The Golden Spruce

This first book by author John Vaillant is a brief study of several topics: North American logging practices, the culture of the Haida tribe and other similar NW native tribes, and the ecology of the Pacific Northwest rain forests, which cover a thin, coast-hugging band seldom more than 50 miles wide, but stretching 2,000 miles from Mendicino to Kodiak Island.

This study is used as rich background for a true tale of a logger turned ecologist, whose guilt-ridden angst was fueled by paranoid schizophrenic tendencies. His deteriorating mental state propelled him to cut down a mutant spruce tree that had assumed sacred status among the Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands, across the Hecate Strait from Prince Rupert, British Columbia (BC). His rationale was to protest the special attention given to one mutant tree, while the fate of all the forests was being ignored.

This essay concentrates on the wealth of background information the study provides. The protagonist’s tale not further considered I was reading this book during the period of my first visit to BC, after nearly a year living on the coast north of Seattle. We visited the Natural History Museum in Victoria on Vancouver Island, where I spent two hours observing artifacts and exhibits about the very peoples the book was describing.

We picked our current neighborhood because the builder had left some tall trees – western red cedar, western hemlock, and Douglas fir – in open spaces around the houses, giving a sense of forest place. Most urban neighborhoods are built on entirely cleared land, becoming as depressing as burbs anywhere. Our trees are possibly third growth; none are yet 100 feet tall, but the conifers are mixed with open areas of red alder and willow, with salal and fern underbrush, that gives a genuine feel of forest rather than plantation. Thus our tiny grove is more convincing than the second/third growth tree plantations one usually finds on clear-cut land owned by the timber industry.

After the visit to BC, we also did a day trip to Rainier National Park, where virgin forests can still be observed in a slightly inland and mountainous terrain. Here we found a climax forest of 200 foot tall western hemlock and red cedar, but considerably less wild in appearance than the coastal forests of BC, as described in the book. Outside of parks such as this, virgin forest is either inaccessible or non-existent in Washington. In the US, 90% of old growth forest has been liquidated. In Canada, it is 60%. Mostly what remains is spared due to its inaccessibility or inferior quality.

The book aims to express the enormous scope of the resource we have lost to commercial logging in the Pacific northwest, stating many facts and figures without references. Academically speaking, the book is at best a starting place for further research. The book further notes that the magnitude of the timber extraction’s effect on our environment cannot be conveyed in words. Even aerial pictures are too remote to convey anything but scale.

The author notes that in the eastern half of the country, logged before modern technology became so aggressive, abandoned farm land is now being reclaimed by its original natural ecology with surprising ease over just a couple of generations. But the wasteful and rapacious methods of the late 20th century loggers so devastated and denuded the northwest landscape that, except in river bottom land, it may take centuries before the land is reclaimable by nature.

And in all the accessible places, man will surely intervene again before that can happen. What was there is gone forever, as long as man is there as well. What is left are a handful of token virgin groves that the timber liquidaters left behind to mollify those few citizens who were even concerned about trees. It was just such a token remnant that was attacked by the story’s protagonist.

One might think that clear cutting would only take the big stuff and leave the youngsters. But the book explains that clear cutting means to scrape the land clean and take any loose soil while you’re at it. Replanting of clear-cut ‘forest trust lands’ is proceeding now at a large scale. Such forests are destined to be a series of surreal, sterile, uni-species timber warehouses implementing vertical storage. Such warehouses will be cyclically liquidated, each time making the land poorer, until one day nothing further will grow there. The fate of the animal life supported by the original forests seems similarly bleak, including our own human fate.

In the book, a self-described “red-neck” logger characterized his ability to compartmentalize his mental state while contributing to the devastation. One can ‘beat the picture of a clear cut in your head’, by rationalizing about jobs, income, and that it will all just grow back. But in retrospect, when wondering about what we get out of it and what is left for generations of our offspring, he says ‘you cannot beat the epilog’. And the mechanization of logging, combined with the lack of remaining quality forests to log, means that offspring of several generations of loggers will mostly need to find another type of employment in the future. So the far woods may become less populous, one small encouraging result.

This epilog testifies to the feebleness of the typical  ‘grow back’ conceit. It takes a few hours to fell a tree that took a thousand years to grow. How can one not sense the imbalance of that equation? The giant Sitka spruce begins as a seed weighing 1/13,000 of an ounce. 800 years later, it is 300 feet tall, weighing 300 tons. They’re all gone now, the giants. We will probably endure without them, but we will not long endure the practices, greed, and shortsightedness of those that robbed us of them. Hopefully, this will become a teaching moment for governments, which should have been stewards of the land that must provide for us over the eons to come.

