November 08, 2012

Four days and three nights of the ungulate

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I could get a sheep to eat the grass. I would save time and money on gardening. It would be ecologically sound, as the animal consumes no fossil fuels and fertilizes its own pastures. Beyond that, sheep are picturesque. I thought it would be a biological version of one of those robotic vacuum cleaners that drives around on the floor, turning round when it bumps into something, but generally working automatically. The trouble is that I didn’t know much about sheep.

I thought they were like big dogs that ate grass, i.e. I thought they would be like a pet and behave like a dog. They don't. Dogs do dumb things, but compared to sheep they are Einsteins. Sheep, I learned to my sorrow, really are just as incredibly stupid as you have heard. The only thing my sheep did, besides eat and shit (see below) was look in the window and baa. They are a lot louder than you suppose. My sheep generally slept when it got dark, but it did not sleep the whole night, occasionally waking up to remind everyone that it was still out there. It kind of warms up, sometime with a low ummm, which sometimes crescendos to a very loud ummmBAA-AAA. I am not sure why it did that. I think it may have seen its own reflection and thought was another sheep.

But that was not the big problem. I could get used to that; maybe even appreciate the bucolic beauty of it all. On the plus side, it did eat grass, and seemed to like the taller grass better, so it was trimming exactly as I had hoped it would. The other end of the process was not so agreeable.

I was prepared for the fertilizer aspect of the sheep. In fact, I considered that a net benefit, as it would make my plants grow better. I have no problem with manure and happily use biosolids on the tree farms. But I assumed that the fertilizer would be mostly deposited on the grass, where it would do some good. No. My sheep evidently walks around on and eats the grass, but holds most of the shit for when it is standing around on the veranda under the roof. Worse, it seems to want to shit as close as possible to the house and most prefers to go right near the doors or windows. And it shits a lot. I soon found my pre-work period would be devoted to shoveling and washing down the patio; I got a similar task when I got back from work. Despite my shoveling and hosing, it was really starting to stink.

I was going to give the sheep a little more time, but the odor was starting to get pretty strong. I planned to be away for a week and a half. The guy who sold me the sheep told me that it would be okay. Independence was a big advantage of sheep. I travel a lot. If the sheep has shelter from the rain, it can be left along. It just stays out and eats grass. I had to make sure it had water, but probably not even that, since the rainy season grass was very wet. The guy told me that it would get enough water from the moist grass it ate. So, I COULD have left it alone, but I figured that if I left it for a week and half, the shit would be knee high when I got back and the smell would knock the proverbial buzzard off the proverbial shit wagon. My plane was leaving that night. I depend on sweet serendipity and a solution presented itself.

The cleaning woman comes by every two weeks and Wednesday was her day. When she showed up around 7:15, she was surprised to see a sheep in the front yard, but not much bothered. Her rural childhood included lots of sheep & goats. She knew what I was just discovering and seemed to find my dilemma very amusing. Courtesy and the fact that I pay her kept her from laughing out loud, but I am sure my story will engender mirth back in the village. It will also provide a sheep. I asked her if she wanted the sheep; she had some relatives with a pickup truck & when I got home after work, my problem was gone, almost. I am not sure where it went, but I don't really care. I like to think that my erstwhile lawn mowing manure machine is off romping with others of its kind, stinking up somebody else's yard for an indefinite period, maybe gracing somebody's table for a somewhat shorter time. No matter. It seemed lonely by itself. After all, sheep are naturally gregarious. The essence of the animal will persist for a while around my house. But I cleaned off the patio and I expect that the strong rains we get around here will do the rest.

My advice, which I allow applies to few people but that I will give nevertheless, is to avoid buying sheep unless you have a way to keep them far from the house. They stink on ice even just standing around and they seem to enjoy crapping where they sleep, not like a dog. If you must get sheep, you probably want a border collie to "herd" them. Just get the collie. Border collies are the smartest of the dogs, they may at least seem to be happy to see you when you come home and don't crap all over the place.

May 13, 2012

Forestry May 2012

My truck and pines  May 2012 

The trees have lots of new growth.  Loblolly pines grow throughout the summer. In that, they are different from white pines and many others that throw up new growth only in the spring. But the spring time is the big growth spurt for the loblollies too. The trees on CP are now nine years old.  I recall how barren it used to look with a few pine springs barely visible among the weeds. It is good to recall this, since I have five acres of newly planted longleaf, which are looking even more desolate.  The picture above shows how trees have grown. Below is the new longleaf plantation.  Longleaf seedlings look like clumps of grass.  Of course some of the green you see in the picture really are clumps of grass or weeds. It will look good in a couple of years.  Eric Goodman also planted some bald cypress in the wet areas and third generation loblolly at one end.

Longleaf plantation 

Below is the closeup of a longleaf seedling.  We did good site preparation, with brown and burn last winter. This should give the little pines a head start.

Longleaf seeding 

 Below is a "vernal pond", i.e. a big mud puddle, with lots of tadpoles. Amphibians need these sorts of things.  If the pond is permanent enough to have many fish, the fish eat the eggs and tadpoles. If it is too small, the pond dries out before the amphibians are through with their development.  These kind of ponds are not attractive, but they are a necessary part of the web of life.

Vernal pond and tadpoles

Below the hunt club planted various wildlife food and warm season grasses to encourage wildlife, especially animals like Bobwhite quail.  Dominion Power, which owns the power lines, is paying us to offset the costs. It saves them the trouble and money of maintaining the cover.  I have 8 acres under those lines and not using it would be a waste. 

Planting under the power lines

Below shows Boy Scouts clearing some paths.  I guess they win merit badges for woodsmen skills.  They need land to practice and I have the space.

Boy Scouts cutting trails

Below shows my new sycamores. They are growing fast along the watercourses.  They volunteered a couple years ago.  I have been cutting out the box elders and other brush. The sycamores do well in moist soils and send down a thick network of roots that holds the banks. They are not much use from the forestry profit point of view but they are beautiful trees and they get really big. I am a little allergic to them. I cough when I cut a lot of branches. Sycamores have a very distinctive smell. I suppose there is some relation.  They always remind me of the brief time I lived in Indiana, on the banks of the Wabash far away.


April 01, 2012

Joy of Forestry

This is my contribution to the next issue of Virginia Forests.  It is based on some earlier posts, but is arranged in a different way.  I have the joy of writing the article for the Tree Farm in each issue.  Below is my article.

If you want to grow longleaf pine, you need fire. Longleaf is a fire-dependent species. And we want to grow longleaf pine.  That is why we clear-cut five acres when we did the thinning winter last year.  After that, we sprayed to get at the poplars, which had grown from roots. In December we burned.  One of my friends got some longleaf seedlings that went in this spring. Other friends made fire lanes with their tractor.  I say “we” but I really mean them. All this happened while I was working at my “real” job outside the country.

I am the luckiest man in the world. People always help.  Together we are creating a demonstration forest in Brunswick County. It will showcase best forestry practices for this part of Virginia. The land includes already a wonderful stand of loblolly.  We will apply different silvicultural practices (various thinning densities, fire, herbicide treatments etc.) to show the different results.

The longleaf are near the edge of their range in southern Virginia, so it is less certain. If the climate changes, however, the range may move north. Longleaf once grew all around the South. Today they are less common because they are harder to grow than loblolly. That is why the State of Virginia is helping us grow them.  Longleaf require fire to grow well and are hard to establish. Once established they are great trees. The caveat is the long needles (hence the name long leaf). Ice storms can weigh down the branches and cause damage.  Individual longleaf are beautiful trees and a vigorous stand of longleaf is even more beautiful. I won’t live long enough to see my trees mature, but I hope to enjoy their vigorous adolescence.

My experience with forestry in Virginia has greatly exceeded my expectations. Owning forest land had long been one of my dreams and forestry fits well with my full-time job working as a Foreign Service Officer. I move from a lot.  I started in Brazil and worked in Norway, Poland and Iraq during the war. Now I am back in Brazil. Forests provide roots – literally – in my nomadic existence. I move; my forest abides. I would have a place to come back to, where I could watch developments over the years. This was my dream, at least, but I never thought it would come true.  I finally managed to buy some land on my fiftieth birthday, back in 2005. I thought I knew more than I really did. I read a lot of books. This was not enough. I was also a little out of my element in rural southern Virginia. I was born and raised in the urban environment of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  When I think back on my land “adventure” it seems pretty dumb. I clearly was in over my head. I was saved by the kindness of strangers who became friends.  

Local people gave me advice; hunt clubs assisted with land management; forestry officials were helpful; Boy Scout troops wanted to make trails; Tree Farm gave me management goals and there were lots of inexpensive seminars on everything from timber selection to wildlife management.

All I had to do was let people share my dreams and they contributed time and more importantly local knowledge and forestry expertise. Sophisticated people say that people like me are naïve, maybe so.  I believe in win-win outcomes and I don’t care if it sounds cliché. The secret of joy is finding ways to give people what they want in the framework of what you want. Maybe I don’t “maximize profit”, but I am morally certain that I get more than I would in other ways. I find that joy in my forestry and in the friendly people of Virginia.

I just could not do forestry without all the help I get.  I am neither smart enough nor rich enough to make it happen alone. My friends get to use my land for hunting and other recreation, but they use it in ways that I want it to be used. What is important to me is that my trees are growing robustly; that the water that runs off the land is clear; that the soil is getting better; and that wildlife abounds. I get all this. I get to watch the trees grow as long as I live and leave it to the kids.  Is there anything else anybody could reasonably want? Maybe a horse when I get too old to walk around comfortably, but that would be another story. 

March 31, 2012

An Environmental Reformation

The story is big the news, the retraction, not so much. Consider this news story - “The Environmental Protection Agency has dropped its claim that an energy company contaminated drinking water in Texas, the third time in recent months that the agency has backtracked on high-profile local allegations linking natural-gas drilling and water pollution.” reference  

I think that the unlocking of our vast natural gas reserves is the best ecological & environmental story in years. Yet it has drawn heavy criticism, sometimes justified, often ignorant, mostly based on outdated narratives. Consider the wildly inaccurate documentary "Gasland". It won all kinds of awards and is very compelling. Scientists think it is bunk and research has disproved most of the claims, but - hey - it makes a better drama when you can light water on fire.

It seems to me that very much of the mythology centered on environmental extremism is based around the keystone myth that nature w/o humans is somehow clean, benign and perfect. It is not. Many toxins appear in the natural world. Arsenic is present in natural water in many areas. Gas and oil have seeped out of the ground since before the ancestors of men (although Chrissy informs me perhaps not women - no logic there) descended from trees.

The idea of perfect nature apart from man is not merely wrong; it is pernicious because it impedes decision making based on sound & practical ecological principles. The attack on gas is a good example. Natural gas extraction and use is more ecologically benign than any of the alternatives currently available at the scale that it could currently replace. Yet purists reject it because it is not perfect. They make the perfect the enemy of the good. Purists are pains in the ass.

This is not a new problem. A century ago, various revolutionaries argued the efficacy of reforming capitalism. Some radicals fought against measures that would improve life for ordinary people on the theory that conditions had to become so bad that they would provoke the world revolutions predicted in Marxist theology. When the Marxist nightmare ran out of steam, people with a puritan/revolutionary bent had to look for other causes. The environment was a perfect home for them.

One of the big weaknesses of Marxism was that they claimed to speak for the workers, but the workers could speak for themselves. What they said, usually contradicted Marxist mythology. The advantage of "speaking for nature" is that nobody can really ask trees, rocks or animals what they really think. Unlike Marxists, environmental revolutionaries have no ostensible constituency that can contradict them.

We don't need an environmental revolution, but we could use a reformation. As with most things, real progress is achieved in the middle ground, where we can be pragmatic enough to make compromises. A sound environmental policy requires - not allows requires - that we sometimes kill animals, cut trees and even pave land. If done correctly, it can create benefits all around. And if we don't make it possible for honest people to make a profit doing these things, the field will be left to dishonest operators acting outside the law.

There are a few things we need to understand in our reformed environmentalism.
- Sustainable does NOT mean preserved unchanged. It means reasonably predictable and beneficial change.
    o Sustainable is better than natural and many natural systems are not sustainable.
- Renewable is better than recyclable, although both have their place.
    o The cost for most things in environmental terms is usually mostly concentrated in the energy it takes to move it. If you use less paper, it doesn't really "save trees" but it may save energy.
    o It may require more energy to recycle than to throw out and renew.
- Nothing lasts forever. Sometimes we just need to let go. Panda bears, for example, are doomed. They may survive in zoos, due to the kindness of humans, but they are not fit (in the Darwinian sense) to survive in the wild.
- There is no environment in the world that is not influenced by humans. If we think we can "return to nature" we are abdicating our responsibility to be good stewards.

One more thing - natural gas is as good as it currently gets as a fuel we need at the scale we need to use it. It is not THE answer, since there is never a final answer, but it is the one we should be using for the next decade at least. That would be good environmental policy and good economic policy too.

March 13, 2012

My Food Crops


I don’t put enough time into gardening to be really good at it and my harvests result more from luck and the inherent characteristics of the plants themselves. I would starve if I had to depend on the produce from my soil. But I will be better next time. This year was a learning time. There are seasons in Brasília, even if it is a place of eternal springtime. After spending a year here, I hope I will have a better understanding of the subtlety of my garden. The obvious seasonal difference is the rainy versus the dry season.


As I explained in earlier posts, Brasília is a very strange place with regards to water. It is like a desert during the dry season, but unlike a place like Arizona there is no shortage of water on the Brazilian high plains. More rain falls in a couple days during the rainy season here than falls in Phoenix all year long. You could water your gardens and lawns every day w/o running afoul of water restrictions or even feeling bad about wasting a scarce resource. 

Most of my neighbors are profligate water users and they can be because of the unique nature of the water cycles here. I did not and do not plan to soak my grass during the dry season. It is less because I want to conserve water, which around here really doesn’t make a difference, and more because I prefer not to have to mow the lawn so often. I did and will water my flower and vegetable garden, but it is not as easy as that.

It doesn’t seem like you can dump enough water on the garden during the dry season, at least I didn’t. I planted tomatoes, watermelons and lots of flowers.  They grew fitfully until the rainy season, when they went through a phase change. I suppose it is a matter of how much irrigation you use. Brazilians successfully grow all sorts of fruit and vegetable around here, so it must be possible

Wax beans

I also need to analyze my soil. The gardener told me that the local soil is poor and sour/acid. I have been adding organic material, i.e. grass clippings, peels etc. but that doesn’t much change the Ph. I hope that Espen will be here during this U.S. Summer. I will have to feed him a higher quality diet than I eat, which means I will be grilling more and producing wood/charcoal ash that I can use as potash to sweeten the soil.  I will get my soil in shape just about the time I leave. The Embassy will probably plant grass on my erstwhile garden and future tenants in my house will notice that the grass grows faster on that spot, but they won’t know why.


You can see in my pictures that my crops are almost ready to eat. I didn’t have much luck with lettuce.  It is just starting to come up now.  I think that birds ate the seeds.  Well … I did a poor job of planting. Lettuce seeds are very small.  I had trouble with them as they stuck to my fingers and got lost in the dirt.  I should have started them in pots and then moved them. Instead I put them directly into the Brazilian clay with poor results. I planted the tomatoes seeds directly into the soil and it worked out okay. Tomatoes are forgiving, however. I only need to get one or two plants to work in order to produce more tomatoes than I could eat.  The big surprise is the watermelons. I grew them from seeds of a particularly good watermelon.  The vines grew slowly, with lots of flowers but only one fruit, which was damaged by some animal and rotted inside.  I gave up, but didn’t bother to pull out the vines.  I was surprised how they grew and then only a couple weeks ago I got a profusion of melons. I counted eleven, a few of which are getting pretty big. I read that you pick them when the stem entering the melon turns yellow. I consume one watermelon every two weeks, so if even a few of these come to sweet maturity I will be set for months.

Banana Plant 

I didn’t include a picture of my sweet corn because it is depressing. It just has not grown up to its promising start. I will leave it alone, however. Maybe it will work out as the watermelon did. My banana tree is growing robustly, but I am told that it will not produce bananas for about a year and half.

It is a lot of work to dig up all plants and create a garden and I don't always have time to do it. I will work on this a little at time, incorporate my compost etc. and have it ready for the next rainy season. Next year will be better, with my improved soil and enhanced experience. The wonderful thing about gardening is that you get many chances for iterative learning and improvement.

