Thursday, 27 November 2014

Hot ice or Hot air?

In a recent journal opinion piece, I argued that there were 2 substantial groups of people: those who disbelieve or even fear mathematics and those who believed unreservedly in mathematics. The first group use their feelings or instincts when deciding on a plan of action, and according to pioneers in expert systems, no numbers will be able to change a gut conclusion. I argued that former Prime Minister John Howard represents many people in this first group when he told a conference in England earlier this year that there is no reason to act on climate change because "in his gut" he does not believe it will be bad. Australia's current Prime Minister is probably in the same camp and simply disbelieves the mathematics that say climate change will severely affect agriculture and the Australian way of life. Those who 'believe' in mathematics on the other hand cannot questions the results of mathematical models or statistical analyses because it is like questioning your God. These people too cannot be swayed, even if the mathematics is a simplification of reality.

I thought a Forum hosted by the Fenner School for Environment and Society might have been following a similar argument with its title of "Climate Change - Why facts and opinions are both important." I thought the people who "believe" in mathematics would be on the side of facts and the "gut thinkers" would champion opinion. But as I listened to a member of the audience state that she disbelieved the idea of global warming because it was all about CO2 and solid CO2 (hot ice) is really cold, I realised that this Forum had presented a false dichotomy. It is not facts or opinions, or even facts versus opinions. She knew a fact - hot ice is in deed very cold and is made from the material scientists are warning us about. The whole climate change debate reduces itself to opinions about what facts matter.

When talk turns to "what facts matter" or are what facts are important, we enter the realm of the philosophy of science. Most scientists, and in fact many others, are familiar with the great science philosopher Karl Popper. According to Popper, useful facts or observations are those that falsify or disprove a hypothesis or conjecture. Simply concurring with a hypothesis or falling to reject the null hypothesis in a statistical test does not advance science. But there are an infinite number of hypotheses or conjectures that scientists could attempt to falsify and thus advance science - how do scientists choose which ones should be studied? Is it simply a matter of opinion or gut feeling about what to study? Some passionate debaters claim scientists only attempt to study things that bring in money or bring down hard working industries like tobacco and coal.

Another great philosopher - Thomas Kuhn - whose work may have largely been ignored in this debate, has a view on important scientific questions. Simply, Kuhn concluded that what is considered "proven" and what is scientifically important to question is largely constructed from the opinion of scientists who agree as to what is "working" and what isn't. Essentially, the scientific community would ignore potential work on fields of endeavour that they feel are good enough, i.e. where the underpinning models and theories work and do not contain inconsistencies. However, if those theories begin to produce inconsistencies or are incompatible with the knowledge gained through other scientific advances, they may be called into question. If the inconsistencies continue to mount, the theories may be found wanting and it then becomes important to find something better, something without those weaknesses. If there is a sufficient consensus that a new theory is better, then the old  theory is overturned in an event called a paradigm shift - the king is dead, long live the king!

In the climate debate then there are both opinions and 'facts', mathematics and gut feelings. Climate scientists have almost unanimously concluded that the previous theories of stability, homeostasis and lack of human impact have been overturned - that there is a paradigm shift. Others however, believe that the new theory is not adequate and that flaws remain which, in their opinion, are sufficient to deny the new theory being classified as 'true' - the king is dead, long live ...who? And there are those who refuse to accept that those old theories had important flaws in the first place and so didn't require a paradigm shift - the king isn't dead, death to the pretender!

Where does this leave science and climate change? What will convince those who feel in their gut that a paradigm shift is not needed? John Howard believed in his gut that there was no problem, and it appears that so does Tony Abbot. On the other hand, Family First researchers called up the "fact" that crop production was at an all time high at the same time as CO2 concentrations are also at an all time high and therefore, with a touching belief that numbers don't lie, conclude that rising CO2 is good for the world's food and endangered ecosystems - no shift needed.

