Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Learning From A Devastating 60 Year Period

Nine years before the first of my ancestors arrived in America in 1639 there were more than a billion acres of forest covering half of what is now the United States of America.  Every county in my adopted home state of North Carolina was 75% or more forested.

Within a hundred years of first arriving on these shores, Americans had already begun to embrace the practice of replanting to replace and sustain forests, a sense of stewardship obviously lost on outdoor billboard companies and their allies in the North Carolina General Assembly who insisted on being exempt from this responsibility while winning approval for a constitutionally-questionable public gratuity to clear-cut 700,000 publicly owned roadside trees.

These companies are put to shame by George Washington, the father of our country, who, upon his return from leading the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, voluntarily replanted forests including stands of tulip poplars and other trees still being tended by arborists today as a lesson from our nation’s first president in both stewardship and good business practices.

The fact that a full two-thirds of the deforestation that has taken place in this country over the past nearly 400 years occurred during the 60 years between 1850 and 1910 was not lost on President Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president, as he rode the train in 1901 carrying the body of the just-assassinated President McKinley back to Washington, DC.  While they were descending down toward Renovo, Pennsylvania from the upper Allegheny Mountains through the uplands of the Susquehanna River Roosevelt could see nothing but seas forested by nothing but stump and more stumps.

This area today, reforested and populated with elk herds and protected and made sustainable in the public interest with numerous state parks and forests, is highly ranked for hiking and river trails as well as working forests.  Much of this turnaround was driven by Roosevelt, a Republican who understood that the then-newly coined term "conservation” was crucial as a balance when the free market is unable to restrain itself from spilling “underpriced” costs on the public.

Better known today as one of America's most spectacular historic mansions, Biltmore Estate at the time George Vanderbilt first assembled it’s 100,000 acres, just 10 years before Roosevelt's inauguration, had already been deforested and blighted by over farming and unsustainable timber cutting.  Reforested by Vanderbilt, Biltmore is now known as part of the birthplace of forest conservation in America having groomed Gifford Pinchot, who rose to national prominence under Roosevelt to manage national forests, and for spinning off what became the beginning of Pisgah National Forest, one of the nation's first.

More than 40% of the South, by far this nation’s most forested region, had been deforested by 1910 with nearly all of that occurring in just the previous 60 years.  By comparison, the 150 million acres of forest in the Rocky Mountain region, much of which is managed in the public interest, has remained stable for nearly 400 years.

Today, not counting urban forests, about 76% of North Carolina's mountain region is forested, nearly all of it reforested except for one of the nation’s few remaining old growth groves, the tiny 3,800 acre Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, named for the author of the famous poem Trees.

By comparison only 59% of the coastal plain region and just 51% of the Piedmont or “foothills” region of North Carolina, where I live, remain as forest land, nearly all reforested.  By 1873 Piedmont counties such as Durham had been deforested from 75% or more acres in 1630 down to between 19% and 37%.  As agriculture declined, forest land in counties such as Durham recovered to as much as 50% where it stands today.

The challenge to forest lands today comes from urbanization and related fragmentation.  More than 12,000,000 acres will have fallen to development between 1992 and 2020 with another 19 million projected to fall between 2020 and 2040, a combined area nationwide as large as the state of North Carolina.

The nation’s development footprint grew from 10.1% in 1982 to 13.3% in 2000, the last year for which information appears to be available.  This expansion significantly exceeded population growth so the issue isn't growth versus no growth, but much smarter growth that includes compensation with the replanting of large specimen trees, putting a comprehensive market value on urban forests, valuing the benefits of large specimen trees in parking lots and downtowns and along all streets and other roadsides and medians.

The issue is also to place the full market value on sprawl that includes the spillover costs of infrastructure including highways for which such development pays far below its share of cost or, as in the case of light rail transit proposed in our area, is exempted entirely.

It is crucial that new development shoulder its true costs so that an appropriately higher market value is put on historic preservation and adaptive reuse of existing structures.

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