January 15, 2012

Illegal Logging

This is a draft of what I will send for my quarterly article in "Virginia Forest" magazine.

Illegal loggers steal from us in many ways. Sometimes they are literally stealing our trees, but it goes way beyond that. Illegal logging is rarely done according to good procedures that protect the environment and preserve the forest for future generations. The public views the scenes of destruction left by illegal loggers and jumps to conclusion that this is how logging is done. That means that illegal loggers also steal the reputations of honest loggers and landowners who are good stewards of their land and often have been for many generations.

Addressing the problem of illegal logging, however, is not as simple as enacting stronger laws and harsher penalties. In fact, worldwide it is often the theoretically strong laws that are the problem. Of course, in Virginia we still have timber theft. This is a type of illegal logging but at the levels and ways it is done, it is more akin to ordinary crime like burglary or grand theft auto. There are no cases of widespread deforestation caused by illegal logging in the Old Dominion.  Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere.  In some countries the illegal timber harvest can reach as high a 60-70% of the total.  What accounts for the difference?

The easy answer is that countries where illegal logging is rampant simply lack strict laws or the ability to enforce them. The first part of this statement is often not true. Many developing countries have – on the books – much stricter preservation laws than we have in Virginia. In some places it is just plain illegal to cut down native forests on a wide range of land types. These are often the places most likely to be deforested, as illegal logging targets them first. They understand that government authorities probably cannot protect them and that the off limits status has removed the incentives for local people to pay much attention. The second part of the statement - that they lack the ability to enforce the good laws - is true in areas of deforestation but it is not as remarkable at it seems because it is true everywhere.

Logging is almost always done in relatively out of the way places. Laws are never enough. Even the most active authorities cannot effectively police large areas of forest land.  In Virginia, they really don’t have to.  Landowners, loggers and foresters have incentives to preserve and enhance the forests on their land because they can use and benefit from them. They also know that everyone around suffers if forests, soils, animals and water are wantonly destroyed.  It is obviously true that the authorities protect my forest land in Brunswick County.  But the first lines of defense are my neighbors, friends and even strangers who know that we are all in this together. Virginians protect their own land and those of others because they own the land. We have centuries old traditions of protecting property rights and we all are in the same boat. We protect each other’s stuff.

We also enjoy the use of our land with fewer restrictions than in most other places. We can harvest trees and other forest products within reasonable rules. We can hunt that animals that inhabit our forests and, again within reasonable limits, we can change the way we use our lands. In the final analysis, what most protects the forests of Virginia is the effort of thousands of Virginians who have a stake in the management and use of the forests and the products they produce. In Virginia, hunters, loggers and landowners are preserving and enhancing our forests. Laws work when they are reasonable and when people see the benefits. If you want to preserve and improve forests, you have to let people cut some trees and kill some animals. You have to let them have a stake.

Places that suffer widespread deforestation because of illegal logging often find themselves in this unhappy situation not in spite of but because of strong laws, albeit misapplied. Laws and regulations meant to preserve forests often end up destroying them if they make it difficult or impossible for the people who live in or near the forests to make an honest living from them. If strict rules make it impossible to make an honest profit, some people will make dishonest ones. Even worse, as honest people leave the business and dishonest ones take their place, the whole respect for law as well as the whole idea of stewardship disappears.  The field divides between preservers and destroyers.  Neither is the right way to go.  We need stewards.

If I can be permitted a little immodesty, in America we got it right. That is not to say challenges have disappeared. There is no perfect system and everything must always adapt. But we should never make the quest for the perfect the enemy of the good. The methods of stewardship that have grown up in the United States during the twentieth century work well. The American Tree Farm System and other independent certification systems are doing their jobs.

Most landowners want to do the right thing on their land. People I talk to not only want to take care of the land during their own lifetimes. A major motivation is to leave the land in better shape for future generations.  People are willing.  We need information and guidance both to do the right things and to do things right.  What we don’t need is strict, sometimes incomprehensible, rules that make it difficult for honest people to make honest profits.  We have created a wonderful and sustainable system of forestry in Virginia.  We can be proud of it and we should all work to protect it and try to spread the word as far as we can.

November 13, 2011

The Joy of Setting Fires (and the Joy of life in General)

Prescribed burning in Virginai 

If you want to grow longleaf pine, you need fire. Longleaf is a fire-dependent species. And we want to grow longleaf pine.  That is why we clear cut five acres when we did the thinning last winter.  A few weeks ago we sprayed to get at the poplars, which had grown from roots and now we are burning.  This procedure is called "brown and burn" BTW. My friend Eric Goodman got some longleaf seedlings free. which will go in next spring.  Our friends at the Department of Forestry made fire lanes with their tractor. My friends Larry Walker and Frank Meyer did the burning. I am the luckiest man in the world. People always help.  Together we are creating a demonstration forest in Brunswick County. It will showcase the best forestry practices for our part of Virginia.   It includes already a wonderful stand of loblolly.  We will apply different silvicultural practices (various thinning densities, fire, herbicide treatments etc) to show the different results. 

More about the forest plan is here & here.  Pictures of the thinning are here .

Setting forestry fires 

The longleaf are near the edge of their range in southern Virginia, so it is less certain. If the climate changes, however, the range may move north. Longleaf once grew all around the South. Today they are less common because they are harder to grow than loblolly. That is why the State of Virginia is helping us grow them.  Longleaf require fire to grow well and are hard to establish. Once established they are a great tree. The only caveat is the long needles (hence long leaf).  Ice storms can weigh down the branches and cause damage.  Individual longleaf are beautiful trees and a vigorous stand of longleaf is even more beautiful.  I won’t live long enough to see my trees mature, but I hope to enjoy their vigorous adolescence.

At this link is a short video of the fire

My experience in forestry has greatly exceeded my expectations.  My land has attracted help like a magnet. All I have to do is let people share my dreams and they contribute time and more importantly local knowledge and forestry expertise.  Sophisticated people say that people like me are naïve, maybe so.  I believe in win-win outcomes and I don’t care if it sounds cliché. The secret of joy is finding ways to give people what they want in the framework of what you want. I don’t know if I get as much as I could, but I am morally certain that I get more than I would in other ways. I find that in my forestry, I find it in my work and I find it generally in life.

Burned over area for longleaf pine 

I just could not do forestry the way I want to do it w/o all the help I get.  It would be simply impossible.  They get to use my land, but they use it in ways that I want it to be used. What is important to me is that my trees are growing robustly; the water that runs off the land is crystal clear; the soil is getting better; wildlife abounds. I get to watch the trees grow as long as I live and leave it to the kids after I die.  Is there anything else anybody could reasonably want? Maybe a horse when I get to old to walk around comfortably.  Mariza can teach me to ride it.

The Nature Conservancy uses fire well in its ecosystem management.  Here is a link to a good article.

A good article about fire in southern forests is here.

Also check out the Southern Fire Exchange.

I took the Virginia fire course a couple years ago, so I am officially "qualified" to set fire to the woods. Of course, I wouldn't dare do it w/o somebody with boots on the ground experience. Information about using fire in forestry is below.

October 24, 2011

Windfalls and Long Narrow Orchards

mango tree in my yard in Brasilia 

I only recently discovered that the big tree in my yard was a mango.  I know the trees of the temperate zones. The tropics are more often a mystery to me. The presence of mangoes is a dead giveaway, however.

mangoes in my tree in Brasilia 

Mangoes are attractive trees and evidently well suited to the Brasilia climate, since they don't seem to provide them with any particular care. I wonder what will happen to all that fruit.They sell mangoes in the stores, but people could just as easily pick their own on the way home. I have also seen bananas, dates and other sorts of productive trees and herbs. There are also lots of fruits I don't recognize. For example, I have no idea about that tree is pictured at the bottom. It is almost like a joke, like somebody hung some footballs on the tree. I don't know whether or not they are edible. The mango tree in my yard would seem to have enough fruit to satisfy my needs plus those of a dozen other people. Of course, I don’t really like mangoes very much.  What I need is a Coke Zero tree or maybe a Hershey tree. 

Mangoes on median strip in Brasilia 

When the mangoes will be ready or how long the season will last, I don’t know. About mangoes in general, I don't know much. Maybe it is like applies, zucchini or tomatoes back home.  For a couple months you just have much more than you can possibly use and then nothing again for eight months.


The historian Arnold Toynbee used to talk about how civilizations originated at the sweet spot where there was challenge enough to make hard work necessary but not so much that it didn’t pay off. I bet you could mostly feed yourself from a garden, if you liked tropical fruit and vegetables. It would take some work, but not too much. I planted some watermelons and tomatoes and I will see how that goes. You could probably live the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, well at least the gatherer part, just by walking around. I think about that as I walk back from the store, past all the fruit that just falls on the ground.

Fruit tree 

The pictures show the mango tree in my yard and the trees on the median. Below are lizards trying to absorb the warmth of the sun through the clouds. There are lots of lizards around. I don't know what they eat or much about them at all.  Maybe they eat fruit. This is about as big as they get.

October 06, 2011

Resurgent Atlantic Forests

Secondary growth Atlantic forestPart of my job I do for duty; this one is about the part of my job I do for joy. This joy category is much larger, BTW, and even the duty part is usually fun. I really enjoyed the seminar and I only had to pay for it with a ten minute speech – sweet.

Former coconut plantationAs I have written before, I have learned that a big part of public affairs is showing appreciation for the things your hosts value, praise the things they are proud of. It helps if you are really interested and I am passionately interested in forestry and ecology. I mentioned this and the State of Bahia came through with something they are proud of. They have a sustainable forestry initiative and I think that the person telling me about it took as much joy in the telling as I did listening. It was a true shared interest.

They took me to the Reserva Sapiranga, an area of secondary growth of the Mata Atlántica or Atlantic forest. This is the rain forest that once covered coastal Brazil. Most of the Brazilian population and the big cities are in the biome of the Atlantic forest and most of the original forest was cut long ago. This was also the case with the area now included in the Sapiranga reserve. This land was plantation and cow pasture only a fee decades ago, but like our eastern forests in U.S., it grew back.

You can still see the coconut palms, gradually succumbing to old age. Coconut palms live around fifty years. They require sunny conditions to regenerate naturally. The encroaching forest shades out potential new coconuts.  Soon there will be none.

Stream in Atlantic forestOnly 7% of the native Atlantic forest remains in Brazil.  As I mentioned, the Atlantic forest biome is the one most affected by human settlement.  The State of Bahia contains three general biomes.  Near the coast is the Atlantic forest.  It is a type of coastal rain forest, with diverse species of plants and animals. Farther inland is Caatinga. This is semi-arid, with the thick skinned and thorny plants you find in deserts. 


The Caatinga is less immediately attractive than the Atlantic forest and has attracted less attention, but it is in fact more in danger.  The Atlantic forest will grow back if given a little help or even just left alone. It is similar to the forests of the Eastern U.S. in this respect, which regrew during the 20th Century. The Caatinga runs the risk of desertification. This can happen if the climate changes to become drier, since it is already near the edge, but it can also happen with simple bad land management.  It takes a long time for the vegetation in the semi-arid soil to grow and when it is removed of even stepped on a lot it can lead to significant soil loss.  And dirt, in the final analysis, is the basis of everything. 

Farther west the Caatinga yields to the Cerrado.  This is the grassland/savannah we have also in Brasilia or Goiás. Western Bahia has become a thriving agricultural area, with the introduction of new strains of plants and new agricultural techniques.  Not too many years ago, it was generally thought that the soils of Western Bahia could not be made productive over large areas and that any attempt to do so would result in more or less permanent damage.  This was incorrect.  What was needed was a better understanding of the dynamics of the natural systems as well as better genetics and technologies. As I mentioned in other posts, the Brazilians are building railroads to link the region with ports along the coast. They are also working on massive projects along the Rio São Francisco, which flows through Bahia to Pernambuco.  This is a vast reclamation project, which may change the face of Bahia as much as Hoover Dam changed the Imperial Valley in California.  


These are things I want to see, but have not yet seen with my own eyes.  I am waiting for my car to be released onto the road.

Environmental education center 

What I saw on this trip was the resurgent rain forest in coastal Bahia. There is a local project, sponsored by Petrobras, to restore the forest while protecting the livelihood of the current inhabitants. Of of the challenges will be actually knowing what to restore. Nobody is sure what the forest primeval really looked like. Nobody has really seen it for hundreds of years and even at that early date the ecology was heavily impacted by the activities of Native-Brazilians, especially through their use of fire.  The forest restorers are seeing what old books tell and trying to ask the local inhabitants what seems to grow.  I suspect that it will be something like what the forest looked like in 1500, but certainly not the same. Too much has changed. 

They are calling the project sustainable forestry or agro-forestry. It is not exactly as I envisioned it given the terms.* What they are doing is more like restoration and preservation.  Since there are no plans to harvest timber in the newly forested places, I don’t think the term forestry applies perfectly.  The agro-forestry has similar caveats.  What they have here in more of agriculture of small clearings. It is a valid form of agriculture, but it is not an integrated agro-forestry operation.  

They also are trying to phase out hunting.  People who like animal and grew up in cities tend to dislike hunting.  I can understand that in the early stages of ecological development, but I believe in the longer term sustainable hunting must be part of any sustainable forest-agricultural community. If you really want to sustain nature, you have to cut some trees and kill some animals and humans need to be integrated into the system, not just squatting on top of it.

I don’t mean to sound critical. In fact, I am sharp precisely because I believe this project is important and valid.  It should succeed but will require some modification. I would not presume to dictate, but I do presume to have an opinion based on what I saw develop in the U.S. over my lifetime and what I studied that happened before.   

The organizers understand that humans cannot be excluded from the environment and there are lots of people living in and around the reserve.  But it still seems to me to have too much of a demarcation line, with preserved areas out of bounds.  I tried to explain (it was hard in Portuguese, since the concept is very subtle and nuanced) how we use stream management zones in Virginia. They are managed for healthy forest growth, but they are by no means off limits. I can do silvicultural practices in the SMZ.  As a result of our activities, the forests are healthier and MORE robust and the water is cleaner than it would be if we were not acting. And, of course, our lands are heavily used by hunters. Hunters are the best conservationists because they want to keep on hunting. Foresters maintain forest ecosystems with similar motivations. These are examples of man in and of nature. Some things need to be preserved; most things need to be well-managed. We all love nature.  I think it is better to be actively part of it than just looking across the fence.


* Agro-forestry is the sensible practice of mixing forest and agriculture.  It is best applied in relatively small scale, since it often precludes the use of big machinery.  It is not appropriate everywhere. In large flat fields where no-till agriculture can be used, for example, agro-forestry is not always the best environmental solution. But it is a good option where it works. 

Agro-forestry allows a more complete use of the land.  Trees complement crops or pasture.  There is some competition, especially for sunlight.  But the trees tend to draw from a different level of the soil.  The tree roots can do a kind of clean up, absorbing water and fertilizer that would pass through the first layers of vegetation.  They can also form a sort of nutrient pump, with their leaves bringing nutrients back to the surface where they are again available to surface vegetation.  Even the shade can be useful in some cases. 

Coffee, for example, is a kind of bush that evolved in the shade of larger trees.  Plants like coffee can be more productive in the filtered sunlight than they are in full sun.  The key is balance and knowledge. The challenge of agro-forestry is exactly that. The farmer-forester needs to be more involved in his land and understand the sometimes complex and changing relationships among plants.

The key to the forestry part of the equation is that you have to manage and eventually cut the trees.  Forestry has three generalized parts. (1) You plant or allow trees to regenerate;  (2) you take care of them (3) with the eventual goal of harvesting timber and forest products.  If you leave out the last step, you are not really in business and I do not believe it can be sustained over large areas for a significant time. The profit is the price of survival.  Sustainable means that you can do it again and again.  If you never cut, it really is not sustainable. It is just preserves.

September 25, 2011

Wildlife Management

Dominion Power right of way 

We (Alex, Espen & I) went down to the farms. I needed to discuss wildlife plots with the hunt club. I signed an agreement with Dominion Power about the eight acres on our Freeman property that run under their power lines. Dominion will cost share with us, i.e. they will pay for part of the seed, fertilizers, lime and labor that goes into making the land under the wires into a productive non-forest habitat.  