What can scientists do to convince those who believe in their gut or unquestioningly in their set of numbers that the paradigm has changed? It is too big to be resolved by Popper's approach, although advancing through falsification is still critical to build up the little steps involved in a paradigm shift. It will have to be something dramatic, something beyond tests where p<0.05 to change a gut.

Scientists need to pick better hypotheses to dramatically falsify.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Impossible things that trees do

My city - Canberra - has been celebrating Tree Week in the lead up to National Tree Day on Sunday 27th July, 2014. I am not sure who decides on these national celebration dates, but I am happy that trees have their own day.

As part of Tree Week, I was invited to make a presentation during celebrations at the National Arboretum of Canberra, and thought I would let the trees themselves show off - demonstrating things they do using only the energy from the sunlight that falls on them that humans can only wonder at. I certainly had fun with that presentation, but I may have gone just a little far with my descriptions of the marvels of trees if the newspaper reports are anything to go by - awed gasps and impassioned sermons?! 

One of the examples I provided was about the (theoretical) ability of trees to grow almost as tall as the Black Mountain Tower (an icon in Canberra) while using only sunlight and simultaneously sequestering over 15000 t of CO2. Humans on the other hand needed over 350 t of reinforcing steel, 1930 t of concrete and emitted over 1700 t of CO2 to build their tower (admittedly in a much shorter time than my hypothetical tree!). While these boring numbers might not have generated awed gasps, the accompanying video footage certainly did -  you can feel both the height that the biggest currently standing trees can get to and see the Tower and its role in the city.

So, particularly on National Tree Day, don't just walk past a tree as if it is just a common ordinary sort of thing - it produces material that is stronger than steel, can pump water from 400 feet below the ground or to 400 feet above the ground, maintain hundreds or thousands of other living species in their crowns and roots, and make humans feel safer and healthier just by looking at them. They can do all these things with air, water and sunlight. Yeah trees! 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The value of a plastic tree

"What is the value of a plastic tree?", was believe it or not, the name of a course I completed as part of my PhD studies in Northern America. They had this idea, very foreign to Australian universities, that there should be some philosophy in a Philosophy Doctorate. I was a little disappointed that the course did not cover too much in the way of trees, but we did explore the concept of value in depth. 

What is the value of a duplicate that is indistinguishable from an original? I imagine the artistic community struggles with this question when dealing with really good forgeries. In fact, I understand that some forgeries now may be more valuable that the originals because of the skill of the forger! Does the value of the copy depend on the value of the original; the fame of the person creating the copy; or amount of effort or training required to spot the "fake"?

In Australia, many forests are highly prized for their wilderness and old growth qualities. The recent World Heritage listing in Tasmania revolved around the wilderness, old growth and biodiversity values of the forest. Commentators were ecstatic in their appreciation of these magnificent forests which had been undisturbed by European colonisers and their descendants. These forests should obviously have great value. Now I am very happy to acknowledge that old growth and ancient forests have great value - even greater than the value of the Old Masters. But, the old growth and wilderness forests in this debate are fakes. 

One only has to have a little understanding of forest ecology and the opportunity to visit, before it becomes obvious that these forests had been commercially harvested and otherwise subject to extensive human impact. City-dwellers, who have been known to confuse commercial plantations of Pinus radiata with native forests may not quickly identify the fake, but the presence of stumps cut by axe or chainsaw and historic maps of extensive harvesting patterns, mean that very little effort would be needed to eventually spot the fake. So then, is the value due to the person/making the fake?

Those forests may have been able to "fake" being old growth, wilderness and biodiverse because the Foresters and loggers ensured their impacts resulted in adequate and appropriate regeneration. Not a trivial exercise, especially given the extremely different demands by the eucalypts (pioneer) and rainforest (successional) tree species in Tasmania. Many experts would have difficulty identifying the species and structural mixes caused by good forest silviculture and "natural" disturbance. But unfortunately in modern Australia, few people value the skill of these who can copy wilderness, old growth and biodiversity - enrolment of domestic students in professional Forestry programs continues to decline.

