded, as we try to figure out how to deal with climate change and build a greener economy based on the use of biomass for energy. Global economic and ecological instability suggest important possibilities for small forest owners and communities willing to work together to invest locally in an uncertain future.

[imgcontainer] [img:RockiesNearBoulderDecember1974530.jpg] [source]Timothy Collins[/source] Fir trees above Boulder, Colorado, on the Eastern Front of the Rockies, December, 1974. [/imgcontainer]

There’s plenty of room for discussion here that will require planning to link community-owned land with private, state, and federal land in coherent patterns. Sustainable rural communities need to consider not only the health and well-being of their human residents, but also the health of the surrounding ecology, including plants and animals.

Investing in an intelligently planned and managed community forest now could provide numerous future aesthetic and economic benefits locally, including more stable employment, biomass for energy, food sources, wildlife habitat, recreational areas, cleaner air, and watershed protection. This is a long-term strategy, but it could improve life in many communities across the country.

(Author’s note: 2011 is the International Year of the Forest. If you decide to go out and hug a tree soon, especially on Arbor Day on April 29, you might find yourself in good company.)

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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