Wildlife plot 

Trees fill in very quickly in Virginia and power companies spend fortunes keeping them down under the power lines & they tend to do it in ways that annoy people with herbicides. It is much better for them to partner with landowners and hunt clubs who can provide local knowledge and a love of the land. It is a win all around.  Dominion pays less to us than it would have to pay spraying or mowing crews AND it can brag about the ecological correctness of the results. We have a total plan for the tract too, BTW

Rabbit hunting dogs 

The hunt club guys, many of whom are farmers who own equipment, have agreed to plant and maintain the wildlife areas, according to a plan made for me by a wildlife biologist. I cut & pasted the basic plan at the end of this post.

I  wanted to see what kind of damage the recent hurricane had done. We are far inland but Hurricane Irene still dumped a lot of rain and engendered high winds. My newly thinned pines were vulnerable to this sort of thing.  We suffered little damage, however. A few trees were knocked down, but not so much that you would comment if you didn’t know already.

Fallen tree after Hurricane Irene 

Finally, I wanted to see the place where we will plant longleaf pine. The picture below shows the clear cut we did last January. Things grew back really quick. The yellow poplars were already about six feet high. To make sure the longleaf get a good start, we sprayed from a helicopter.

Clearcut for longleaf pine 

My pictures - up top shows the right of way where we will install wildlife plots. Below that is an existing wildlife plot on the CP acreage for reference. The next picture shows rabbit dogs. These little dogs chase the rabbits out of the brush for the hunters. Some of the local guys train their dogs on our land every week. There is an art to this. The owners know all the dogs by name (they look the same to me) and they know their lineage. When the dogs chase the rabbits, the younger, faster dogs go first. Older ones follow. They are slower but have more experience to pace themselves. Who knew it was so complex?  


Dominion Virginia Power Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Program

John Matel Property (T-5727, N36.74 W77.74)

Brunswick, VA


Area: 8 acre Dominion Virginia Power right-of-way to be planted into a mix of native warm season grass, forbs and wildflowers

                -10ft wide firebreak will be established along one side of right-of-way (not under cost share program), will be used for understory burning of planted pines

Species Mix:

Species Rate (lbs of pure live seed/acre)

Big Bluestem      2lbs/acre

Virginia Wild Rye              2 lbs/acre

Partridge Pea     1 lb/acre

Black-eyed Susan             0.05lb/acre

Butterflyweed  0.5lb/acre


Seeding Date: March 1st to April 15th (May 1st at latest)


Site Preparation:

             See attached NRCS fescue spray chart

o             Mow existing vegetation in late summer (late August/early September)

o             Spray existing mix of fescue vegetation in fall 2011 (September/October) with glyphosate (follow all label instructions)

o             May need a second spray in spring 2012

o             Sow seed mix between March 1st and April 15th (May 1st at the latest) with a no-till drill (1/4 inch depth)


o             Lightly disk planting area, follow with cultipacker or drag a cedar limb to create a smooth, firm seedbed, sow seed with broadcast spreader (use carrier of pelletized lime to help disseminate seed) and follow with cultipacking or dragging to lightly place seed in soil (sow at ¼ inch depth)

o             Leave at least a 15ft buffer on all drainage areas (2 low areas), do not spray or plant in these areas


             Starting in year 3 or 4 after establishment being a rotational burning or disking regime

o             Burning: Burn 1/3 of the area each year between January and early April (not recommended due to transmission line)

o             Disking: Disk 1/3 of the area each year between November and mid-March

             Spot spray as needed if competing vegetation becomes a problem

September 18, 2011

No Really Green Energy

Banana tree 

All forms of energy have benefits and risks. Inexpensive fossil fuels, for example, played a part in the remarkable regrowth of forests in Europe and the United States. (I explain below.) Of course, they also produce pollution. You have to look at the whole cycle, from production, to deployment & use to final disposal. We often see only one part. That is why it was interesting to come across an article about riots at a Chinese solar panel factory. The Chinese villagers said the solar plant was poisoning the air and water.

Tree in my yard in Brasilia 

It seems to me that the most environmentally friendly "new" technology is natural gas. New methods have made massive quantities of this available in the United States. It is cheap; it is available AND it is American. In addition, gas can be used in existing technologies to replace coal fired plants. Gas produces very little pollution and only around 1/3 the CO2 of coal. There is no need to subsidize natural gas production or provide loan guarantees.

It is beyond my understanding why so few mainstream environmentalists are embracing gas production, which will create large numbers of American jobs. I am not saying that there are not challenges. We NEED regulations and we need to work on developing better techniques of extraction. But the idea should be to improve, not impede.

Natural gas is not perfectly clean. NO form of energy is perfectly clean, as we see from the Chinese solar plant example. Our only viable option is a diversified energy portfolio, taking into account the full life cycle of the energy source and trying to understand collateral connections. There is no one best solution and the most appropriate choices will change as society and technologies develop.

One thing for sure is that fossil fuels will remain a big, probably the biggest part of our energy portfolio for the coming decades. This is just true. We can complain about it and wish it were different, but as my father used to say, put your wish in one hand and sh*t in the other and see which weighs more. We need to recognize and work within real possibilities.

How Fossil Fuels Helped Save Forests

Forests in America and Europe reached their nadir between 1900 and 1930. Massive efforts to plant trees and the founding of the U.S. Forest Service, the discovery and promulgation of sustainable forestry methods and organization (such as the American Tree Farm System) all played crucial roles in bring back forests and avert the "timber famine" predicted by experts and leaders like Theodore Roosevelt & Giford Pinchot, among others. But equally important was a shift in demand. Horsepower provided by actual horses requires pastures and pastures preclude forests. When horses were replaced by tractors & cars, land devoted to growing feed equine transport could be converted to other uses. There was also the shift from wood. Wood was still a dominant fuel in 1900 and people cut forests for fuel. Beyond that, it is not well understood by many people, but an important collateral product of fossil fuels is fertilizer, which allows greater production on less land, leaving - again - other land free to revert to forest.

Today there are more growing trees in the U.S. than there were in 1850. Take a look at pictures from the Civil War and compare them to what you see today and you will notice the absence of forests then and their presence now. The regrowth of the forests in American and Europe is one of the biggest - and most overlooked - success stories of the latter half of the 20th Century.

One of my fears re a possible biofuels boom is that we may reverse this as land currently occupied by forests is again put into service for the intensive production of biofuel.

My pictures are not particularly related to the text. I took them today in my yard.  The top picture shows my new banana trees.  Bananas are not really trees; they are the world's largest herb. The other picture is the tree in my yard leafing out and flowering. 

September 09, 2011

Chapada dos Veadeiros

Chrissy & me at the bridge in chapada dos veadeiros 

Chrissy & I went for a hike in Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park.  You are required to have a guide, which is used to keep the numbers in the park low and keep them on the straight and narrow trails.  The park is at an ecological intersection cerrado grassland a savannah and tropical forest.  It is not the tropical rain forest, however.  This forest is semi-deciduous. Many of the trees drop their leaves during the dry season.  

Falls at Chapadas do Veadeiros 

Chapada dos Veadeiros encompasses many of the headwaters of the Tocantins River, which is reason enough to protect the area. It also contains, according to the signs, a great deal of biodiversity. I don’t recognize the tree of plant species. I found a good webpage at this link and hope to learn more.  I am also still trying to get a feel for the cerrado.  

Landscape with palms in Chapadas dos Veadieros 

Above & below show Chapada dos Veadeiros landscapes.  Palm trees follow water courses, above or below ground.

Palm landscape  

Below shows the fish that are common in pools among the rocks.


Below - people swim in the clear pools. I did too. The guy in the photo jumped from the cliff. I did not. 


Below shows Chrissy and me in the park.

Below is one of the canyons and streams in Chapada dos Veadieros.


September 07, 2011

Where There’s Fire, There’s Smoke

Backfire in Goias 

I don’t mind the dry air, but the smoke is starting to get difficult.  The rains will come in a few weeks.  Until then, this is not the best time to be in Brasilia.

Field fire in northern Goias 

I am not unsympathetic to using fire as a management tool. I understand that it is crucial to the cerrado ecosystem. But most of the fires set around here are not good management. They are either too hot and destroy too much or not well done so as to be ineffective. Most of the fires, in fact, seem to be garbage fires that got out of hand and/or much of the smoke comes from actual garbage fires, which do nobody any good. Using fire as a tool is not the same as using it as a convenience.

Black rocks 

We saw lots of fires on our way up to Chapada dos Veadeiros and you can see the effects of fire in the national park.  The rocks are black. The guide said that they get a natural black patina and that it is not the result of fires.  I don’t believe that.  I know that the guide has been there all his life and I don’t want to oppose his local knowledge, but it is probably true that this place has been burned over all that time. I remember the black “cream city brick” in Milwaukee. Cream city brick is a kind of yellowish white color in its natural form, but the porous nature of the brick surface turned it black when exposed to the constant coal smoke. Not all brick was equally blackened.  When the air was cleaned up in the 1970s, the cream city brick again looked creamy.  I think the same thing happens to these black rocks. They soak up the carbon black and never get clean. Different sorts of rocks absorb more than others, as in the rocks above.  

Plants after fire 

“Natural” fires would have been rare, since lightning to start those fires would tend to come with thunderstorms during the wet season, which would limit their extent. But with the arrival of man many thousands of years ago, fires during the dry season changed the landscapes. Native Brazilians set fires, just as native North Americans and there has not been a “natural” landscape here since.

Typical Goias landscape 

I learned in my fire class (I am certified as a fire manager by the State of Virginia) that fires that are too hot or too frequent destroy natural diversity, since only a few species can take the stress.  On the other hand, places where fire never comes also lose diversity, since a few species come to dominate. I wrote a post about how fires work at this link. A proper fire regime produces greater variety and a robust ecosystem. The problem is knowing how much is enough and how much is too much.  It also requires setting priorities.  Land managers must make choices, which some a loath to do.  They want to default to the “natural” option. Unfortunately, there is no natural option, only a variety of different choices for human management. Do we take it back to 1500?  The landscape at that time was already altered by the native populations. Do we guess at what it must have been before humans? Of course, we cannot restore all the species.  Or do we manage for diversity, productivity and robustness?  This would be my option.  

Anyway, fire can be used well or poorly. All fire will produce smoke, but there are better ways of smoke management. A well designed fire will consume much of its own smoke and will not smolder for a very long time.

The picture at top is a fire by the side of Goias 118. I don't think it was a "managed" fire, but you can see by the direction of the flames that it is a backing fire, i.e. it is burning in the direction away from the wind. This produces a cooler fire, not as destructive to the plant life. I wrote a post about this when I was taking the fire class. It is at this link.  You can see the burned over area in the side mirror. Next picture shows some fields on fire. The blackish rocks are below. The plants in the next picture are burned but not killed. Last is a typical Goias landscape as you get near the hills.

August 29, 2011

Live fast; die young; leave a nice looking husk

walking along the sea in Salvador 

I didn’t know much about coconuts and much of what I did know was evidently wrong.  I thought that inside the coconut was a whitish liquid – coconut milk. No, inside the coconut is mostly water. The Brazilians call it aqua de coco. It tastes a lot like ordinary water except it is thicker & is supposed to be good for you. I was offered coconut water lots of places in Salvador and one of the hosts told me the story of coconuts. Many people also like the white coconut meat. I happen not to, but I suppose if you are hungry enough it would be good. I also thought that the coconut was a big seed. It isn’t. There is a single seed inside the nut.  When conditions are right the seed sends roots and stems out those weak spots in the shell, the things that look kind of like a face on the nut. With all these attributes, you can see what a useful thing this would be on the proverbial desert island. 

Agua de Coco stand with coconut palms in background 

The coconuts come in a green husk that floats. That is how coconuts get distributed throughout the world.   The thing falls or is washed into the sea.  The sea-journey and the salt water don’t hurt the coconut. If it washes up on a hospitable beach in a reasonable amount of time, a new coconut palm can be born. That is why coconut palms ring the tropical seas and are a symbol of tropic beaches. 

Coconuts do not live very long, at least for trees. But they grow fast. This is another adaptation to life on the beach.  Roots cannot sink too deep into the shifting sands and over the course of a few decades it is almost certain that a storm will come along that is strong enough to disrupt even a well rooted tree growing not very far above the tide line. So the coconut’s strategy is to live fast, die young and leave a nice looking husk.

Along the sea is Salvador 

My pictures are from along the sea in Salvador. The top two show coconut palms.  In the second picture you can see an agua de coco stand where you can get fresh coconut water.  Notice the big dunes of white sand behind the stand. I don't know the details of how it gets deposited there, but some places along the coast these big dunes block the ocean. Some are covered by vegetation, like the ones in the picture, others are just sand.

August 12, 2011

Heart of the Amazon

Me and the big leafI had never been to the Amazon rain forest before and I am not sure that I have been there now.  Manaus is indeed the heart of the Amazon rain forest, the place where the Rio Negro (Black River) meets the Rio Solimões to form the Amazon.  But Manaus is a very big city.  It has more than 2 million inhabitants and you can easily forget that you are in the Amazon when you are stuck in traffic and surrounded by tall buildings. 

My appointments included the usual meetings with journalists, academics and a stop at the local BNC. These are things I would do in any other city.  I did, however, get to make a stop in the remnant of the forest.  As the city was growing rapidly, a few farsighted people figured that it would be good to have a big green and natural place in the middle of what would become the greater city.  They set aside – and really defended – a large area of natural forest.   It is called the Bosque da Ciência and now features native forests and animals such as manatees and otters that were injured and brought to the place.  

I was a little surprised by the forest.  The trees were not a big as I thought and there was a lot more brush on the ground. I read that rainforests were so dark because of the shade of big trees that there was not so much growing on ground level.  This was not a completely natural place, so maybe it is like our own temperate forests, i.e. thicker when they are reestablishing. 

Amazon forest close up of the understory 

Ancient tree in Bosque da Ciencia in Manaus, BrazilMaybe it sounds strange, but the Amazon forest I saw just reminds me of being around a lot of really big house plants. Many of the species are the ones or like the ones that decorate our windowsills and offices. Look at that picture of me with the giant leaf.  It gives a the thought of falling leaves a menacing aspect. The tree on the side is thought to be the oldest in the park, at least 600 years old. It is mostly hollow and provides a home for all sorts of animals. 

My ostensible reason for visiting the forest was to accompany a group of U.S. youth ambassadors and their Brazilian counterparts, as well as their escorts from the BNC.  I got there before they did, so I had a chance to look around in the company of one of the young Brazilian guides.   It was hot and humid, but I just love being in the woods, no matter where.  I understand, of course, that I couldn’t survive long if I were actually in this wild.  The first thing I noticed was a kind of howling sound.  Big cicadas were responsible. You can see what they look like in the picture nearby. The sound was more musical and a lot less annoying than the kind of mechanical sound similar bugs make in North America. 

I went into a little museum, were I encountered a group of Brazilian school kids.  I was evidently more exotic than the animals.  They literally flocked around and followed me, bashfully saying words in English. It was funny.  I guess Americans are rarer around here than the cool animals. 

Alligator in Amazonia 

Brazilian OtterI got a very interesting fact talking to one of the scientists. She said that they are studying the ecology of the forest in a very broad sense, including studying the habits and culture of the people who live in the woods.  She said that they had to persuade forest dwellers to change their long-held habits. One of the cultural habits that needs to change is the slash and burn agriculture practiced by the natives for generations.   Of course, I knew about slash and burn agriculture.  I learned about it in anthropology classes many years ago.  But I guess I didn’t focus on it in the modern context. 

The natives have been using slash and burn for thousands of years.  It was a sustainable kind of agriculture because native populations were very small.  The burned fields remain productive for only three to five years using the ashes as fertilizer.  After that, the farmers have to move on and clear new land.  Obviously, this destroys lots of forest, but with low population densities the forests grew back before the stone-age farmers came back.  Think about what this means.  It means that the tropical forests are not very old, although a few very old ones would survive in limited areas, especially around rivers or ravines. Even with low densities, it is likely that forests would be slashed and burned every fifty to 100 years.  This seems like a long time and it is a long time in human terms.  But in a forest terms, it is not.  My pine forests go from inception to final harvest in around 35 years.  The rain forest is essentially a kind of extensive farm.  It also means that the trees can grow back rapidly.  It is a hopeful thing.