So, is it only the value of the original that counts, and any copy, no matter how poor and how easily distinguishable from the original, is valuable? Plantations then should be considered valuable for their old growth and wilderness contributions even as they have commercial value for the renewable products they produce. Maybe this is true in modern Australia - the National Arboretum of Canberra consists of about 100 "forests" of about 2 ha each, designed so that when standing in the middle of each forest all you can see is that forest. The architects envision that such a design will provide a feeling of peace, connection with nature and possibly even some "wilderness" value despite no natural (valuable) forest in the world ever looking these little 2 ha forests in Canberra. How many of the 1000 visitors / day to the National Arboretum will realise or even care that these forests are very poor mimics of "real" forests? How many will equate these fake forests with "real" forests, and does that result in a relative increase in the value of the fake or a decrease in the value of the original? 

Are any of the "forests" or landscapes in the attendant collage valuable? They are all elaborate fakes developed over 5 - 100 years from land cleared or degraded due to mining and grazing. What makes these fakes valuable ...and which is most valuable?

Why did that philosophy course only train me in asking questions about the value of a fake forest?

Sunday, 29 June 2014

A win ...but not as we know it!

What does a scientist do when a popular decision is made but the reasons don't match the science?

Recently, the Australian Commonwealth Government tried to reverse 70,000 ha of the 170,000 ha  "minor boundary modification" in the Tasmanian World Heritage Area. The request was turned down in under 10 minutes to the great joy of "the conservation groups", and political one-liners rang out that the Wilderness had been saved and no more 90 m tall trees would be destroyed by the money-grubbing Government.

But the case wasn't about 90 m tall trees and wilderness areas ...and just as well too as there weren't any in the disputed 70,000 ha. There were good reasons for the original nomination, including the improvement of linkages between other reserve areas and improving the security of the inner zone by restrictions around the periphery. Unfortunately, the original proponents must not have felt totally confident in their argument because it was pursued as a minor boundary modification, which it clearly was not, to reduce the effort and scrutiny of the application. If a more comprehensive assessment and application had been made, the inclusion of plantations and commercially managed forests within the zone could have been justified along scientifically rational grounds of connectivity and structural diversity. Instead, the presence of these types of forest was used as proof of bias, political extremism, poor data capture, or basic stupidity. Those who actually managed the forests knew these logged areas and plantations existed, and they knew that such areas can be vital for good habitat management at scale, but such rational argument was not called for in the minor boundary adjustment claim.

Similarly, a more comprehensive original case would have acknowledged that the "industry" who had the most to loose in the "minor modification" - specialty timbers - was not represented in the self-selected group of "industry and conservationists" promising peace if the addition were made. Political action groups make mileage out of the waste of industries which clear fall forests, but were happy to ignore an important value-adding industry which did not use clear fall. There was a token allowance of some otherwise unwanted land to this non-clear fall industry which did not include the trees of importance in modification proposal, but clearly no discussions were had with the relevant people. Again, rational solutions could be had and the speciality timber industry could have continued to be profitable without clear falling forests, but apparently that was not politically expedient.

And because of that lack of expediency, blogs and commentators are making confused claims about forestry leading to degradation and destruction yet simultaneously being worthy of wilderness classification. In amongst, there are claims that manufacturers of fine furniture and even wooden boats should have their livelihood confiscated because they were only catering to rich elites anyway.

Can you imagine the clamour and public breast beating if the current Government simply lodged a "minor amendment" and changed the boundaries back? They could of course talk to people who are not directly involved in using the area before making such a request.

Ironically I think a comprehensive case could have easily been made for the original World Heritage nomination without hiding behind a fictitious "minor boundary modification" claim. But such a case would have had considered and compromised with the specialty timber users who were ignored by those wanting a quick political solution. It could also have to have spelt out that commercially harvested forests are not destroyed and in fact continue to play vital roles in biodiversity and habitat management.