The author’s evocative writing paints vividly the sense of our western rain forests in their virgin state, the sense of majesty and eternity, the overwhelming sense of life force, lack of clear boundary between sea and misty forest, the suffocating disorientation of being closed in with no view extending beyond a few paces, no sense of future or past, constant twilight, an overpowering need to see the sun, always the sound of running water, sound moving differently, air moving hardly at all, blurred boundaries between life and death, no good path in the tangle of roots and branches, the occasional flat places soft and spongy, reverse optical illusions where objects appearing distant are actually close. ‘You have the feeling that if you stop for too long, you will simply be grown over and absorbed by the slow and ancient riot of growth.

The trees have never been permanent in place. Geography and climate continually change, and the tree species march around the landscape according to those beats. In times past, evidence of such movement points to a slow clock, one whose ‘minute’ hand marks centuries. Yet a modern study over a few recent decades suggests a faster clock is metering current travel, evidence of man-made pressures through global warming.

We might expect that all tree species will march northward and to higher elevation under warming pressures. But perhaps more than temperature, water access seems the driving force behind today’s march. Over the last three decades, more species were marching west than north in the USA; 34% showed northerly movement at 11 km/decade, largely gymnosperms (evergreen conifers), while 47% moved westerly at 15.4 km/decade, largely angiosperms (flowering trees).

These data are merely suggestive of questions and hypotheses that need to be further tested. Inferences we can draw from these observations are now clouded by lack of understanding the interconnection between natural succession, the effect of  local human pressure on forests via fire suppression and other forest management practices, and the process of natural reforestation in areas long-before cleared for agriculture, but now left fallow.

The word Haida means people in the sense that we are us and you others are not. The Haida had no written language; all traditions were oral. Their language is an isolate, unrelated to languages of other neighboring tribes. By 2000, there are only 40 fluent speakers of the language left, the youngest in her 50s.

Their island, Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) means place of the people, or perhaps in antiquity, islands coming out of supernatural concealment. Everything about their place had a supernatural association, born out of their environment of constant change. Everything was mutable. ‘A rock is never just a rock, a crab is always more than a crab’. The supernatural associations were symbolized as clan totems and carved on the totem poles.

The Haida people were of necessity amphibious in their remote world, balanced in a hundred yard wide boundary between forest and water. Their swimming, diving, and boating skills were as good as were seen anywhere. Their large, cedar dugout canoes approached 100 feet long and could hold a hundred men and their equipment. They were expert hunters: sea mammals, shark, halibut, even whales. Shellfish were abundant.

The NW tribes were unique in the Americas for the magnitude of their possessions and the means to move them around. Large bentwood boxes were constructed for holding possessions. Their hats and baskets were woven from spruce roots, and outer garments were skins of animals. Most other of their material needs were filled by the western red cedar tree: barn-sized longhouses, boats, furniture, totems, utensils, weapons, clothes. Shell and teeth were used for ornamentation. They were so well provided for that they had free time for cultural and artistic activities, for industry, and for raiding other tribes; ~40% of their population were slaves. Their seamanship and ferocity compare favorably with the Vikings.

Two facets of their culture are particularly unique: totem pole carving, and a social get together called a potlach. The potlach, which could last for days, is in the spirit of any excuse for a party. The host provided food and gifts for all attendees, gaining status through demonstration of his wealth and generosity. The clothing and jewelry all invoked the supernatural associations of one’s clan, thus creating a social register, a who’s who of the attendees.

One thinks of the native tribes as noble caretakers of the natural world, and perhaps pre-contact, this was more true because their needs did not come close to exhausting available resources. But after contact, they exploited their world to the best of their ability.

The original commercial contacts with the Europeans involved the sea otter fur trade. The Haida hunted them nearly to extinction for the profit they represented. The extraction mentality corrupts all it touches. Once the insatiable otter fur market was established, the Haida faced a no-win situation. By stopping trading, they would have lost power to the other tribes who kept up with the slaughter. It was suicide to stop killing, and suicide to kill all the sea otters in their world, for it turned out that the sea otter was a bellwether for the fortunes of the Haida themselves.

The Spanish had a firm rule about not trading arms with the natives. But the Americans, French, and English would trade anything to get the profits they came for. Occasionally, the buyer would simply turn the weapon on the seller, killing him to seal the deal. The traders may have believed trading arms would buy loyalty, or that the inferior weapons being sold would not pose a real threat, or perhaps that they did not plan to return, so it was of no material concern to themselves. But what they couldn’t have known was how rapidly the natives would adapt to the European ways and technology.