Cicada in Manuaus 

I bought an interesting book at the airport in Brasilia, “Guia Politicamente Incorrecto da História do Brasil” (A Politically Incorrect Guide to Brazilian History) and read it on the plane to Recife & Manaus. It was the #1 non-fiction best seller on Veja Magazine and featured lots of debunking of popularly held misconceptions.  Among other things, it talked about the treatment of the forests by native Brazilians.  They burned them regularly and it was actually the Jesuits who taught them that the forest should sometimes be left standing.  This is very similar to the case in North America, as I have often written in my forestry blogs. Fire is the favorite tool of stone-age man. It is really the only way they can clear and manage forests.  Stone axes just don’t do the job.  Anyway, my airplane reading fit exactly into my on the ground information.  Sweet. Feeding Mantees 

I want to get a much more in depth study of the rain forests and get to know them in the ways I know my North American woods of home.  It will take a lot of study as well as contact with somebody who really knows the biomes.

My trip to Manaus taught me a couple of things. First, Manaus is a big city that only happens to be in the Amazon. I worry about the urban advance. Second that the Amazon forests were regularly disrupted and burned long before the European arrived.  On the plus side, it means that renewal is possible.

The pictures are explained in the text or need little explanation. The otters are very cute, but  they are aggressive. If the put two of the same gender in the same place, they will kill each other.  They eat mostly fish and breed rapidly. The Amazon manatee you see being bottle fed does not breed very fast. They are at greater risk. The local river dwellers and natives eat them given the chance. The popular local name for them is river cow and some people think of them exactly as that. Come to think of it, we used to call them sea cows before they picked up the less pejorative name of manatee. Manatees are harmless herbivores. Other things inhabit the water, like the alligator or Jacaré.  You can not easily see it laying there in the plants. They have brains the size of a peanut, but they don't need to be very smart to bite down. I am not really very fond of them.

August 04, 2011

Can't Say it Better Myself

I got these recent studies about the effectiveness of good forest management.  I usually don't just do cut and paste, but I wanted to publish these from foreign landowners association.

New Forest Products Lab Report Confirms FLA Position

                           One of the tag lines on our new web site, and one that FLA CEO Scott Jones uses often in his presentations is, “In order to sustain forests, we must sustain the people who own them”. Another is “healthy markets make healthy forests”.

Both of these facts were confirmed loud and clear in a recent Forest Products Laboratory report, Sustainable Development in the Forest Products Industry. Researchers state that “The historical data we examined in this study support the hypothesis that an economically vibrant industrial forest products sector has been key to forest policies and forestry practices that support sustainable timber supply and demand”.

Based on their observations, the authors further conclude that the future direction of forest products technology can have a large influence on sustainability of forests and forest management.

“If future technology and wood demands generate sufficiently high values for timber as a raw material, then historical experience suggests that forests and forest management will thrive; if the value of timber is cheapened, however, through low-value use or insufficient forest product technology development, then forests may face significant challenges regarding their future sustainability.”

The full report can be accessed at the following link

            New Bio-energy Report Confirms Working Forests Better Than Carbon Neutral

A new report from Dovetail Partners concludes “A comprehensive review of research conducted over the past decade reveals convergence in findings that sustainably managed forests can be ‘better than carbon neutral,’ yielding a range of useful products, including energy, while at the same time providing significant carbon storage and emission reduction benefits.”

The report states that “Over 847 billion cubic feet of timber have been harvested from U.S. forests in the past sixty years. This harvest volume is equivalent to a pile of wood measuring 2 miles x 2 miles x 7,600 feet high. Put another way, this is enough wood to create a square foot stack that would reach to the moon and back 334 times! During this same time period, the volume of wood within America’s forests increased by more than 50 percent.”

This and other interesting data prove that long-term sustainability is being achieved. This “must read” report from Dovetail Partners can be viewed at:

June 12, 2011

Forest Pictures - Continued

A few more pictures from the farm visits.

CP forest road

Above is the CP forest road to SR 623. Below are some of the blackberry brambles. A few years ago they formed thickets all over the place. Now they are being shaded out on much of the land.


Below is the pool near the sycamore. We put in some rocks to stop the erosion. It used to be obscured by multiflora rose. I cut a bunch of them out, but most of the job was done by the shade of the growing trees. 

Below shows ferns, which are becoming more common as the trees shade more of the forest floor. 


Below is my American chestnut. I planted two seeds. One came up. 

American chestnut seedling 


June 11, 2011

Farewell Forest For Now

Sycamore trees on Johnsonmatel tree farm 

Alex & I went down to the farms today.  It may be my last time in a long time. There was not much I needed to do. I cut down some of the brush that was shading my bald cypress. We are just a little north & east of the natural range of the bald cypress.  I figure if we have climate change, we will be right in the middle.  Since a cypress can live a couple hundred years, it will spend most of its life in that future.  Above are a row of volunteer sycamore trees.  I trimmed out the extra ones as well as the box elder that were among them. Below is my bald cypress, which is across the little road from those sycamores.  This area is not productive from the forestry point of view, but I am making it aesthetically more what I like.

Bald cypress at Johnsonmatel tree farm 

The meadows are overgrown with yarrow & the white flowering plants are towering over and displacing my clover.  Yarrow is supposed to be a medicinal herb and is supposed to cure toothaches and be a disinfectant for cuts.  I don’t dislike the yarrow, but I liked my clover better.  It has been a little dry lately, which seems to favor the yarrow.   Larry Walker and the hunt club planted some wildlife mixture on the top plot.  It seems to have a variety of things, including at least some corn, sunflower and soy.  Below is the corn-sunflower-soy plot and below that is my overgrown yarrow plow and at the end is the same plot last year about this time.  You can see the whole posting at this link.

corn field for wildlife

We established the plots in 2007.  There was still a lot of clover last year.  Actually, there is still a lot of clover now, but it is under the other stuff.  In any case, what we have is better than what we had.  The wildlife plots are on the old loading decks, used for the harvests.  The soil was compressed and very unattractive.  The meadows now are fairly self-sustaining, although not always in clover.  I still have a little trouble with the tree of heaven.  I am a little worried that the invasive plants will invade while I am in Brazil.  They are always waiting their chance.

Beech forest on Johnsonmatel tree farm

There have been many changes on the farm.  The canopies are closing and as it gets shadier, we have a more open forest. Above is my beech forest, one of my favorite places on the farm.  Below is the creek bed. The creek moved a little in the recent rains.

Genito Creek, Brunswick Co, Johnsonmatel  tree farm 

The Freeman tract is doing well. Undergrowth is already starting to grow. The trees were very close together before the harvest-thinning, so most things were shaded out before. Beyond that, my soils are not really good.  This part of Virginia has very old soils. They did not benefit from the recent glaciation that improved some of the soils in the Midwest. And they were made worse by the cultivation of tobacco & cotton when people didn’t really understand principles of crop rotation. That means much of the land is not very good for crops, which is why it is under pine trees today. I am trying to improve my soils with the clover and biosolids, but there is a long way to go. Below is the newly thinned pines, planted in 1996, with Alex under them for a size comparison.  They grow fast. Now that they are thinned, they will grow even faster.

Alex in front of thinned pines 

15 year old thinned loblolly pines in Brunswick Co Virginia

June 05, 2011

Greg Richard: Virginia Tree Farmer of the Year 2011

Greg Richard Tree Farm 

This is the article I wrote for "Virginia Forests".

You have to make a steep climb on Richard Road to get to Greg Richard’s tree farm near Star Tannery. Walking around his 365 acre farm, you realize that the steep grades and the rocky soils define the land’s management.   Trees find ways to grow among the rocks, but human activities like planting, harvesting and general silvaculture are hard. This didn’t stop Greg and consulting forester Frank Sherwood from doing the right things over several decades.

Wildlife pines at Greg Richard tree farm 

Planning for the future requires understanding what came before, the history of the land. Greg’s land has a story common in the Virginia hills. Much of the natural cover was removed in the 19th Century to feed local furnaces, forges and tanneries. Trees had grown back by the early 20th Century but then the Appalachian forests suffered from the chestnut blight that created thickets of standing dead wood. Chestnuts still sprout from roots and stumps and sometimes grow big enough to produce nuts before the blight get them. Greg’s land still features a few chestnuts like this, the echo of past glory, and Greg carries a walking stick from one of the chestnut shoots.

American chestnut  

On this particular tract, the low point came in 1933, when a fire destroyed most of the cover again. The situation created by that disaster nearly eighty years ago are the ones Greg is working with today.  The trees came in too thick for the soil and water available.  These conditions were made worse by a high grading harvest in the 1960s.  Although Greg and his father Harry performed good forestry practices from the start, good forestry practices really got rolling after the Richard property was certified as a tree farm by the ATFS in 1981.  Greg and Frank Sherwood wrote and implemented a comprehensive plan that included regular thinning and stand improvements.  

Rocky soils under the power lines

Wildlife is more important than in wood and pulp production to Greg Richard and he does not try to maximize profits gained from sales of wood and pulp. This is evident how he manages his property.   Greg clear cut some acreage on the gentler slopes replanted with loblolly pine.  The plantation is small enough for Greg to do things himself, like use a backpack spray to control hardwoods.  Greg saw the silver lining in a recent utility decision to widen its right of way that crosses Greg’s property.  He was not pleased to have more of his land under the power lines and taken out of forest, but he made a virtue out of necessity by establishing warm season grasses and soft edges where the surrounding forests meet the vegetation under the lines. The open areas under the lines also feature small dew ponds, which provide habitat for reptiles and amphibians, as well as enhancing the land for birds and mammals.  Most of the rest of the property is covered with secondary oak forest of relatively low quality because of soil quality and the unfortunate history of the high grading in generations past. Over time the oak was being replaced by more shade tolerant red maple. This was not a welcome development from the forestry point of view. Greg and Frank set out to change that by removing many of the inferior trees and creating openings that let in enough sunlight for oak regeneration.

Nature regrowth on Greg Richard tree farm 

Greg knows that it took a lifetime for the forest to get to be the way it is today and he accepts that it will take a lifetime to make it right.  The joy of forestry comes from being part that will last a long time, maybe many lifetimes.  Greg is pleased that his daughter is starting to take more interest in the land and contours of its changing face. All of us who plant trees and care for forests are aware that much of our work will be for the generations that follow.  And sometimes it takes the next generation a while to come to their own understanding of what we have done and of their place.

Greg Richard with chestnut sprouts

This is how it happened with Greg.  Although the core of the property is his old family place, Greg did not spend his life with forestry on the land he now owns.  Most of his adult life, most of Greg’s career was spent doing remodeling and construction in and around College Park, Maryland.  Greg ran his own firm called National Home Improvement.  He retired from his active business in 2004, although he still does some work for a few old customers who trust his work.   As with forestry, Greg was in it for the long haul.  Now he has more time to devote to forestry.

People who love their land, landowners like Greg, see their property not as it is now but as it will be.  The land is a place of aspiration.  I enjoyed sharing Greg’s aspirations as we walked his land.  He can see the pines he recently established as the mature pine forest that will cover someday cover the lower slopes.  He has the vision to see that his small trees will be the big oaks crowning the hills.  And he can understand the wildlife corridors that will tie all the parts of his property into a sustainable and integrated whole.   We do our duty if we leave our land better than we found it.  Greg has done his part. 

The Virginia Tree Farm Committee congratulates Greg Richard for doing the things and meriting the title of Virginia Tree Farmer of the Year in 2011; we also congratulate Frank Sherwood for helping know what to do. 

Pictures:  Top show Greg Richard and his tree farm sign.  Next is wildlife ponds. They are rain fed. Richard and his father established them decades ago.  Following is a American chestnut husk, showing that the chestnut sprouts still produce seeds more than a century after the blight arrived in North America.  The next picture shows the power lines that cross the property. It also shows the rocky nature of the soil. This limits the type of forests that can be established on the land and virtually precludes most forms of crop agriculture.  Below that is the natural regeneration. This is what the forest looks like if you do nothing.  The last picture is Greg with an American chestnut sprout. They grow from the roots and get about that big before the blight gets them again.

May 30, 2011

May 2011 Forest Visit

Boys walking in the woods.  

The boys and I went down to the farms to talk to the hunt clubs and take a look at the forest. There has been a lot of rain recently, so everything was growing well. The McAden Hunt club replanted one of the food plots.  Corn and sunflowers are coming up. The sunflowers will be very pretty in a couple of months. I asked Alex to go down and take a picture for me. 

The deer plots are becoming more important to maintain a healthy herd. The deer population had burgeoned and there were too many, but the resurgence of local bear populations & the arrival of coyotes have checked the growth. The coyotes, especially, are hard on the fawns. These things are very dynamic and you never get a permanent solution.

Clear cut and no cut 

I agreed to sell six acres of land to the Reedy Creek Hunt Club. They want to build a clubhouse, skinning shed & dog training places. I am never enthusiastic about giving up land for any reason, but I think the relationship with the club trumps six acres out of 300. RCHC seems like they want to keep the rural character of the place and I want to encourage the local hunting culture, so it is a good thing.

clover field 

There was no particularly urgent work to be done. We need to plant our longleaf pines this fall or next spring and I want to do an understory burn followed by biosolids applications in 2012 or 2013. I cut down a couple of box-elders that were infringing on my cypress, but that is only a kind of a hobby action.

Corn and sunflower 

Of course, I will not be able to get to my woods very often with my Brazil assignment over the next three years. That is why I took the boys down. I want them to do the routine consultations.

Genito Creek at our tree farm

It was a kind of hazy-humid day, so my pictures seem a little washed out. The top photo shows the boys walking up the road in our recently thinned pines. Espen was trying to skip stones. I told him that it worked better on water. The second picture shows our clearcut that will be planted with longleaf next to the completely uncut pines that are providing the control plot. Below that is our clover field, now getting overgrown. Next is the new field planted with a variety of plant for wildlife, including soy, corn and sunflowers. Just above this paragraph is Genito Creek that runs through our land. It looks like chocolate milk because of recent heavy rains.  It will clear out in a couple days. The silt forms natural levies along the banks. The trees arching over it are river birch, the southern member of the birch family. Below is the bend in my road. There is something attractive about a road bending into a forest. I liked it when I first saw this place, when the trees were knee high and each year it gets better.

Bend in the road in the JohnsonMatel loblolly pine forest in Brunswick Co VA

May 19, 2011

Fog Season & the Woods of Home

Lake Michigan shore line

For two days, the fog & the sun fought over a half mile of shoreline w/o conclusion. It never pushed more than a quarter mile inland and didn’t hang more than a quarter mile out in the lake.   It was a funny kind of fog, very bright. It could make you squint.

Runner at Lake Michigan 

I was down at the Lake four separate times, so I saw the variety.  Chrissy (sister) and I got down to South Shore under sun and blue sky. By the time we walked to Bay View beech, it was so foggy that you couldn’t see clearly even ten meters ahead, as you can see in the picture above, with the runner coming toward us out of the fog.  It was just a little like a soft focus picture by time we got back along Superior Street, where we saw the deer wandering the roads, as you see below.

Deer crossing Superior Ave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin 

Chrissy J and I went down to Grant Park.  Actually, I ran from Warnimont to Grant ravines and met Chrissy there.  We walked done the Seven Bridges trail, built by the CCC many years ago.  Unfortunately, one of the bridges has collapsed.  I don’t think they are going to fix it, since they just removed the debris w/o doing much of anything else.  I have a theory.  I think they cannot repair the bridge because if they did they would have to upgrade it and the whole trail to make it ADA compatible, which would cost big bucks and ruin the ravine by putting up a wide, sloping paved path.  Nothing can be done inexpensively anymore.

Wildflowers on the forest floor at Grant Park 


Grant Park is a unique part of southern Wisconsin in that it is covered in beech-maple-basswood forests.  You don’t find beech trees growing naturally even a few miles inland.   The Lakeside in Milwaukee County is the eastern edge of the natural range.  It is evidently the result of a subtle difference in climate and humidity.   We have beech trees in Virginia. They tend to grow on north facing slopes or in ravines, places with more moisture laden air.  Virginia is hotter than Wisconsin, but also more humid.  Near Lake Michigan, there is lots of fog.  As I wrote above, the fog pushes in and lingers only about a half mile inland.  In Grant Park area, it is about up to Lake Drive, more or less where the beech trees leave off.