So, I cannot applaud this current outcome. And I expect political expediency, misinformation and outright lies will continue to dog the whole forestry and world heritage argument for electoral cycles to come.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

A no-good experiment

I recently received an email asking me to comment on an ecological thinning experiment proposed for the Red Gum Forests of Victoria. The objective of the experiment is to qualify any ecological benefits of allowing the reallocation of resources (water, sunlight and nutrients) amongst trees by felling some and leaving others. The experiment was proposed after extensive die back of the Red Gum was observed and presumed to be due to over competition for limited water.

The person who sent me the email obviously believed that humans should not be interfering at all and included in their email messages like "serious concerns" for "a disruptive scientific experiment in a national park"; "commercial logging machinery fell[ing] large numbers of trees" and that the "trial could again open this forest, and others in Eastern Australia to logging". They obviously do not want to provide any avenue for commercial activity (or even machinery that could be used in a commercial activity) in the forest, presumably even if the experiment concluded that ecological thinning was beneficial to keeping trees alive and improving biodiversity. Their conclusion that "the trial could impact the forest’s natural ability to respond to variability and climate change", and that this was a bad thing, proved to me that they didn't really want my opinion as a scientist as they would never accept any argument not in favour of keeping manipulative humans out of the forest.

I have researched the "forests's natural ability to respond to variability and climate change". The response tends to be dominated by death and invasion by new species into an area - trees and other species die then something moves in to utilise the resources "freed up". It takes humans to "judge" whether such a response is "good" or "bad" - for example, most humans agree that the widespread deaths in Canada caused by the pine beetle explosion are a "bad outcome". The significant quantities of dead wood left behind the pine beetle may make things even "worse" as far as humans are concerned by increasing the risk of further pathogen or pest attack and large scale wild fire. And any new species coming in in response to the change will invariably be classified as "weeds", which is again a very human centric concept and really just a part of a forest's natural response. Thinning may reduce the build up of beetles by reducing stress on the remaining trees and thus improve those trees' ability to fight off attack. Similarly, thinning and removal of dead wood from the site may reduce the quantity of "food" that is providing a resource for pathogens and insects to exploit.

You might guess that, as a human scientist, I am not opposed to the ecologically thinning experiment in the Red Gum Forests. Provided it is a well designed experiment, I think we can learn some valuable things about the dynamics of the forests in the current stressful and varying environment. I am also not philosophically opposed to humans being involved in active management or intervention in our environment. I do not believe that intervention is automatically bad if there is the potential for it to be at least partially funded by product sales. But as I was thinking about my response to the original email request, I wondered if I was being consistent.

Not too long ago, I was troubled by a Government decision to allow mining exploration in a National Park. Similar to the above anti-experimenter, regardless of the outcome of the exploration I did not want large scale mining to proceed in that national park. Why am I comfortable with denying the creation of knowledge about mineral or energy reserves but uncomfortable with denying forest knowledge creation? The miners could claim that better knowledge of the reserves would allow better management, and maybe even more ecologically sound management if they found reserves that could be mined with less damage than in other areas. Although I doubt "the market" would allow the miners to close down a relatively harmful mine in response to opening a less harmful mine, my objection to mapping all the reserves would remove that remote opportunity altogether. But I think the main difference between these two scenarios is that a new mine in a National Park can, at best, damage the forest a little bit but at worse can damage it a lot, while the thinning experiment may at worse damage a few trees while at best may result in many trees retaining a healthy canopy cover and long term future. The risk of damage must be balanced again the potential gains and the risk that those potential reductions will not eventuate. I have little faith that mining exploration will ever lead to long term ecological benefit.

Finally, I must also admit that I have the (possibly naive) belief that the conclusions from the ecological thinning experiment will be interpreted and used by people who understand Science to lead to an improved environment. All too often though, scientific observations have been taken out of context, ignored or abused in an attempt to justify a preconceived action. While Climate Change denial is the current prime example of such abuse, such abuse does appear in many other places and may have led to general scepticism about politicians and company management. I suppose my anti-experimenter who started my thinking about this post is more honest than many - they don't really care what the science says, and therefore do not need an experiment or need to consider manipulation or abuse of its findings, because they believe it is "good" for man to leave the forest and just let things fall as they do. On the other hand, I think it is natural for humans to be in the forest and be a part of it ...taking and giving.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Where are the people?

