17 Mar 2008
The effect heavy industry has on nature seems to get most of our attention. They are portrayed as the demon polluters and a threat to our world. Producing toxic chemicals, effluents and air pollution. Yet they do not have the biggest impact on our local nature. It may degrade our environment but it doesn't destroy it. The biggest culprit is the one that effects the largest areas; the conversion of wild areas for agriculture and forestry.
The clearance of Europe's forests occurred long before many of us were born. Vast areas were cleared to make way for agricultural land to feed our burgoening populations. We exploited our natural forests for fuelwood and timber. Replacing them with fast growing evergreen trees, such as the Spruce forests of central Germany. But they are not really forests, they are plantations or more accurately crops. Commercially attractive, growing quickly and straight. They provide us with fuel, paper, furniture and Christmas trees. Never has demand been higher. They are grown in uniform blocks, planted in straight lines, all the same species and age. Cost efficient, easy to fell and transport. And devastating for nature. These forests are characterised by low biodiversity, unnatural uniformity, vulnerability to disease and climatic variability. The trees are packed together stopping the light from reaching the forest floor and thus reducing the available food for animals. These forests have a high density of tracks making it easier to get workers in and timber out. But it also allows easier access for hikers and hunters, thus reducing the areas of sanctuary for wildlife. When the forest stands reach their economic peak they are clear cut. The most cost efficient way of harvesting. It has the added bonus of disrupting the hydrological cycle, the nutrient cycle, increasing soil erosion and fragmenting habitats. It also makes the remaining trees vulnerable to the wind. This was plainly demonstrated when Storm Kyrill ripped through Germany last year toppling millions of trees. The blame was directed at the forestry companies for not embracing modern (or ancient, depending on how you look at it) management methods utilising mixed forests. Mixed forests have a natural structure, diversity in tree species and age. They have higher species and habitat diversity, lower vulnerability to the weather and disease and they also look better. A natural forest mosaic replaces the geometric patchwork of Spruce plantations. Unfortunately they are not commercially attractive as long as producers concentrate on the bottom line and consumers ignore the environmental problems on their doorsteps.
We seem preoccupied with campaigning to protect wildlife in Africa and Asia and the great rainforests of South America. We judge the people of those countries for trading in their natural heritage for a quick buck. But we destroyed our wildlife and forests a long time ago. Now we export our environmental problems by importing food and timber from countries with little or no understanding of the consequences.
Perhaps it is no wonder that we have little awareness of the fate of our own natural forests when we have no pictorial record of our natural heritage. Ours was destroyed long before the advent of the camera and the mass media.