Jack in the pulpit at Grant Park 


I grew up with the eastern forests, so they are what I think of as home and I have seen the seasons of its changing face.  In spring-time, just before the leaves come out, the wildflowers on the ground have their chance. They have to finish their generation before the canopy closes and the leaves put deep shadows on the ground. The flowers you see above are Jack-in-the-pulpit. If you look at the flower, you can see the pulpit and Jack is in it.  Below are trilliums. Their seeds are spread by ants.  The northern broadleaf deciduous beech-maple-basswood forest is too shady in summer to support much understory vegetation. In Virginia on our tree farms, the basswoods are replaced by tulip poplars and there are red maples instead of sugar maples.  The understory vegetation is also much thicker.  It took me a while to get used to Virginia.  Now it seems strange to see the more open woods of Wisconsin. There is also a big difference in color schemes. Virginia forest soils are reddish-orange. Wisconsin soils are brown or black.

Trilliums in mixed forest in Grant Park, South Milwaukee

May 03, 2011

Leafing Out & Buckeyes

Buckeye trees 

I am down at the Main State again, very long days. I have to get on my bike before 6 am and I am not done until 6 pm.  I am doing the nuts & bolts press work, clearances etc. I don’t like it very much, but I don’t have to do it very long. I am being useful. Usually, I like my job more, so a little payback is fair.


I do enjoy riding my bike in the pre-dawn semi-light. I love that time of day, but I am too lazy to get up unless there is something coercing me.  I also get to enjoy the twilight at the end of the day.  The trees are almost fully leafed out now.  I took some pictures.

The pictures show buckeye trees along (fittingly) Buckeye Street in Potomac Park. The buckeye is the state tree of Ohio.  It is a relative of the horse chestnut and, as you can see, looks a lot like it. I think the flowers are the result of selective breeding.  The natural trees I have seen are not as colorful.

Buckeye flowers

March 23, 2011

Spreading Good Forestry

Humans have affected the environment for many years.  Europe’s beech forests grow mostly on areas that were once cleared by Neolithic farmers. Native Americans’ fires created the beautiful and productive “natural” ecosystems that greeted the Jamestown settlers. Pockets of extremely fertile soils in the Amazon, called terra preta  (black soil), were created by humans.  The surrounding soils are often very poor and do not retain much carbon in the soils of retain water.  Naturalists have long recognized the crucial role tree islands  play in in enriching the wetland ecosystem and providing habitat for animals like birds and panthers in the Everglades.  Archeologists recently discovered that many of the islands started as ancient garbage dumps.   The garbage heaps gave trees fertile places to root.   As the water levels rose over the centuries and flooded the surrounding land, the action of the trees drawing up water and nutrients stabilized the islands and made them what they are.

Human activity in nature can be harmful.  But it can also be beneficial.  Natural systems are living, changing and renewable.   There is not a finite amount of nature that we “use up”.  We live in a living and renewing system, always have and always will. 

Our forests in America are healthy and getting healthier with good management.  The Global Forest Resources Assessment  is not as optimistic about forests in South America or Asia, but our history, there offers reason for hope in the long run.  American forests were in poor shape a century ago.  One of the great American ecological success stories of the Twentieth Century was the return of healthy forests. Our American Tree Farm System  (ATFS) was developed in 1941 as part of this success story.  Since then, some of the first tree farms have been harvested, often clear cut in the case of southern pine, three of four times and have never been better.   ATFS certifies more than 25 million acres of privately owned forestland managed by over 90,000 family forest landowners committed to excellence in forest stewardship, with wood certified from harvest to final user by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).   

Good management practices and certifications are spreading to places where forest conservation has been viewed with less enthusiasm.  When people understand the long-term benefits of good forest management, they get less interested in short term exploitation.  And when governments support landowners with strong property rights protections and sensible laws, a virtuous circle begins to coalesce, as it did in the United States.  Today only around 10% of the wood sold globally comes from certified forests, but this is growing.  The largest certification international network is PEFC, currently comprising thirty-five independent national forest certification programs with 510 million certified acres.  ATFS is in the PEFC family.  Among the countries with PEFC certified forests are Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Spain Brazil and Malaysia.  

We human are blessed with intelligence that gives us the ability to contemplate the natural system.  This also endows us with the ability and the responsibility to made good choices, ones that sustain our environment for ourselves, our children and for other living things. We can do it.

March 20, 2011

Owls, Hawks & Falcons

Great horned owl 

Alex and I attended a lecture at Smithsonian about raptors.  Hawks and other raptors were in serious trouble into the 1970s, when they were being killed by hunting and poisonings of the environment.  But today all significant species have come back and are now very common throughout the U.S.  Hawks have taken care of lots of the pigeon, squirrel and rabbit problems in Washington and other big cities.  I had noticed that there were fewer pigeons around lately.Sparrow hawk 

I learned a few things I didn’t know.  For example, the tufts on the heads of owls are not ears.  Owls’ ears are placed unevenly on their heads, with one lower on the head than the other. When owls move their heads in circles, what they are doing is listening differentially to identify the source and distance of objects. When owls go after prey, they are more often using their sense of hearing than sight. The speakers said that the owl can pinpoint a prey a hundred yards away by sound alone.

A few other facts - You can tell falcons from hawks by the shape of their wings.  Hawks have rounded wings, while falcon wings are pointed. Great horned owls have no sense of smell, so they are one of the only birds to regularly prey on skunks. The speaker said that great horned owls usually stink on ice as a result.  Hawks have phenomenal vision, but they kind of zoom in on prey and do not see things not in their target zone. This is why they sometimes get hit by cars as they go after something near a road.

Barn owl 

One of the most interesting things about the lecture came from the demographics of the audience.  The room was packed with at least a hundred people.  When one of the speakers asked how many people had heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh (from ancient Mesopotamia; it mentioned falcons) dozens of hands went up.  This is not something that most people know about.  On the other hand, when the speaker asked how many people in the audience were hunters, nobody raised a hand.  I might have paid no attention, but I know so many hunters and down in the south everybody hunts.  Washington does not really represent America.   I have been hunting a couple times, but I am such a bad shot that I never got anything.  Alex went hunting rabbits with the club and achieved similar results.  We didn’t raise our hands either for Gilgamesh (which we have both read) or hunting, so I suppose the sample was not exactly fair, but still in the main it is interesting.

March 01, 2011

A Great Schism



Some people don’t like to make the distinction between conservation & preservation.  It is true that they overlap. Conservation is the one with the Teddy Roosevelt tradition. Conservationists indeed aim to preserve nature, but also recognize the special place humans will always have in it. Hunters are often great conservations, so are foresters and even loggers. These guys are rarely welcome at a meeting of true preservationists. Preservationists on the other hand can count among their ranks deep environmentalists, who sometimes believe that earth would be better off w/o humans, and animal rights activists, who sometimes put the “rights” of the beasts above the needs of humans.  

Deep environmentalism has all the attractions of a religion. Its strongest adherents resemble puritans in many ways, but there is no redemption for them or the human race. Of course, this is an extreme view held by fringe people, but the pure preservationist ideal infects many in the environmental movement & even more casual adherents often see preservation as the true religion. 

I am agnostic about this, but I don’t believe in intelligent design. That means that there is nothing humans can do that will “destroy” nature because “nature” is only a human concept. In the billions of year of earth history before human consciousness developed, plants and animals lived and died w/o consequence.  When MOST of the world’s species died out at the end of the Paleozoic era, it didn’t make a bit of difference. The disappearance of the dinosaurs was mourned by nobody until the modern kids found out about the great extinction and called it a tragedy.

I was happy to read the most recent Nature Conservancy Magazine. In an article entitled, “Beyond Man vs. Nature”, the Conservancy’s chief scientist explains that biodiversity and/or simple preservation should not be top goals. “The ultimate goal,” he says, “is better management of nature for human benefit.”  Follow the links if you want the details.  Suffice to say, everything in the article makes sense to me. 

Of course, there are places we choose to preserve mostly untouched.  I have visited the Grand Canyon four times. It still fills me with awe. We should preserve the Grand Canyon for future generations.  Let me modify that.  We should conserve the place. I enjoyed the Canyon by walking to the bottom on trails carved out by human hands.  I drove up there on roads build by men and machines. W/o those human improvements, the Canyon would be as inaccessible to me as the mountains of the moon and as meaningful as some great canyon that might exist on Venus or Mars.

We are humans.  We can understand the world only with our human intelligence and perceptions.  What gives nature meaning and what allows us to get meaning from nature is the interaction of us with it.  An old epistemological conundrum asks, “If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”  It is an insoluble problem unless you add more detail. If you are talking about the sound waves that our human ears interpret as sound, a tree falling in the woods certainly does this. But a sound also requires interpretation.  If nobody is there to hear it, all we have is physical phenomenon. 

My guess is that preservationists would generally say it makes a sound, even if nobody hears it.  A conservationist like me might be a little more human-centric and say that it does not. For me, sixty million years of dinosaur history had no meaning until it was discovered by human consciousness.

I have written on many occasions that sustainable and natural are overlapping contexts, but they are not the same and that sustainable, in both natural and human influenced system doesn’t mean something that last forever. Nothing lasts forever. Sustainable just means a system that goes a long time adapting to continuous change. A good conservation strategy strives for a healthy human population interacting with a healthy environment. We don’t have to keep our human hands off, in fact we probably should not leave very much of anything untouched. Human interaction does not always profane nature; the interaction done right can ennoble both. 

Conservation is a higher order activity compared with mere preservation, which is an abdication of responsibility in the guise of wisdom.  Conservation demands that you apply intelligence and ecological factors to sustaining a system that works for man and beast. We humans live in this world. If/when there is a world w/o us, it really doesn’t matter anymore. As long as we are here, however, it is our job to do things right.

February 26, 2011

Where My Trees Went

Truck picking up pulp wood at KapStone in NC 

Forestry is special in its commitment to long-term stewardship and sustainably. I got involved in forestry because I love almost everything about it. I just feel happier in the woods. Alex has been coming with me on some of my visits.  He commented that everybody seems happy in the woods and I think they are.  The foresters are happy, so are the wildlife biologists, loggers and landowners.  

Crane for moving wood 

Forestry provides a great combination between short term efforts and long term dreams.  You get an uncommon combination that includes choices & accomplishments you can make along with something much bigger, on which all our success depends, that we can spend a lifetime trying to understand. I don’t have musical or artistic talent. I feel I have a kind of expression like those things in nature. I understand that my forest is part of a something bigger. I checked out where the water that ran off my land ended up. I posted stories about my harvesting and planning for future forests.  A couple days ago I got to see where the thinned trees go and how they turn into paper products.


The trees harvested off my land last month went to KapStone Paper Mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. The mill has been there since 1907, although not under the same ownership. The mill takes only pine and makes the kind of brownish paper used for bags and packing materials.  Next time I buy a bag of Kingsford charcoal, maybe the bag will have some of my fiber in the paper.  They produce paper with something called the Kraft process. You can read about it at the link.  The Kraft process uses a wider variety fiber sources than most other pulping processes. The important part for me is that it can use all types of wood, including the resinous southern pine that we grow.


They start off chipping the trees. The chips are heated and treated chemically. For the details of how this works, check out the link I mentioned above. They brought out three cups of fiber and water from various stages of refinement. The liquid was a kind of brownish color. I couldn’t help but think of the time Chrissy & I visited the Jim Beam distillery. They both have a kind of mash.  Of course, it was not the same thing in any other sense and there was no tasting at the end of this tour.

stacked wood 

Paper making today is capital intensive and minutely coordinated. The big machines – They give them names, BTW, one called the Dixie Queen, for example - represent a big investment.  There is not much warehouse space to store the finished product, so everything runs through as quickly as possible. Trucks and trains are standing by to take away the rolls of paper as soon as they are good to go. Other inputs are also ready just when they need to be. The mill uses only virgin wood fiber to make paper, i.e. there is no post-consumer content. Lots of the chemicals used in the paper process are recycled over and over again. It is all a chain, with one event depending on the ones before, and since any stoppage is very expensive, they spend a lot of time making sure nothing breaks down.  It doesn’t take many employees to make the plant run. It surprises me every time I visit a modern facility. Factories were full of workers when I started working back in the early 1970s. Historical pictures and movies tell me that they were even more crowded before that. Parts of the KapStone facility obviously were designed for lots more workers, necessary with older technology.

The best part of the tour for me was visiting the guys working on the lines.  It is the kind of thing that restores your faith in the American worker. I met skilled and involved workers at every step.  They understood not only their own jobs, but evidently how what they did fit into the whole picture.  And they were eager to explain how everything worked.   

Most of the operation is computerized these days. The paper runs past at around 30MPH.  One of the guys explained that at that speed any little thing can cause a break, but the cause of the break will be way down the line.  They have cameras constantly recording the process, so they can go back until they find the place where it went wrong. This allows them to continually improve the process. One of the guys said something that was basic quality-control but worth repeating.  Results are what count, he said, but in order to get good results you have to have a process that you can observe study and improve. If you have the guys on the line articulating things like this, you know that your colleagues are really on the team. 

Paper-making requires lots of water. The water comes from the Roanoke River. The Roanoke river discharges into the Chowan and then into Albermarle Sound, the same places the water from my farms ends up.  I know it is silly but I feel a little propritary about it and I wanted to make sure the water was okay. They showed me their water treatment facility. During the short tour, I didn’t look at it in great detail. It has the usual settling, aeration & filtering. It was a serious operation. Remaining solids were deposited in a landfill on the site, which provides good wildlife habitat.  Our guides told us about improvements to the paper-making process that allow more paper to be produced with less waste. As a result, the landfill is filling up much less rapidly than anticipated.  The KapStone plant produces much of its own energy, producing energy from wood residues and from “black liquor,” a residue that remains after the paper-making process. In the old days, Black liquor used to be dumped into rivers and streams. Today it is a valuable biofuel that helps power the plant. After the black liquor has been burned off, chemicals used in the paper-making process are recovered from the ash and recycled. The KapStone plant relies on renewable biofuels  for about 60% of its energy needs. 

I was satisfied with KapStone’s commitment to the environment. It is important to me to know that my trees are grown, harvested and processed in an acceptable way. I can watch the growing part myself, but I have to rely on good people for the other steps. I found some. 

There are three things that I notice when visiting industrial plants. First, as I mentioned above, I am surprised at how few people it takes to produce so much. Second, there is so little inventory.  I remember working in factory warehouses groaning with products.  We filled orders from accumulated stock in those days. Today the products move right through plant, from raw material to buyer.  The third thing that has changed is that less is wasted, which translates into more efficient production and less pollution (which is waste, after all.) 

Let me tell you about the pictures. The top shows a truck loading pulp to move in the yard.  Below is a stationary crane that can move the wood around. Those are obvious, but the third picture down is a little harder to recognize.  It is a "de-barker" and it works very simply. The logs go inside and roll around against each other.  It knocks most of the bark off.  Below the de-barker is Alex, all grown up and manly looking.  The last picture is just stacked wood.  I just thought it looked cool.

Here are some related links

Nucor - another great North Carolina firm with great workers

ArborTech saw mill


Roanoke Rapids


February 22, 2011

Planning for the Forestry Future

Longleaf pine in field 

We have big plans for my little piece of forest. I say “we” because the planning has grown beyond my expertise. Yesterday, Alex & I met with Eric Goodman from Kapstone, Frank Meyer from Gasburg Forestry and Katie Martin, a wildlife biologist to talk about plans for the Freeman property. The local hunt club also has a stake in all this, so I have to bring them in too.  As I described before, the woods have been thinned to different densities, to see which ones produce the best harvests. We will also use different management regimes to test for different outcomes. Some parts will be biosolids; others will be burned or treated chemically.   

This will be a kind of demonstration forest for this part of the Virginia Piedmont. Already there is talk of bringing 4H, Boy Scouts and school groups. We will probably put in a path. Although Brunswick County is a center for forestry in Virginia, there are few places nearby to see forestry at work. The advantage of our land is that it will have several different types of cutting and management within a short distance. I think it is important for people not involved in the business to understand it, especially understand the renewable and sustainable aspects.  Most people don’t understand this part. It shows in everyday expressions, like “Save a tree: don’t use so much paper.” There are plenty of reasons not to waste paper, mostly related to the energy it takes to make and move it, but using less paper in any reasonable sense does not make a difference in saving trees. You have to thin trees, whether or not you can sell the pulp to make paper. If you don’t thin, they die anyway from overcrowding or bug and if you don’t thin, even more of them die in these ways. It is like planting flowers or vegetables in a garden too close together. Land can be overgrazed and overused. It can also be “over-treed.” And the trees grow back. This is what I have learned over and over again as I look at harvested timber tracts. As I take pictures and document the growth of my forests, it is clear to see. I expect to have more total green growing in my forest next year, after the thinning, than we had this year before.