Removing people from the natural system is a part of the problem and not the solution. If there is a problem in the forest, the answer is not to just retreat from the forest, but rather to go back in.

When coal replaced firewood as the energy source for society, society lost connection with the ebb and flow of forests. While some may claim that forests were "saved" because no one valued them for fuel any more, it is more important to realise that we lost that dynamic link between what we needed in the forest and what the forest could provide. If firewood was over harvested, the users knew almost immediately because they had to work harder and they could see the effects - they could then react by using less or using it more efficiently. Once firewood was replaced by coal and oil, the source of the energy disappeared from view and society acted as if they believed there would always be more ...just over the next hill or from the next deep sea ocean platform. This led to the double problem of forgetting about the forest and abusing a resource no one really believed would run out.

City dwellers are thinking the same thing. Something out there, out of of sight, must be providing the biodiversity and the carbon storage and even the pure air and water for the planet, and so we can just concentrate on the needs that we can see. If society doesn't see or feel the forests or the biodiversity running out then they can act as if it isn't running out. We need to get our society back out into the places where biodiversity is being "produced" so society will see it, value it and preserve it.

Food and agriculture is already well along this path of out of site out of mind. Huge numbers of our modern civilisation only ever see vegetables in plastic wrapped containers in supermarkets. Who is to know that these foods are not constructed in industrial hothouses, by machines using mined materials? Who then would ever think we could run out of these foods? But who then values the farms or the farmers? And now we may have the option for meat to be constructed in factories - meat without end. A claim was that such a meat factory would be good for the people and for the cattle, but what cattle would we be talking about here? With factory produced meat to go with our hothouse produced vegetables, who needs farms or cattle? Who would notice as farmers gradually go broke and cattle disappear.

The "common" men and women in our developed world have lost their association with nature and the forest - it is something out there that they are unlikely to interact with, and even though a few "ivory tower" academics continue to argue a theoretical value, the practical reality of its importance has been lost. There are those who claim we need more wilderness areas, more land cut off from all human interaction. But this just makes it worse and reinforces the "us" and "that out there that looks after itself" mentality. We need the people to see the forest with all their senses. We need the people to see, up close and personal, the creation of the goods and services before they can appreciate the value and the constraints of production. Come back to the forests.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Moaning about monocultures

The National Arboretum of Canberra is a beautiful and unique place. Just one of the things that makes it unique is its design of planting small "forests" of a single species - there are about 100 of these 1 - 3 ha single species "forests" over the 250 ha arboretum. When people hear about this design though, many exclaim in apparent horror and ask why we countenanced the planting of monocultures! Monocultures are apparently the antithesis of biodiversity or of "naturalness" and should have been shunned.

But ...monocultures are not unnatural. In shade intolerant and pioneer species like many of the eucalypts, areas considerably in excess of 3 ha, or even 250 ha may contain only one tree species like Alpine Ash after a hot fire. It is extremely common for a single tree species to exclusively dominate just 1 ha in a native forests in Australia as well as in many other parts of the world.

Further, "biodiversity" has three scales - an ecosystem scale; a species scale and a gene scale. At the species scale, 100 tree species in 250 ha is actually pretty impressive, but it is at the gene scale that the. National Arboretum of Canberra really shines for biodiversity. Having 1 - 3 ha of the same species all planted together means there may be a hundred or more individual trees growing in a consistent, well maintained and observable location. This is extremely rare anywhere in the world and provides one of the few opportunities to quantify and appreciate genetic diversity. Given the high proportion of tree species classified as rare or threatened, this opportunity to study genetic biodiversity is of even greater significance.