By the late 1700s, the Haida had had so much contact with Europeans that they were heavily armed and had become dangerous pirates of their waters, capturing six European ships. They would exchange cannon fire with the traders, using cannon pillaged from captured ships. They even were reported to have the latest swivel-mounted cannon mounted in the front of their canoes. They also used them to defend their well-fortified villages.

Even pre-contact, the Haida were raiders. Their culture was one of warfare, slavery, and theft. They would steal anything they could, reasoning that whatever another could not protect, they didn’t deserve to own. Because their attitude was not that different from that of the European traders, deals were brokered in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and contempt. Ships at anchor were sometimes surrounded by more than a hundred canoes with 1200 men. Some of the canoes would have been longer than the ship, and much more maneuverable.

There were slaughters on both sides over the years, perhaps initiated by the early unscrupulous and immoral European traders who committed such brutal acts that they poisoned the well for those that followed. The bitter feelings between native and trader grew so great that the profit became no longer worth the risk. Ultimately, there can be no good relations among peoples where neither party considers the other fully human.

When the otter fur trade ended for good in the mid 1800s, the Haida came down with a crash and were reduced to trading low value items with neighbors. Then the smallpox and related epidemics hit and they lost a large percentage of their population, leaving many ghost villages and little contact with the outside world until the 1900s, when the Canadians would return, this time to take the trees.

The English had an insatiable appetite for wood, and had long since denuded their island. For an island to become a world power required a large navy and trading fleet of wooden ships; by an 18th century measure, wood was used in shipbuilding at a rate of one acre of oak forest per cannon carried. Masts and spars required tall, knot-free wood, and this was provided by the North American colonies, since England no longer had such timber.

The colonial timber reserves were as valuable to the Crown then as are oil fields today. In the early 1600s, samples of white pine of Maine were being analyzed by the Royal Navy. By 1691, England’s ‘broad arrow’ colonial policy was designating any tree 2′ or more across, and within 3 miles of a waterway, to be property of the Crown; an arrow mark was placed on each subject tree. So valuable was this cargo that ships carrying harvested trees traveled under armed escort.

Thus the English came to appreciate the true value of trees to the human species. The early coins and flags of the colonies had images of trees. What better way to portray our wealth?

But there has always been a disconnect between the well-appreciated tree and the forest from whence it comes, which gets no respect at all. First, the word lumber, the extracted bounty of the forest, has the negative sense of something useless or cumbersome. Second, to our initially agrarian society, land covered with trees was useless to the farmer and hence to society. Thirdly, the forest was a mysterious place, filled with the monsters of folk tales, as well as its real world dangers, wild animals of prey, outlaws in hiding, and the indigenous peoples who were being displaced by the farmers. For everyone involved, the sooner the forest disappeared, the better the life would become.

The pre-contact natives managed the near forests, burning the dense undergrowth to enable easier hunting, and clearing only what was necessary for sustenance and industry; the far forest beyond the camps was often left pristine. To the colonists, for whom there was profit in trees both in American markets and in markets of their denuded, former European homelands, and for whom forests themselves were only valued for their wood extraction value, the path was clear and morally unambiguous: cut them all down.

It started in the colonies. By 1675, hundreds of sawmills were in operation. Just as with the fate of the native Americans, the fate of the virgin forests was never in doubt. The moral problem in each case was not that it happened, but in how it happened. Ignorance, mischief, and greed form the backdrop to a story that does not turn out well for anyone except the perpetrators and those who earned a living helping them.

Ax men have been the point men for civilization across history, beginning with the Babylonians. Logging and agriculture go hand in hand, the former preceding the latter by perhaps only a season. The Lebanese cedars were among the first to go, replaced by agriculture and goats that have turned the landscape into an arid desert. Then Italian and Greek forests of oaks and cedars were gone. The northern European forests were next. These had long been considered sacred by the local tribes, but forests were no match for the advance of civilization.

The extraction of wood from North America came more recently. Even 200 years ago, a densely forested landscape would have appeared in a satellite view, except for the great grasslands of the plains, and the desert of the southwest. The speed with which these forests have been harvested/squandered is remarkable.

Romantics pine for a virgin forest, but as Thoreau discovered, the virgin Maine forest was ‘savage and dreary, more lone than you can imagine, even more grim and wild than you had anticipated’. Since not even the forest supporters actually cared for the forest, at a time when our country’s demand for wood was exploding, the forests disappeared without protest.