One of the more interesting parts of the plan is longleaf pine planting. We plan to mix longleaf with loblolly.  Frank looked at the dirt and told us that we needed to plant to longleaf farther down the slope, where the soil had more sand and less clay and where the microclimate would be a little more moderate. That is the kind of knowlege you can get only from experience and that is why I need the help of all these people who know local conditions so well. If things go as planned, we can harvest the loblolly in fifteen years leaving a stand of longleaf. Longleaf pine used to be very common in the south, but have lost ground, since they require specific conditions; most important is burning to get them started. In other words, longleaf pine is a fire dependent species that didn’t do as well when fires became less common.

Katie will come up with recommendations for wildlife habitat under the power lines. We can plant warm season grasses and a mix of wildflowers, she says. It won't cost me very much, since we probably can get some cost shares from Dominion Power (it is under their lines and our activities will save them the worry of cutting as well as provide a little "green PR") These plantings will help restore something like the habitat common in this part of Virginia hundreds of years ago. It will also give us a chance to see how well these habitats respond under local conditions. 

In some ways I am more excited about the grassy ecosystem than about the trees. I love trees and the longleaf will be treasures, if we can get them to grow well. (Once they get going, they are very robust, but the start is tricky, especially where we are, near the natural edge of the biome.) But as we talked about the future of this piece of ground, and plans for activities years from now, the big thinning to take place maybe in 2026, I realized that my chances of seeing big longleaf growing on my land are small and my chances of seeing a mature ecosystem is zero. I was glad to have Alex with me. He can bore young people with stories of the creation, when he is an old guy. 

The grass and forbs will mature this year and a few years from now they will form a working ecology.  I have reasonable confidence that I will be around to see that. The trees belong to the next generation. Understanding that fills me with an exquisite mixture of sadness and joy. I am glad that something will be around after I'm gone, but it reminds me that I will be gone.

The picture up top shows some longleaf seedlings near the Virginia-North Carolina border. They are just coming out of the "grass stage", called that because it is really hard to tell the little pines from the grass around them.  You would not be able to see them during the summer, since they would be covered by and the same color as the grass. The grassy vegetation has to be controlled. In the natural run of things, a fire would do that, allowing the pines time to grow above the grass.  I was told that this was an old farm field, so the trees got a head start before the grasses came in. Some of the bigger ones in this stand have done that, as you can see in the picture. 

Other forestry articles

Latest post on the CP forest 

January 31, 2011

Food TOO

They seemed to be going in opposite directions. The report I watched on “Globo Rural” talked about transgenetic crops. Much of the soy produced in Brazil (in the U.S. too, BTY) is genetically modified. The reasons are clear. It is easier to grow. One farmer in the State of Parana explained why he went completely over to genetically modified soy. He could use a lot less fertilizer, almost no herbicides or pesticides and he did not have to run his machines in his fields nearly as much.   

Transgenetic foods are labeled with a “T” in a triangle, so that consumers can recognize them. Evidently some people don’t like them as much and so are willing to pay more for non-T-modified products. Non-T foods are also sold to the EU. People there, no doubt egged on by strong domestic interest groups, want non-T products and are rich enough to pay the higher prices. I am not really sure about that term non-modified, since all the field crops we grow are significantly modified by plant breeding. I chose to use that instead of “natural” since they are also very far from whatever ancestor they had in nature. This leads me to the second article.

The second report on “Jornal Nacional” talked about organically grown food and labels proving that the food on the shelves is organic. 

To some people this means natural, but all that it really means is that the farmer did not use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.AND for the time being “organic” does not include foods genetically modified by specific biotechnological means. This distinction is also important, since almost all the foods we eat are genetically modified.All the apples you eat, for example are from clones.Apples do not breed predictably.The only way to guarantee a red delicious apple is to clone it.Every one of the red delicious apples (or other varieties as well) are the identical tree, genetically). But people who care about labels consider plant breeding a different category.

Transgenetic foods are labeled with a “T” in a triangle, so that consumers can recognize them. Evidently some people don’t like them as much and so are willing to pay more for non-modified products. I am not really sure about that term non-modified, since all the field crops we grow are significantly modified by plant breeding.  I chose to use that instead of “natural” since they are also very far from whatever ancestor they had in nature.  This leads me to the second article.

The second report on “Jornal Nacional” talked about organically grown food and labels proving that the food on the shelves is organic. To some people this means natural, but all that it really means is that the farmer did not use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.  AND for the time being “organic” does not include foods genetically modified by specific biotechnological means. This distinction is also important, since almost all the foods we eat are genetically modified.  All the apples you eat, for example are from clones.  Apples do not breed predictably. The only way to guarantee a red delicious apple is to clone it. Every one of the red delicious apples (or other varieties as well) are actually the identical tree, genetically). But people who care about labels consider plant breeding a different category.  

People favor organics for a variety of reason. Some people think the organic products are better for them.  Others say the organic products taste better. (This could be true, although probably more because organics often are grown by smaller, local operators who can cater to tastes.)  But a big part of the choice is that organics are perceived to be better for the environment. This last is not true. 

Organic farmers tend to be less productive (per unit of labor and land) than those who use a wider variety of techniques. I don’t want to make too big a distinction between organic and non-organic. Much of “non-organic” production, BTW, is very organic.  Dairy farmers, for example, produce and use tons of organic manure and most farmers follow rotations, planting nitrogen fixing legumes, for example, which add nutrients and organic materials to the soils. No farmer uses only synthetic methods. The difference is the organic farmer will not use any synthetic products in addition to organic ones. This makes them less productive, which is why organic products cost more.  But the environmental cost is harder to understand.  Less productivity means that more labor and land must be used to produce the same amounts of food, which means more land must be cultivated, leaving less land in a “wild” state. 

It seems to me that one of the best ways around this dilemma would be transgenetic crops.  As the farmer in Parana said, he chose to plant transgenetic soya because he could use less fertilizer, less herbicide, less pesticide and he needed to use his machines less in the field, i.e. burned less fossil fuel in the cultivation of his crops.   It seems like a win-win to me. 

Transgenetic crops can be very good for the environment since they require less of all the inputs that currently cause concern. Properly deployed, transgenetic crops could solve, or at least address the problem of lower yields for so-called organic crops. Something that produces more, on less land, with fewer inputs of fertilizer, herbicides & pesticides and lets farmers use less fossil fuel should be welcomed, don’t you think? Maybe we should come up with a new category that is environmentally friendly. It could include organic products and transgenetic ones that use fewer of those inputs above.

We can call it trans-genetically- organic. How about this? We call it a Transgenetic- Organic-Operation for food production. The label can be “Food TOO.”

January 24, 2011

January Forestry Visit


Let me finish off my pictures from my forest visit. I went to both the tree farms. Let me caveat that this is the least attractive time of the year to visit, but also the most revealing because all the summer vegetation is gone and the stalks are as far down as they will ever be. I saw some ice-storm-wind damage at the CP tract. I didn’t take any pictures. I think that most of the trees will recover. Few are broken; a few are bent or leaning. The water is all running very clean. The boys and I laid some rip-rap last year and that succeeded in stopping erosion on the first little stream.

More about forestry is at this link

I like the stream management zones because they have big trees. They are mixed woods, with lots of big beech trees, as well as all sorts of oaks and tulip trees. There is lots of holly in the understory. Above is a picture of the SMZ where the road crosses taken with my new panoramic camera feature. Below is another beech showing the scares of a fire many years ago. Beech have thin bark, so it must not have been too hot a fir. The SMZs are moist, so maybe the fire couldn't take hold.This tree is at the edge of the SMZ, so what I have not figured out is why the fire scar is facing TOWARD the moister ground and water of the SMZ.


Below shows the roots of another beech reaching down the hill at the SMZ.  It doesn't have any significance. I just thought it was an interesting picture.  That tree is only a few yards from the fire scare tree, but it I couldn't find any evidence that one burned. Maybe it all healed over. Eventually, the evidence gets covered.Teh rough bark probably hides some of that. As a city boy, I notice something else strange about my beech trees.  They don't have initials carved into them. Beech bark is very soft and in any urban park they are covered with marks from generations of kids.


Below are rocks on the Freeman tract. We are not far from the Vulcan Quarry and I have a lot of boulders on this property. The rocks are attractive.  They demonstrate again the truth that value depends on location. I see boulders over at the garden center that cost hundreds of dollars.  My problem is that I cannot move these things with any reasonable amount of effort. 


The bottom picture is one of the loading decks used for the recent harvest. They did a good job of protecting the soil.  It is hard to see, but it is not packed down. This spring, the vegetation will grow profusely, creating great forest edge and bobwhite quail habitat. I will take another picture in June. It will be very different.

January 23, 2011

A Great Forestry Job

14 year old pine trees thinned to 100 basal area

I visited the farm to check on the thinning. You can see the plan at this link. Frank Meyer and Gasburg Timber did a great job. If this sounds like an endorsement, it is. You can see Gasburg loggers in action (on a different tract) at the links here and here. You can see for yourself from the pictures.  They left healthy trees w/o signs of damage from the machines or activities.  You won’t be able to see how they took care of the soils at the loading decks and used the slash to cushion the weight of the machines in the stands of trees. The picture above shows the "lightly thinned" trees, leaving a basal area of 100. Below is the stand from the front gate.

Pines thinned to 100 basal area.  

below is a heavier thinning, down to 80 basal area. A little more than half the total trees were removed. With the 100 BA it is a little less than half. I like the park-like appearance. It reminds me of the ponderosa pine out west. And for the first time I was able to walk through the woods in relative comfort. But this is humid loblolly Virginia, not dry SW ponderosa pine forests. The openness won't last. When the sun hits the ground, the brush will grow thick. By June, there will be chest high green and probably prickly. Good for the wildlife (the quail will love the overgrown corridors); hard on the guy (i.e. me) walking through. 

89 BA 14 year old pine 

Below is the 80 BA from the road. You can see my truck on the top of the hill, for comparison.  These trees were planted in 1996, so they have been there for 14 years and are 15 years old. 

89 BA pines  

The thinning will allow the trees to grow a lot faster. They were just about reaching the point where they would compete too much with each other for light, water and nutrients. Now there will be enough of everything. The decaying slash will provide nutrients for the next couple years. After that, when the canopy closes again, I will do a burn of the undergrowth and then apply biosolids. Everything in the appropriate time. Feed the trees when they need it and can use it best. There would not be much use doing those things now. I would be afraid to burn with all that slash and if we apply biosolids before the trees can shade out out the brush, biosolids will just make it grow that much faster. I have nothing against brush, but I am not in the brush business.

Below shows the stumps from the thinning. Below that shows one of the stumps with my foot for comparison. Notice from the rings that the tree grew consistently fast, but this was probably the last year it would do that before the competition set in. All the trees would grow slower and within a few more years, some of them die, doing no good for anybody and creating both fire hazards and an invitation to pests, like southern pine beetles. 


Stump for comparision 15 year old loblolly 

It is hard to tell, because they are well camouflaged, but below are wild turkeys. I couldn't get a great picture because they fly off when they see you. I don't have the patience or skill to do active good wildlife photography. I like to take pictures of trees. They don't spook or move. Turkeys have good color vision. I was wearing my red coat, so they could see me a long way away. There were at least ten of them.


I went to the other forest too and have some pictures and comments from that one. I will write some more tomorrow.  

January 06, 2011

Cooper's Hawk

Chicken hawk 

I think this is a Cooper's hawk, also called a chicken hawk. Hawks are more and more common and I even see eagles sometimes near the Potomac, but I never get pictures because they are on the fly. This one was chasing something by flying and then running on the ground, so I got the picture. Whatever it was after got away. The photo is not perfectly focused because I still had to shoot fast and the light was not great.

According to what I read, these birds eat other birds. I have noticed there are a lot fewer pigeons and I think the resurgent hawk population is one of the reasons. That alone would make the hawks a good thing in my book. A pigeon must be an easy meal for a hawk. This one was right next to Glebe Road just a little north of Henderson, in a fairly built up area. I read that hawks have adapted well to cities. Some of types actually prefer urban living because there are lots of slow witted pigeons and fat squirrels and tall buildings provide many of the attributes of cliffs.

I saw a really majestic bird up close a few months ago on Independence Ave. It swooped right past me, actually frightening a woman on sidewalk in front of me. It was a kind of white color. I think it was an osprey. It was bigger and more impressive than the one above, but it was long gone before I could even get my camera out.

December 22, 2010

New Forestry Plan

 Property map

There is an exciting (at least for me) development in my forestry business. I am working with Eric Goodman from the KapStone Mill in Roanoke Rapids, NC to make our Freeman property into a kind of experimental/demonstration tract. 

We are going to thin to different densities, with two residual basal area targets of 80 & 100. In addition to that, we will have a five acre control block where no thinning or treatment will be done and another five acre area (labeled “CC”) that will clear cut and replanted with a combination of loblolly and longleaf next year. 

Planting longleaf is particularly interesting. Longleaf pine (pinus palustris) was once common throughout the south. It is a beautiful big tree, that forms in grassy groves and park-like palisades. But it is hard to grow and fire dependent, so it has not been propagated as much loblolly.

A National Wildlife Federation study says that longleaf pine ecosystems may be particularly well adapted to expected climate changes. The longleaf is well adapted to extremes that might become more common in the Southeast. You can read the study at this link about longleaf and climate change.

After thinning, we will experiment with other management techniques, such as burning, herbicides, pruning and fertilization.  It seems like it will keep us busy.

The picture/map up top shows the plan.

December 06, 2010

Loaded for Bear

Hunting is good. It puts people in close touch with nature and enobles both. But hunting evokes strong emotion. NPR ran an article about a girl in Mississippi who likes to hunt deer.  It got more than 500 responses, so far.  These things usually get one or two.  Of course, the anti-hunting voices were louder, especially on NPR, but a poll that went along with the piece showed that around 70% of the people liked the article.  

The State of New Jersey is allowing bear hunting this season. There are an estimated 3,400 bears in the state, up from only 500 in the 1990s.  State officials would like to reduce the number by around 500-700.  Hunting at the expected levels won’t be enough to reduce the population by these numbers, since past hunts have yields only around 300 bears. What they need is a yearly hunt to create a steady and experienced bear hunting population. Unfortunately, no bear hunts have been held in New Jersey since 2005.  Animal rights folks often dislike lethal wildlife management and they have sometimes been successful in getting judges to suspend hunts.

Around 6500 bear hunting licenses have been sold, of course few of these guys will actually successfully shoot a bear and most will not even encounter one, maybe because of the lack of experience mentioned above, hence the probable yield of around 300 bears.  Currently, New Jersey bear hunters can use only shotguns and black powder to bag the bears.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, bears have been spotted with increasing frequency around our farms. The bear population is growing down there too. I remain unenthusiastic about bears in my woods. They are generally harmless, but the qualifier “generally” worries me. I like to take my lunch with me. I don't want to worry about attracting the big hairy beasts by leaving my ham sandwich on the seat of the truck and I would prefer to be easily the winner in any potential wildlife struggle. Fortunately, I have reasonable confidence that the bears will be kept under control on the farms.  We have lots of well-armed hunters in Brunswick County, loaded for bear.

The greater problem nationwide is that the number of hunters is declining. Hunting is something rural people do more than urban ones, so when the rural population shrinks, so does the hunting population. Beyond that, more and more land is being closed to hunting. I am glad to have hunters on my land, but not every landowner is so enthusiastic.

Meanwhile the populations of many animal species are exploding. There are more deer in Virginia today than there were in 1776. They have learned to thrive in close proximity to humans.  The same goes for coyotes, raccoons, woodchucks, squirrels and many others. Turkeys have made a successful comeback and I am afraid that bears are next.  Animal populations will get out of hand.  This was hard for me to believe a few years ago.  I grew up when wild populations were generally much lower and sometime locally endangered. Those times have passed for most game animals.  Hunters are now the “endangered species” in many locations. 