So, caste off any lingering and ill formed angst over small areas of monoculture and celebrate the potential for the National Arboretum of Canberra to provide valuable information at multiple scales of biodiversity.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Spitting wood chips

Wood chips. There, I said it. Now let us wait for the Pavlovian Response to kick in and for your blood pressure rise with indignation that any one could grind up something they have been growing for decades to produce such small pieces of stuff. Funny though that such a response does not occur whenever wheat is ground into flour for sale. Well, flour can be made into some really useful things like bread or cakes or even croissants! While tasty, these products are nothing compared to wood chips.

Now obviously wood chips can be made into paper, but not toilet paper as so many politically active campaigns implicitly suggest. Chips from hardwood species make high quality paper for writing and drawing - you know, all that cultured stuff, while softwood species make paper with high tear strength. Imagine a sheet of metal the same size and weight as a piece of paper - you could more easily rip that metal than that paper!

But wood chips are the input to so much more. The chips can be reconstituted and moulded into sheets of fibre-board and all manner shapes and sizes - versatile and maintaining enviable strength properties. But further, nature has excelled itself with wood chemistry too. The amazing chips contain complex long molecules, rich on oxygen which form sugars and starches. These, in turn, can provide the world's most amazing glues, ethanols, alcohols, synthesis gas, and a host of drugs, polymers and dyes. Wood chips can be used to build you home, keep it warm and keep you healthy and attractive. They can also be used in the construction of your car and in keeping it running and fuelled.

Some uninformed commentators like to appear horrified that forest industries sell wood chips when they could sell solid wood products. It apparently does not occur to them that the seller would sell to the market that gives them the best price, which would have to be the market that can make the most out of the wood in whatever form produced. While wood chips are extremely versatile and able to be turned into valuable products even when generated by small and damaged trees, solid wood products are restricted to low value pallet timber and fencing when the trees are small.

Commentators and journalists who complain when wood chips are generated during forest operations are simply trying to attract readers without the effort of research and making a real story. They hope that the emotional baggage of the word is sufficient to draw readers in and adopt a certain attitude towards the forest owners or managers. Be aware of any news article or banner with wood chip mentioned as there is an excellent chance it is part of a campaign of manipulation.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

A title to excite but not inform

What do you call someone who raises and grazes cattle for a few years and then sends them all to an abattoir for slaughter? A grazier. What do you call someone who plants, fertilises and farms a crop of wheat before sending in the slashers over all their land each year? A farmer. What do you call someone who plants, fertilises and protects 100 ha of forest then logs 1 ha? A logger. Why are those who work in forests labelled by the activity that only takes place on 1 to 2 percent of their land? Is it just lazy journalists and commentators who do not have anything to say but still want readers? If a journalist takes two 5 minute toilet breaks in a 7 hour work day then they spend at greater percentage of their time defecating than the total percentage of land logged in a commercial forest each year. So, for consistency, forest workers could be called loggers when graziers are called slaughterers, farmers called slashers, and journalists (or in fact all who work in offices and are entitled to toilet break) are called defecators!

Recently, the Prime Minister of Australia addressed a Forest Industries dinner. The room was full of people who ran nurseries, who planted trees, who built fine furniture, who made world quality paper, who sold machinery, who taught an incredibly complex discipline, who managed forest stewardship organisations, and maybe just two or three who used a chainsaw. However, the mere absence of any significant number of people who could actually log a tree did not stop the popular press from labelling the entire group as loggers with the implication that they engaged in deforestation. A simple tactic that allows these lazy writers to attract an audience by just using emotional buzz words. The Prime Minister himself did not use the word logger when describing the benefits of the industry, but that did not stop lazy commentators in the press from inventing quotes like "PM says loggers are the ultimate conservationists". Of course a made up quote like that, given the emotional baggage of the word "logger" will attract readers. Those poor, lazy commentators may not have received anywhere as much coverage if they had a headline that screamed foresters and those who rely upon and maintain the forest estate are conservationists.  Those poor writers may have been required to actually do some work to attract an audience. If they had done their work, they may have realised that deforestation in Australia has been caused by slaughterers, slashers and defecators but not by loggers. Hey, a headline like that might have attracted a big audience, but graziers, farmers and journalists would deserve a responsible and balanced argument, while loggers apparently do not.

