America's 754 million acres of forest constitute more than a major physical asset: they are intricately involved in the national economy and culture. Forests provide a fifth of the nation's industrial raw material (in terms of monetary value), protect and regulate its watersheds, provide grazing range for a sizeable portion of its livestock, produce most of its game and much of its non-sport wildlife, and annually attract millions of recreation visitors. The national forests and some other public lands are, by law, managed for all of these purposes. The public, some believe, may have a right also to expect these benefits from the 400 or more million acres in private ownership. The obligation, legal or implied, to provide these amenities subjects forest managers to multifaceted, and often contradictory, public scrutiny. This applies to the rapidly urbanizing and industrializing South, no less than to other regions of the country.
Consequently, administration of forests involves the accommodation of widely varying viewpoints. In some instances, these are essentially irreconcilable. Thus, the preservation of wilderness, though compatible with many watershed and wildlife management objectives, precludes timber harvest and domestic cattle grazing. Protection may even necessitate limiting recreation use, often the motivating reason for wilderness designation. How much potentially productive land the nation can devote to a use in which only a few participate—say in the year 2020—requires decisions now. Decisions adverse to preservation tend to be relatively irreversible: What we do today may set permanent limits on the acreage available for wilderness tomorrow.
But not always. Lands across the South that lay barren in the 1930s, following the cut-and-get-out harvests of the migrating lumbermen, were purchased for as little as $2.80 an acre in national forest acquisitions during the Great Depression years. So quickly did the stands of trees that regenerated naturally take on the pristine beauty of old growth that, in the 1980s, thousands of acres were set aside as statutory wilderness. Never again, unless a future U.S. Congress decides otherwise, will loggers utilize these areas for lumber and for pulp.
Some uses of forest land are compatible, or can be accommodated by allocating limited acreages, with a single use. But as no management system is optimum for all uses, the compromises by which a particular forest is managed involve economic considerations, objectives of ownership, and complex ecological relationships. To manage the 187 million acres of national forest lands for "the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run" takes the wisdom of a Solomon. More sagacity may be essential for handling the 164 million acres of privately owned and commercially useful woodlands in the South.
Altruism will continue to be a motivation for foresters as they oversee the southern woodlands. Carl Schenck, founder of America's first forestry school, in the Pisgah Mountains of North Carolina in 1898, expressed this concern to his students with the phrase, "Excelsior, the higher good." Others call this interest biophilia, implying a fondness for living things.
Perhaps for no other natural resource is the relevance of stewardship more appropriate than for the practice of forestry. Most people in the profession take seriously the Genesis directive of Hebrew-Christian persuasion to "replenish and subdue the earth." To subdue is to control, but to replenish implies the restoration of exploited sites as well as the care of those being used to provide for the needs of people. Foresters, the original professional ecologists, remain responsible for the care of the wildland estate. Sustained yields of goods and services must come from these lands.
Wood, the principal product of the forest, is a renewable raw material (along with products of agriculture and fisheries and in contrast to oil, gas, and minerals). Its production requires only soil—with its nutrients and organisms—rainfall, and sunlight. So plentiful are woodlands that forest regeneration—whether natural or by planting seeds or seedlings—has not been particularly significant in the world of abundance from which Americans are emerging. But in a world of diminishing resources, wood is one of the few materials that can be produced in perpetuity at modest energy costs.
Wood is versatile. It is readily converted into products like wallboard, newsprint, and rayon, and to substitutes for petrochemicals. Once our chief fuel, wood is again considered an energy source: Between 5% and 20% of the country's forest area could supply its electrical demands, and gas and liquid fuels like ethane and ethyl alcohol can be produced from wood.
Structural materials that substitute for wood are chiefly steel and aluminum. Both metals increasingly depend for raw material on imported ores or on low-grade ores refinable at great energy costs. The amount of wood used in construction or for furniture can be lessened only by substituting more-expensive or less-satisfactory materials. Suitable substitutes for paperboard shipping containers or wooden railroad ties are unavailable at any cost. (Concrete and steel ties are expensive and, because they do not "give" under the heavy loads borne by the wheeled trucks of freight cars, do damage to wheels, axles, bearings, and cargo.) As the demand for wood increases significantly into the 20th century, prompt intensification of forest management on a decreasing land base becomes essential.
Society's demand for softwoods, the conifers, and their generally faster growth give them priority over broadleaf hardwoods in forestry, especially in the South. Fortunately, there they grow profitably on sites where better-quality hardwood species often do not. Concentration of a large portion of the southern harvest among relatively few species tends, however, to obscure the complexity of forest resources and their management. Fifteen softwoods and about 35 hardwoods are commercially important in the region. Dozens of other species are important for specialized uses or for their ecological influence. Hundreds of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that appear in ecological succession during a stand's rotation, but which have no economic value, present the forester with baffling managerial problems.
For the reader to better grasp some of these dilemmas encountered by professional managers of the woodland estate is a major purpose for the preparation of this book. The authors hope the words of these pages do that.
Laurence C. Walker Brian P. Oswald Nacogdoches, Texas, 1999
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