By 1840, more than 30,000 sawmills and wood processing plants were operating east of the Mississippi. In the decade before the civil war, 60,000 square miles of forest was liquidated. By 1870, eight million cords of wood a year went up the chimney of American houses as smoke; iron furnaces in western Massachusetts consumed 16 square miles of forest each year; sawmills in Maine generated 250 thousand cubic meters of waste wood products each year (a quarter of wood brought to mill was lost as sawdust which had to be burned). By 1900, 50 billion board feet of lumber were being processed each year in the USA.

A rapidly expanding population drove the exponential expansion of wood markets. Wood was their primary fuel. Improved technology, both in cutting and woodworking tools, expanded potential wood applications. In response, America and Canada treated forests as if they were inexhaustible, in the way our breathing air is inexhaustible.

Even before the end of the 1700s, the Canadians and Americans were becoming aware that the NW timber commodity possessed much more value than animal skin extraction ever had. As the otter pelt trade went into decline, calculations began for liquidating the Pacific NW rain forest, which must have initially seemed inexhaustible, so vast and wild as to be unconquerable by man.

By the late 1800s, most interior American forests having been logged, extractor’s attention became riveted on our Pacific rim forests and they went at it with a vengeance. Canada, disappointed at falling behind the Americans in extraction prowess and losing so much profit, made a big push for technology and expertise to catch up. They succeeded, and after WWI they began extraction at a pace that would log most of BC before the end of the century.

The giant Sitka spruce were particularly valued now for making planes. Thousands of Canadian loggers along with 30,000 US troops were mobilized to find, cut, and mill Sitka spruce for the war effort. About 200 million board feet of spruce were produced by the Spruce Production Unit, most from giant trees 500-800 years old. They nearly exhausted the available trees. And other trees, adding up to 30% of the usable wood in each cut block, were left as slash byproduct of the spruce expeditionary force.

As man became accustomed to treating forests with aggressive contempt, the devastated forests had a bite of their own. Slash left behind, byproducts of logging, were a great fire danger. In 1871, a fire in Wisconsin burned 2,000 square miles, while in 1894 in Minnesota, 12 towns were lost to a slash fire. Over 2,000 people died in these events. Vancouver burned to the ground in 1886 due to a slash fire. In some places, the ground was cauterized by the heat, and such places remain wastelands to this day.

The speed with which the old growth trees were now being extracted surprised even experienced loggers, who had long believed the extraction propaganda that by the time the last old growth tree had been harvested, new trees would be available. Modern technology was showing the lie in that story.

This was going to be a one and done proposition. Natural forest succession will rebuild a virgin forest in 500 years or so, if the soil is not ruined by the preceding liquidations. For commercial extraction, a much shorter time schedule was necessary. Yet, replanting did not begin until the 1960s in the Queen Charlotte islands, and not until the 1980s in the BC interior.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace were actively involved in clear-cutting protest, trying to save what little old growth there was left. The large extractors tried appeasement, saving a few token stands in a PR effort. Some extractors were upset at even this tokenism, wanting to take it all.

Ultimately to blame was a political failure (corruption and ignorance) to recognize government’s obligation for land and resource stewardship. Significant portions of the clear cuts were so damaged by erosion and landslides that they will not produce forest again for a long while.

The logging giants were happy to get rid of the first growth trees. Many were so old that they had rot that made them less commercially viable. Now the land would available to replant, with intent to harvest in 12-80 year cycles, depending on species and intended use. This period corresponds to the maximum growth rate of a tree. But what results is inferior wood, so wood composites are probably the main intended products.

The Haida population is now bouncing back from its own near liquidation. The Haida governing body is attempting to right old wrongs by obtaining some autonomy in stewardship of their own resources. In particular, logging companies must now obtain Haida approval for any further cuts on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Most Canadian loggers who live on the islands have thrown their lot in with the Haida, believing the Haida will ultimately be more responsible in future resource stewardship than will the Canadian Government. Which raises the question, with whom should the rest of North America throw in, to ensure respect for environment?

2016 Postscript

A decades-long environmental battle has culminated in an agreement, between British Columbia, First Nations, environmental groups, and timber liquidators, to create the Great Bear Rainforest (GBR), a 21 million acre tract of coastal B.C. Nine million acres are protected, to remain unlogged. Much of the remainder will be subject to eco-logging regulation.

Hopefully the momentum of this effort will continue, with vigorous prosecution of any bandit GBR loggers from B.C. and First Nations. Great vigilance will be required to prevent continual weakening of regulations.  Renewed commitment to action may be  necessary.

We and the Great Bear owe a huge thanks to the environmental activists who fought this good fight. Virgin forest will continue to be a valuable mitigation for atmospheric carbon dioxide control. And the wildlife species that call virgin forest home are a precious, renewable cargo of planet Earth that, together with their forest home, inspires our reverence and  protection.

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