The alternatives to volunteer hunting are much more expensive and troublesome. Imagine creating a government bureaucracy and hired bureaucrats as hunters. Hunting requires reasonable skill. Hunters spend a lot of time exposed to the weather. They get up early and suffer in silence.  Imagine hiring somebody to do that.  Think of the overtime you would have to pay?  Now imagine hiring someone to do it and him joining some kind of public employees’ union. I suppose the animals would be safer.

Endangered species no longer

Related to hunting is an announcement that grizzly bears and wolves may be taken off the endangered species list.  These species have made a comeback. Nature is resilient & species that are/were successful can leap back. The problem for many endangered species is that they were marginally successful in the natural environment.  The very cute panda bear is a good example. The species is headed toward an evolutionary dead end.  It cannot reproduce well; it eats only a limited type of food, for which its digestive system really is not well suited to process. Human intervention just pushed it sooner. Wolves and grizzly bears don't have this problem.

Populations of wolves and bears can be managed and should be managed by hunting, among other tools.  the endangered species law doesn't allow for much flexibility. It assumes, as it must, that larger populations are better. But with a healthy population, this is not always true. In fact, a smaller, more genetically diverse population, might be better than a large one with different characteristics. A commitment to preserving each individual is rarely a good idea when you are talking about species. All animals are not created equal. Nature is not concerned with rights.

We also need to decide  WHERE endangered species should be defined. EVERY species on earth is "locally" endangered somewhere because every species range ends somewhere. Take the example of the common and familiar sugar maple tree. It grows from Canada to Florida, but it is common in some places and thin in others. Eventually, it just peters out at the end of its range. If you made a map with all U.S. counties where sugar maples had ever grown, you could argue that the species was locally endangered and even extinct in some places where it had once been reported to have lived.  If you looked hard enough, you could identify local varieties that could be declared endangered or extinct. And you could call it science.

Wolves are a successful species, but we would not want them to re-inhabit every place they were found in 1607. This does not indicate a failure of wolf protection.

I used to study wolves way back in the 1970s when I still thought I would have a career in wildlife and forestry. Experts believed that wolves were doomed and that the best case scenario would be to slow the loss. At that time, wolves lived in Alaska, a shrinking area in the arrow head region of Minnesota & on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, but they had not been seen recently in other places in the U.S.  Today the population has returned to places like Northern Wisconsin and the Rockies.  We won this. The wolves have been saved. Now we have to manage the populations.

IMO, we have to change the paradigm that includes the word "save" or features those dreadful countdown metaphors that imply soon it will be all gone. This may have been appropriate in the 1960s or 1970s, but today the better words would be some like "manage" or "prioritize."  We are no longer defending the ever shrinking territory.  Now we have to figure out what to do with the options.  

December 04, 2010

How to Manage Climate Change

Adapting to climate change is getting more sustained interest lately. The Economist magazine had a big story last week and NPR Marketplace had several stories this week. The impression you take away from this and other related stories is that we can expect pretty much nothing from all those international conferences, but the people are making decisions now that will help us all adapt.

Permian Basin“Marketplace” had a good article on Wednesday about the insurance industry and how they are adapting when they are allowed. Insurance rates are rising where risks are higher because of weather patterns. Insurance firms can work more efficiently. They don’t have to wade into the debate about whether climate change is man-made etc. They just look at the numbers and project costs.

Insurance and the ability to manage risk has been one of the most important, if unheralded, contributors to our well-being in the last couple of centuries. These guys figure the risks and then charge a differential which gives people incentives to be smarter. For example, if it costs you way more to get insurance to build a house on low ground, you move higher and avoid the risk. Insurance companies have been instrumental is improving fire safety, reducing accidents and making us all more healthy. But this only works when the costs can be passed to those who can affect decisions.

Short-sighted politicians sometimes circumvent this process. For example, many areas of Florida are smack in the path of hurricanes already. No private insurance firms will willingly sell insurance to homeowners in some places, at least at rates they want to pay. This should tell us something. If a firm whose business it is to insure doesn’t want to sell you insurance, maybe there is too much risk. Unfortunately, the State of Florida has stepped in to offer cut rate insurance insurance for people who should move elsewhere. This is just like setting a time bomb that makes some people happy in the short run, but will create much more expense and suffering in the future.

I don’t know how much the climate will change. Nobody does. But there is no avoiding it as a general proposition. We don’t have to know all the details in order to know some of the steps we need to take. If we believe sea levels will rise, we sure should not expand construction in places that are already subject to flooding at today’s levels. Trees take time to grow. We should plant varieties of trees that are adapted to a wide variety of possible climates and develop new varieties. Buildings last around fifty years. We should make sure we are adapted. These things are not rocket science, just common sense.

We can live in a variety of places WITH the proper adaptations. We are not powerless. We renew our infrastructure all the time. It just seems permanent to us. Most of the buildings we live or work in are less than 50 years old, and among the older ones virtually none have not undergone major renovations. If we start now, much of the adaption can be almost business as usual. Just incorporate smart changes.

Most of us have trouble envisioning anything really different. We intuitively project the future in sort of a straight line from the present. It has never worked like that. We have a kind of punctuated equilibrium, with long periods of stability and burps of change. We have chances to adapt when times are “stable.” Once the change hits hard, it is too late.

I know that some people want a “collective” decision and that is what we will get. But it will be a collective decision by billions of individuals, firms and organizations. Governments will need to kick in some big infrastructure investments, but all should be made with an eye to the future, not simply saving things of the past. Adaption might often be hard, but it will not be impossible.

The picture up top is the Permian Basin in New Mexico. It used to be the bottom of a warm sea. It is higher & drier now. The Permian Period, for which this place is named, ended with the greatest mass extinction in earth history. Things change. Life adapts. We need to too.

BTW - I had to skate over the top of this issue, so as not to write way too much. If you want more detail, do read the "Economist" article. The EPA has a general report with some links.

I also saw a couple of really good TV reports about adaptation to climate change. Unfortunately, they are in Portuguese. One of the specialists explained that the city of São Paulo has ALREADY warmed a couple degrees and storms are more severe. This is because large cities are ”heat islands”, i.e. buildings and paved surfaces concentrate heat. The city has been adapting to these changes, as we will more generally need to do.

November 13, 2010


I didn’t see many lichens growing up in Milwaukee. There was too much air pollution. Within sight of our house were Nordburg and Pelton Steel Mills. About a mile away way a coke coal plant with an eternal flame burning off the gas by-product. You could see the glow at night. I didn't know what non-polluted air smelled like (or not) until I went away to school in northern Wisconsin.This was the experience of people all over the country and the world, some later than others. I know that air is still polluted to even greater levels today in places like China. I recall the familiar smells when we moved to Krakow in the 1990s. I actually like a little touch of coal smell in the air. It fills me with feelings of nostalgia. Of course, I know it is not good. Things have really improved since then.

Back then, the high ambient air pollution of the industrial city  killed most of the lichens in Milwaukee and in big cities around the world. This was something that scientists noticed in the middle of the 1800s.  In fact, there was the famous case of a moth in England that actually evolved from a speckled whitish color that blended in with lichens on trees, into a charcoal black creature that could hide on coal blackened tree trucks and buildings. With the significant improvements in air quality over the last generation, the moths are starting to look more like lichens again and lichens are again growing in major cities in Europe and America. 

Lichens are an interesting federation of separate symbiotic organisms. Algae provide photosynthesis, but could not grow well on rocks and trees if not for a fungus that provides a kind of rooted stability and nutrients. Besides their sensitivity to air pollution, lichens are among the toughest organisms on earth and are present all over the place even in the harshest climates, often on places where nothing else can grow.   


You can see in my photo lichens growing on a tree in the moderate climate of Virginia. But these lichens probably would not have grown on this type spot during the 1960s, since it is near HWY 50 and the pollution from cars and trucks in those days would have killed them.


Above are trees in their fall colors at FSI. The middle picture is the gazebo at the entry to our complex with the maples in their fall glory. The gazebo is not much use for anything, but I suppose the circle would look odd with nothing on it at all. Housing complexes in northern Virginia often feature these sorts of ersatz tradition. We have come to expect and even demand such things.

October 24, 2010

Getting to Know a Few Things More

Main Street in Roanoak, NC 

Mariza’s boyfriend wanted to attend mass, so we went down to Roanoke Rapids, which was the closest Catholic church with a Saturday service. The priest at St. John the Baptist was out, so they had a temporary priest who has done a lot of work with local forestry in Kenya. You can read more about it here.

Cotton warehouse sign in Roanoke Rapids, NC.  The town is near the fall line, where the piedmont meets the tidewater and the rapids were the original reason for the town.  It was as far up as barges could go and the water power was used in the textile industry. There are still lots of cotton fields around the area, but today the big industry in town is a paper mill called Kapstone. 

After church, we went to a nice Italian, simple Italian restaurant on the main street in Roanoke Rapids. It is a pleasant little down, but not really exciting. This is probably the place where my thinned trees will end up.Below you can see the trees on the Freeman place, planted in 1996 and ready to be thinned.

trees on the Freeman place, planted in 1996 and ready to be thinned.  

We were down in the southern part of the state so that Mariza and Chris could see the forests.  Mariza had never seen the Freeman place and had not seen the CP property recently. Things have changed a lot. It was good to be able to show them the trees and explain a little about forestry.  Some of these trees will belong to Mariza someday. It is good if she gets to know the land and can become a good steward of the nature on it.

Wildlife clearing on CP in front of six year old pines 

I got to ride down and back with Mariza, which was good. We had a chance to talk a little.  I don’t see Mariza that much anymore. We used to take walks and talk when she was a little girl, but since then not so much. It gets harder to keep in touch when they move away. She has become a wonderful young woman and I want to get to know her better. Above shows Mariza and Chris in one of our wildlife clearings in front of the CP pines, planted in 2004. The picture below is Mariza and me (I think she is just a little taller than I am). Right underneath is a picture from around the same place in 2006. I always like to show the contrast, which each year gets more pronounced. It was not that long ago, but already the difference is remarkable. Below that are Mariza and Chris walking among the mature pines at the edge of the property.

Loblolly pines planted in 2004 

Two year old loblolly pines in 2006 

There was a lot of activity on the farms. On both places, guys from the hunt clubs were exercising and training their hunting dogs. The guy on the Freeman property was going to run down some coyotes. I don’t think he was hunting the coyotes when we saw him, just training the dogs. You can hunt coyotes all year around on private land in Virginia. I have no problem with coyotes either way, but if somebody from the hunt club wants to chase them on my land, I don’t have a problem with that either. Coyotes are not native to Virginia and they are a nuisance to local farmers. 

Mature pines 

The guys on CP were training their dogs for rabbit hunting, which starts next week.

We are getting more and more bear in the area and I am not enthusiastic about that. I know bears are mostly harmless, but the “mostly” part worries me a little. I bring my lunch with me when I work on the land and I am often there alone.  I really don’t want to have to think about attracting bears or not. Southside Virginia was not "bear country for more than a century, but now they are back. We sometimes see bear signs and people have taken pictures with those motion activated cameras.

Of course, absolute proof of bears is that a local guy killed one with a bow and arrow.  I would be a little nervous going after a bear with a bow and arrow.  It just doesn’t seem like that is “loaded for bear,” but I guess that some of those new bows are really effective. I am glad that the hunters go after the bear.  I want them to retain their fear of humans. In different seasons, it is legal to hunt bear with bow, black powder and ordinary firearms.  Dogs can be used to hunt bear in some situations.  Brunswick County has a bear hound training season, where hunter can train their dogs to chase bear, but cannot kill them if they chase them down.

Hunting and trapping regulations are available at this link.Below is Genito Creek. I like to go down there, since it is quiet and ever changing. I explained to Mariza and Chris how the creek keeps on moving as it undercuts one bank and then the other.  It floods an area of at least fifty yards on both sides. This is the kind of place that someone would like to have a house or a cabin because it is pretty and pleasant. Of course, this is also the kind of place where nobody should build a house, since it will regularly flood.

Genito creek keeps on moving as it undercuts one bank and then the other.  It floods an area of at least fifty yards on both sides. This is the kind of place that someone would like to have a house or a cabin because it is pretty and pleasant. Of course, this is also the kind of place where nobody should build a house, since it will regularly flood. 

September 29, 2010

Waiting at the Bat Cave


We went to an old railroad tunnel near Fredericksburg to see the bats emerge. You can see from the picture above that bat viewing is a minor local attraction. We didn’t actually see the bats emerge. They did it too much after dark. They come out around dark every night. If they come out around dark before it gets too dark, you can see them, otherwise we just take their word that they came out.

The bats in the tunnel are Mexican free tail bats. They are small bats that eat insects, mostly moths.  They are useful because they devour prodigious numbers of corn moths. 


We were told, but I didn’t actually see, that the bats take off in a spiral to get enough lift to get into the air.  The experienced bats do it well.  When there are lots of new bats, the show is evidently more chaotic, presuming you can see it.  The bats never come out on schedule and nobody is sure why they come out when they do. One theory is that they just come out when they get hungry, so it depends on how much they ate the night before.  Another theory is that there is not theory. One or more of them wanders out and others follow.

A couple people run the “bat watch”. Bat people are special and they are very enthusiastic about bats.  They showed pictures and explained the importance of bats in the environment.  As I wrote above, the most useful thing they do is eat lots of flying bugs. Bat guano makes very good fertilizer and the bat woman explained guano used to be one of Texas’ biggest exports.

Bats are threatened by a fungus disease called white nose.  It can wipe out whole bat colonies.  Nobody knows what causes it, but it is probably helped to spread by people coming around from cave to cave, so many bat caves are now closed off to casual visitors. At out bat viewing area, we were told not to go down to the opening.  I would not have done so anyway. I appreciate the importance of bats and understand that these little bats are harmless, but I still  think it would be a little creepy to be standing right among them.  Besides, they probably crap when they fly.

The top picture is the crowd waiting for the bats. Below that picture is one of my friend Dennis Neffendorf's sheep just before sun up. Dennis owns a peach farm near Fredericksburg. If you want some great peaches, let me know and I will put you in touch. You met Dennis in earlier posts. He worked with me in Iraq.  The sheep are unrelated to the bats, but I needed a place to put the nice picture. 

President Johnson & his ranch

We also visited the LBJ ranch. Unfortunately, I deleted the pictures by mistake. My only text would be that LBJ actually cared about his ranch. He had a great herd of cattle and he took good care of the land. No matter what you think of him as a politician or a human being, he was a good steward of the land.  For me, that means a lot. 

Dennis, mentioned above, grew up near the Johnson ranch and as a kid got to do odd jobs around the ranch. He know a lot about the Johnson's and the people around them. He said Johnson was a bigger than life type guy. He could be a bully and an A-hole, but he remembered his roots and took an interest in everyone he met.  Like all great men, he was complex and contradictory, so biographers can find what they want.  Lady-Bird Johnson was universally a lady in all the positive senses of the word and she stood by Lyndon. I took a good picture of the tombstones of Lydon and Lady-Bird. Hers is a little bigger.  On his tombstone is the presidential seal.  Hers features a Texas bluebell. Mrs. Johnson did a good job with wild flowers.

September 28, 2010

Ragnarok of the Big Trees

Hill Country 

The Texas hill country is extraordinarily pleasant and we got a very green period because of lots of rain in the last couple of weeks. But my joy at encountering this beautiful landscape was tempered by oak wilt that has been killing the wonderful live oaks that give the hills their dominant feel. Oak wilt was identified in Wisconsin in the 1940s and has gradually been spreading.  It is s fungal disease spread both by a beetle and through natural root grafts among the oak trees.  So if one oak tree get the disease, it usually spreads to the neighbors.  I knew about oak wilt before, but seeing it in action here made me profoundly sad.  It seems to have had a bigger effect here in the Texas hill country than elsewhere, maybe because the live oaks form pure stands giving the beetles and the root grafts an easy way to go. 

Heakthy Live Oak 

You manage oak wilt, but it can be trouble. You have to be sure that the oaks have not sustained injuries that can attract the beetles or give the fungus spores an opening. The danger time for this is in the spring, until about July when summer heat kills exposed spores. This means that spring pruning of oaks is out.  You also have to be careful not to smack into the oaks with lawnmowers or other equipment.  If you have an infected oak, you have to get rid of it quick AND made sure the roots are not passing the fungus.  This means trenching between the infected oak and any others nearby.