Logging is a skilled and dangerous job, which does not deserve to be simply associated with dirty and uninformed labourers. Even so, logging occurs only on 1-2% of the public commercial forest each year and nothing warrants having the whole set of activities over the other 98-99% ignored by the use of this one inappropriate label. Deforestation is what happens when you take forestry and the forest industries out of landscape. Bad journalism is what happens you replace meaningful labels with emotion filled abstracts in the hope of attracting readers.

Friday, 7 March 2014

How much is enough?

Everyone knew that Prime Minister Abbot would create headlines when his speech to a major Forest Industries dinner included  a suggestion that we had "enough", or even too much, protected forest.  The suggestion of enough or too much begs the question "...for what?"

There are some famous thresholds in science where "enough is enough" is measured. LD50 - the level of drug dosage that results in the death of 50% of a target population is one such measure. Significance levels, eg p=0.05 which is where you accept there is a 0.05 or 1 in 20 chance that the important difference you think you can see is simply a bit of random luck. But even these thresholds are arbitrary and indefensible except through claims that "we have always used them". Significance levels in fact vary between disciplines as well as countries and levels of p might be as high as 0.3 in wildlife ecological studies or as small as 0.0001 in medicine where you really want to be quite sure your drugs have the effect you want. 

Similarly, thresholds of the fraction of land in reserves exist but are largely arbitrary. Early discussions about "CAR" reserves - Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative - in the late 20th century started with suggestions that adequate meant 5% of the area pre-European conversion for each major forest type. This percentage has progressively climbed to 10%, 12%, 15% and currently sits around 17%, with each increase due to temporal arguments to balance economic, political, social and ecological values. Simultaneously, the forests are being more finely classified and divided and restrictions placed on what can be done near the boundaries of the reserves. This fine sub-division and restricted activity means that reserves can impact a significantly larger area that just that within their boundaries. Imagine, for example, that you had to reserve 10% of your home, say to let your aged parents move in, and you could not walk within 1m of the reserve boundary. You might loose a bedroom or your study. But if to had to reserve 10% of each room and not come within 1 m of those boundaries you would loose access to the toilet and any room less than 2-3 m in length. In fact, your hallway would probably be cut and you would loose access to half your house. So, how much really is being reserved by a 10% reserve? 

But why a nominal 10% area even if it results in substantially more than a 10%  reservation? Why not 11%, and if 11% why not 12% and so on? Must you stop before 50% while you can say the reserves are a minority use. In contemporary news, the difference between 49% and 51% is massive for QANTAS - the right to call yourself the Australian carrier and the need to employ Australians and manage for Australian good apparently revolves around whether 49% or 51% can be in foreign ownership. The difference between 49 and 51 may have great importance in business and in democratic elections, but it has no real significance in ecology. 

If a scientist looks in sufficient detail, any hectare that could be added to a reserve will be uniquely different to all the others already in the reserve. Nature is full of diversity at a variety of scales and although two areas may look to be the same to a human with their poor senses, they in fact will be different. So if you want to reserve a bit of every different environment you have to reserve all the hectares. If the Department of Heritage wanted to reserve one of every unique house, you would have yours, wherever it is, reserved. 

So obviously we do not reserve everything - we need to keep somewhere for ourselves to live and to produce the things we need to live. In the past, the majority of forest was converted to agriculture and urban development. When people say that 85% of our forests have been lost, it is to agriculture and cities that they have been lost. And these land uses must actively continue to keep the forests at bay - if you abandoned Sydney or Melbourne or the Queensland cattle farms, the forests would return. Should we try? Let's take 10% of Sydney and remove the offices and houses to allow the forests to return - they will return, and those forests will be unique and therefore worthy of being reserved. That would return more than twice as much forest as the area being disputed in Tasmania now. Why stop at 10% ...or 15% ...or 50%? 

