What jobs will serve us best in long run?

Published 10:44 am Monday, March 7, 2011

Thanks to a grant from the US Forest Service ( a component of the stimulus package) we have three “woods workers” working in the Saluda area.

Their directive is to improve forest health. Two of the workers are paid through the grant; the third worker is paid by the landowner or Saluda Community Land Trust for work done on public property.

As hoped, the grant has stimulated creation of one job that would probably not happen without the added federal dollars.

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About a month ago Robert, one of the workers, made the comment that it seems odd to be doing something for which the results will not be realized for many years to come. At the time, the workers were thinning out trees of little or no commercial value (including invasives and dead trees) in order to give more room for the larger, more valuable trees to grow.

This is done in small areas, interspersed throughout a larger forest tract. In 30 years or so, that small area will be logged for considerably more profit than would be the case without thinning. This practice also creates diversity within the forest beneficial for wildlife.

Robert’s comment has kept me thinking. Modern forestry has concentrated on harvesting young trees, ranging in age from 20 years to 75 years, depending upon species.

Because American forests have been logged numerous times in the past 100 years, we are now importing logs and lumber from South America, Finland, Siberia, and anywhere there are still big trees to cut.

Yet we continue to cut ours early rather than allow them time to grow to maximum maturity. With each two inches growth widthwise after a tree reaches 12 inches diameter, the number of usable board feet nearly doubles. It’s that exponential growth deal. The longer the tree is allowed to grow, the more it will give back to us. Point in fact: a tree takes more nutrients from the earth for its first forty years of growth and gives back more than it takes in it’s last half of life. It’s sort of like people: we take more as we grow to maturity and give more back on the flip side.

Would it make more sense to Robert to be cutting trees for market now, so that he can see the profit rather than work towards something his children might see? I heard on the radio about a great new business created before the superbowl making millions of souvenirs for the big game, employing dozens of people and making huge profits.

It was touted as smart and innovative. But where will those souvenirs be in 30 years, or even next year? They’ll be in the landfill, where tax monies are required to deal with the long term ‘benefits’ of that innovative job creation.

Our short term economic structures for agriculture and forestry will not work for us in the next century. As our population grows exponentially, we must think beyond what we can see or even imagine now.

The days of irresponsible “cut and run” logging must end. Unfortunately, the practice of cutting young timber has left us with a deficit in more ways than one. The same goes for agriculture. If population growth continues at its current rate, in the year 2043 farmers world-wide will have to produce as much food in one year as was produced between 10,000 BC and 2000 in order to feed us. Ponder that one for a while.

The age of instant gratification can’t last much longer. Our economic structures must include long term growth if there is going to be a long term.

Even though Robert understands harvesting trees for sale now more than he understands why the US Forest Service is willing to pay him to improve the forest for benefits way off in the future, I understand.

He will too, in 30 years. As with those trees, he will be in the second half of his life when he will be able to give back more to this world than he takes.