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.