But of course we could not reserve and return 10% of Sydney to its pre-European forest nature. Where would the people live and work? There has to be a balance between people being able to live and work against reserving arbitrary percentages of land. 

Friday, 28 February 2014

An unnatural death

The death of any child is a catastrophe. But a death caused by a tree is somehow an unbelievable or even an unnatural seeming catastrophe. The parents and family of the young Sydney girl crushed by a tree branch last week must feel devastated by this unreal tragedy and my heart goes out to them.

Trees are associated with life; with the future; with security. When we plant a tree we are surely thinking about our children and their children who will be the ones to see it in its maturity and future majesty. There is even a theory that modern-day humans still associate trees, especially those with spreading crowns, with the safety and security they offered our remote ancestors in the African savannahs. Even people raised in cities in the absence of trees, associate images of trees with home, safety and beauty. So what happens when the nature of things goes astray and a tree kills a young girl who was simply sitting in its shade, enjoying her lunch with her teacher?

The first response is to cut the remains of that tree down (which has already been done) and then inspect the trees of city to remove all that might be unsafe. My neighbour, a retired School principal agreed that that's what they proposed in Canberra too. "Its not that uncommon for trees fall on school kids" he said, "remember, about 10 years ago, a little girl was swinging on a low branch in a school playground and it broke and crushed her?" Canberra has about 2 trees planted for every person here, so checking  all 600,000 trees would be a big task. They couldn't check them all  in Canberra then and they won't be able to do it in Sydney now. Besides, what would you check for? Aparently there was no external evidence that those tree branches were going to fail. And if you cut into a tree to check whether there is any internal evidence of a problem, you'll simply be introducing a place for the tree to fail. You cannot remove all the risk of a tree causing a problem, and we certainly live with riskier objects. For example, there are at least 5 times as many planted trees in Canberra as there are cars, but while a tree has killed one person in the last 10 years, cars kill at least a couple every year. So cars are at least 100 times riskier than trees, but we don't stop driving.

But I can understand parents who are scared of trees now and want to keep their kids away. In the same way, people who survive an earthquake might feel unsafe in any sort of building - especially if friends or family died. Can you compare a falling tree with an earthquake? I think you can as both feel unnatural, both cause some place that used to feel safe to now feel threatening, and you cannot ever totally remove the risk of it happening again. One day, the earthquake victim will have to enter the building, and one day children will be near trees.

So if Mencken is right and the first response is wrong, what do we do? Do we stop sitting in the shade of trees? No, because that is something that humans need to do for the good of their spirit. Do we stop kids climbing and playing around trees? No, because that is something humans need to do for the good of their health. Do we teach our children and our parents that trees too are complex living things that are born, and live, and offer wonderful gifts, but eventually die? No one can take away the hurt of a child killed by an unnatural seeming accident, just as no one can ensure it wont happen to another child again. But we all can appreciate the joy of children playing and growing in the shade of the many thousands of safe trees, while remaining vigilent.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A misquote

Ten years ago, I misheard a quote given by a colleague to his class on forest planning. I thought he was quoting the Mendel - the father of genetics - and was something along the lines of having simple answers that were wrong. I thought it was great advice, especially for students studying the art of planning for working in natural environments, where everything seems to be related to everything else. But I never got around to finding the real quote. Eventually, I made up the following:

To every human question there is a simple and obvious answer that is wrong.

Try as I might though I could not find anything like this remotely attributable to Mendel, so I claimed the words as my own. Years later, I ran into that colleague and told him the story. He calmly replied that it was probably a quote from H.L. Mencken, but that he liked my rendition better. So, to honour the work of that great American author who inspired "my" quotable quote, I named my blog after him and I give you the original quote:

To every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. (H.L. Mencken)

Given that whenever humans are involved the problems are complex, then it is obvious that we are on the same wavelength.

It is unfortunate that our clear, simple, obvious yet wrong answers or solutions are so often the first and only one we come up with.