When planting trees, it is a good idea not to create pure stands.  If oak trees are separated by other sorts of trees, the beetles and spores will spread more slowly or not at all.

The USDA page on oak wilt is here.

As long as I am feeling bad about the ragnarok of beloved big trees, I am also very upset by the emerald ash borerThis rotten little bug is a native of Asia, first identified in Michigan in 2002.  Since then it has killed millions of ash trees and spread as south as Virginia, east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Great Plains.  The insect gets under the bark and quickly kills ash trees.

Emerald ash borers are not very mobile and left on their own they would probably remain a local problem.  Unfortunately, they hitch rides with us when we drive and especially when we transport infected firewood.   Never move fresh firewood any farther than you can walk.

The other one that bothers me is the hemlock wooly agelgid. This is another Asian import that was first reported in America in 1924.  This bug threatens the continued existence of hemlocks in the U.S. outside protected gardens.  Treatments are available but many of our nicest hemlock forests are gone already.  Hemlocks occupied a particular ecological niche in that they can grow in very deep shade. They used to fill an important role as understory trees and in shading little streams and keeping water temperatures lower.  Their ghost forests cannot do this.

On the plus side, we have developed American elms that are resistant to blight. We have better science available all the time. Maybe we can stay ahead of the bugs, but it will be a lot of work.

The top picture is a Texas hill country landscape.  You can see the dead trees in the foreground. Below that is what a healthy Texas live oak looks like. 

PS - I am informed that my reference to Ragnarok is too obscure and that some people might confuse it with some kind of video game. Ragnarok is from Norse mythology. It is the final struggle where the gods, such as Odin and Thor, are doomed. In German it is (also obscure) Gotterdamerung. A Wagner opera has that title and goes into the subject. The English "Twilight of the Gods" doesn't really cover it, IMO. I understood when I wrote that it was hyperbole, but it seems that hyperbole is not really out of place if you risk losing species of trees that have dominated our landscapes since the end of the last ice age. 

September 25, 2010

The Bottom of an Ancient Sea

We went down to Carlsbad Caverns.  This is another familar place I visited for the first time.  I really saw a lot of the world - in 3D - with View Master.


I will post some actual cave pictures in the next entry.  I was also interested in the geography up top. There has been a fair amount of rain, so the landscape is unusually green. But this is generally a high and dry landscape with an interesting geology.  This used to sit at the bottom of a shallow ocean during the Permian Period. It was something like the Persian Gulf is today, very hot and dry on the land, but the undersea environment was very diverse.  This was a reef that supported all sorts of life.  Some, like sponges and algae, are familiar today.  Then there were the trilobites, my personal favorite. 


Lots of the animals, whole families of them, are extinct, since the Permian Period ended with the greatest mass-extinction of all time, wiping out the majority of earth’s species.  The Permian Period was the last period of the Paleozoic Era.  What followed was the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs.

The first two pictures are up top of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The bottom picture is alone I-10 in Texas.  Notice the rainbow. 

September 24, 2010

Deserts & High Chaparel

We drove south to Tucson and then east through the Sonora Desert.  The Sonora is the desert we all think of as THE desert.  It is the hottest of our American deserts, the one with all the cactuses that we know so well from the western movies.  We visited my cousin Elise and her husband Carl who live near Tucson.  I wrote re that last year here and here. The Tucson area is higher, greener and cooler than Phoenix, although both are in the same biome.

On the side is me with my new hat (purchased in Texas) in the desert. The hat is made of palm leaf and it really does keep the sun off and the head cool.  I like it.  

Just outside Tucson is the Saguaro National Park, where I took the pictures of the Sonora Desert vistas.  The saguaro cactus is the one with the arms that looks like a man flexing his muscles.  It takes many years for them to grow big enough to get arms.  You can tell you are in the Sonora when you see the saguaro, which grow naturally nowhere else.

Above and below are Sonora landscapes

Below - the flat area behind the sign is - believe it or not - the continental divide.  At some point out in that field, if you peed some would go toward the Pacific and some toward the Atlantic. We are actually at a fairly high elevation.  It is just a flat plateau.  I don't know how exactly they can tell which way the water would flow. I always thought of the continental divide as a sort of ridge. 


North and west of the Sonora is the Mojave Desert, which I wrote about last April, with its characteristic brush and Joshua Trees.   You hit the Chihuahua Desert as you go east.  It is not true that the Taco Bell dog’s wild ancestors roamed this region.  The Chihuahua desert is theoretically less harsh, but it seems to have a little less interesting life.  I guess that the Sonora is very harsh, but fairly consistent, which allows varied life forms to develop.

September 23, 2010

Land of Enchantment - Too


More pictures and comments. The geography becomes more pretty and varied as you climb out of the high plains into the foothills and mountains. Below are more pictures from the plateaus and coming down the other side in the Salt River Canyon of Arizona. Some of the pictures are fairly high resolution, so if you want to see details, click on them and enlarge.

Hondo, NM 

Above is Hondo, NM. There is not much besides a gas station, but it seems very pleasant. Below is probably somebody's hobby: part of a herd of longhorn cattle.


Below is the place were the original Smokey Bear was rescued from a forest fire. They have a marker and a bigger Smokey to show the place. 

Smokey the Bear 

Below is heavy traffic on US 60

Below are views of the Salt River Canyon, as you come off the mountains into the Sonora Desert.  Building the road must have been a heroic venture.

salt River 

From the other side.



US 60 in Salt River

Land of Enchantment

The New Mexico board of tourism calls their state the “Land of Enchantment” and they are right.  As you drive across the middle of the state, you encounter a wide variety of beautiful ecosystems, lots of cute towns and great vistas.  I drove along US Highways 70 and 60 and avoided the Interstate. Below are some pictures and comments.

Ponderosa pines 

Above and below are examples of the changing biomes  that sometimes sit within a few minutes drive of each other.  Above are ponderosa pine.  The open park-like terrains is naturally kept that way by frequent small fires. The ponderosa pines are fire-dependent.  The young trees have black bark; as they get older -at around 100 years - the bark turns reddish.  Ponderosa pines have a distinctive smell and you could tell you were near them with your eyes closed. I stopped at the roadside where I took the picture to experience that. Below is a mixed juniper and pinyon pine landscape.  It is a bit drier than the ponderosa places.  Pinyon pines produce "pine nut" consumed by local people and wildlife.

pinyon pines and juniper 

Below - as you get into drier places, the trees disappear and you get various types of grassland.  I am less familiar with the specifics of those biomes. 


Below is almost entirely grass. The modern things you see are the "very large array," a series of radio telescopes used to explore the far reaches of the cosmos, from the far reaches of New Mexico.  I guess that the elevation and clear air make that easier.

Very large array 

Below are lava bed. According to what I read, the lava oozed out around 800 years ago.  Some plants have since colonized.  It must have been nearly impassible on foot or in a wagon when people first found them. 

Lava beds 

Dirt is the Basis of Civilization

On US 60S 

I needed to get maximize my daylight so I left Portales just before the sun came up and for about an hour and a half I drove through some of the most monotonous landscape possible, sometimes made less appealing by the early morning gloom, I suppose. Sometimes there was little evidence of active human occupation.   At other times you could see where people had moved away. 

US Highway 60 runs through what was the edge of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.  The countryside had a denser population back then than it does now. This is a good thing.  The land here gets irregular rainfall.  In some years there is enough to temp people to plow up the sod and plant row crops. That is what happened right after World War I, when this area was booming with high war-time prices for wheat and other crops.   A vicious cycle set in when prices came down off their highs.  Farmers needed to plow up more grassland and grow more crops to make the same money, which they often needed to pay off their mortgages and the equipment they invested in during the boom time.

New Mexico grassland 

An agricultural method had been developed in the humid Eastern U.S., where rain is more consistent and where the wind doesn’t blow so hard or steadily.   Something you notice even on a short trip is that the wind is persistent as a toothache out here.  

The grass and prairie vegetation had protected the soils from the wind for around ten thousand years, ever since the warming following the last ice age.  Prairie vegetation is adapted to the wet-dry cycles of nature and to the wind and fire that is endemic to the high plains.  Most of the plants are perennial. They send down deep and interwoven roots.  When the dry weather comes, these roots sustain the plants and hold the dirt. 

Pecos Valley 

The grassland ecosystem had created deep and rich soil over the course of literally thousands of years.  During the wet decade following World War I, farmers essentially mined and used up this soil in an unsustainable way.  They didn’t understand it and some thought the rain was natural or permanent.   Many were probably surprised that nobody had discovered the bounty of the land before.  The hotter-drier cycle set in again in the 1930s.  Soil, exposed to the wind by plowing and harvesting just blew away, leaving some farms almost bare of topsoil and other buried in the stuff.  This was the environment when thousands of refugees headed out.  You read about that in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” or in a more recent non-fiction book called “The Worst Hard Time.” (I studied the dust bowl years when I was going to Iraq, since the dust storms there are also partially man-made catastrophes.  It formed the basis of some of my slow-moving but grandious dreams)

We take better care of the soil today.  During the 1930s farmers and government folks (like the CCC) planted windbreaks of trees. FDR had a special fondness for tree-planting. Of all his great and not so great traits, that is the one I find personally most appealing.  Farmers now use low-till or no-till methods that leave the soils more intact and leave cover vegetation on the surface during the off-seasons.  Years of experience has taught us that there are some grasslands that just cannot be made to produce any crops besides maybe hay and some that cannot-should not even do that.

An old farmer told me that this year was a good and a wet year on the high plains. He said that the crops, like the milo/giant sorghum were growing well and that the harvests were good.  But today we know that this wet year will sooner or later – probably sooner – be followed by some dry ones.  And we know that we need to keep and protect the environment for those times.  Dirt is the basis of civilization and if you don’t care for the soil, there really is nothing left for you.

The picture up top in along US 60 in Western NM.  The one below is up the hills a bit in the more central part of the state. The bottom picture explains itself. 

August 30, 2010

Feeding the World

When I lived in Brazil twenty-five years ago, I was only vaguely aware that the Brazilian agricultural frontier was pushing west. I knew about a significant number of farmers from Rio Grande do Sul moving into western Parana, Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso & Goias. But Brazilian agriculture was not efficient and I heard the soils out west were acidic, poor and subject to rapid exhaustion. Lately, I have been watching Globo Rural (a Brazilian agricultural TV show) on Internet and have been impressed by what looks like efficient and forward looking agriculture. Today I read a really good briefing article on Brazil’s agricultural miracle. It is a good news story thirty years in the making and it sort of crept up on us such that we didn’t notice. But it is big, a game changing development.

The way I think of a place like the Brazilian states (such as Mato Grosso) story is to compare it to what it must have been like in Ohio in the early part of our Western expansion. Ohio entered the Union in 1803 and at that time was largely potential. Twenty-five years later, it was a settled and very productive part of the United States. The transformation was fast and so big that it was not properly noticed because by the time it was finished it seemed so inevitable. But it wasn’t. The same goes for Brazil.

I went down to the State of Parana last year to look at some Brazilian forestry operations. I was massively impressed. They were taking timber in a sustainable manner and were heavily into improving silvaculture. The Amazon, BTW, is up north and the deforestation is not related to the developments I am talking about. That is a serious problem, but a different one. In fact, good silvaculture and agriculture in the south and central west takes the pressure off the rain forests.

They used to joke that Brazil was the country of the future and always would be. Looks like the future might be now. I have to admit that I was not optimistic twenty-five years ago, but all that I read and see has changed my mind. It gives me lots of hope for turning around what is so far the world’s biggest failure – Africa. Maybe in twenty-five years we will be talking about the African miracle.

Let me excerpt from the story from the briefing from the “Economist” and we can talk about it. You can read the whole thing at the link above.

"In less than 30 years Brazil has turned itself from a food importer into one of the world’s great breadbaskets. Between 1996 and 2006 the total value of the country’s crops rose from 23 billion reais to 108 billion reais, or 365%.

"No less astonishingly, Brazil has done all this without much government subsidy. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), state support accounted for 5.7% of total farm income in Brazil during 2005-07. That compares with 12% in America, 26% for the OECD average and 29% in the European Union.

"Since the biggest single agricultural failure in the world during past decades has been tropical Africa, and anything that might help Africans grow more food would be especially valuable. In other words, you would describe Brazil.

"Since 1996 Brazilian farmers have increased the amount of land under cultivation by a third, mostly in the cerrado. And it has increased production by ten times that amount. But the availability of farmland is in fact only a secondary reason for the extraordinary growth in Brazilian agriculture. If you want the primary reason in three words, they are Embrapa, Embrapa, Embrapa.

"Embrapa is short for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, or the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. It is a public company set up in 1973, in an unusual fit of farsightedness by the country’s then ruling generals. At the time the quadrupling of oil prices was making Brazil’s high levels of agricultural subsidy unaffordable.

"Embrapa received enough money to turn itself into the world’s leading tropical-research institution.

"When Embrapa started, the cerrado was regarded as unfit for farming. Norman Borlaug, an American plant scientist often called the father of the Green Revolution, told the New York Times that “nobody thought these soils were ever going to be productive.” They seemed too acidic and too poor in nutrients. Embrapa did four things to change that.
First, it poured industrial quantities of lime (pulverised limestone or chalk) onto the soil to reduce levels of acidity. Embrapa scientists also bred varieties of rhizobium, a bacterium that helps fix nitrogen in legumes and which works especially well in the soil of the cerrado, reducing the need for fertilisers.

"Second, Embrapa went to Africa and brought back a grass called brachiaria. Patient crossbreeding created a variety, called braquiarinha in Brazil, which produced 20-25 tonnes of grass feed per hectare, many times what the native cerrado grass produces and three times the yield in Africa. That meant parts of the cerrado could be turned into pasture, making possible the enormous expansion of Brazil’s beef herd.

"Embrapa has recently begun experiments with genetically modifying brachiaria to produce a larger-leafed variety called braquiarão which promises even bigger increases in forage.

"Third, and most important, Embrapa turned soyabeans into a tropical crop. Soyabeans are native to north-east Asia (Japan, the Korean peninsular and north-east China). They are a temperate-climate crop, sensitive to temperature changes and requiring four distinct seasons. Embrapa worked out how to make it also grow in a tropical climate, on the rolling plains of Mato Grosso state and in Goiás on the baking cerrado. More recently, Brazil has also been importing genetically modified soya seeds and is now the world’s second-largest user of GM after the United States. This year Embrapa won approval for its first GM seed.

"Such improvements are continuing. The variety of soya now being planted [in Brazil’s Northeast] did not exist five years ago.

"Lastly, Embrapa has pioneered and encouraged new operational farm techniques. Brazilian farmers pioneered “no-till” agriculture, in which the soil is not ploughed nor the crop harvested at ground level. Rather, it is cut high on the stalk and the remains of the plant are left to rot into a mat of organic material. Next year’s crop is then planted directly into the mat, retaining more nutrients in the soil. In 1990 Brazilian farmers used no-till farming for 2.6% of their grains; today it is over 50%.

"Embrapa’s latest trick is something called forest, agriculture and livestock integration: the fields are used alternately for crops and livestock but threads of trees are also planted in between the fields, where cattle can forage. This, it turns out, is the best means yet devised for rescuing degraded pasture lands.

"The fields of Mato Grosso are 2,000km from the main soyabean port at Paranaguá, which cannot take the largest, most modern ships. So Brazil transports a relatively low-value commodity using the most expensive means, lorries, which are then forced to wait for ages because the docks are clogged.

"Partly for that reason, Brazil is not the cheapest place in the world to grow soyabeans (Argentina is, followed by the American Midwest). But it is the cheapest place to plant the next acre.

Big is beautiful

"Like almost every large farming country, Brazil is divided between productive giant operations and inefficient hobby farms. According to Mauro and Ignez Lopes of the Fundacão Getulio Vargas, a university in Rio de Janeiro, half the country’s 5m farms earn less than 10,000 reais a year and produce just 7% of total farm output; 1.6m are large commercial operations which produce 76% of output. Not all family farms are a drain on the economy: much of the poultry production is concentrated among them and they mop up a lot of rural underemployment. But the large farms are vastly more productive.

"From the point of view of the rest of the world, however, these faults in Brazilian agriculture do not matter much. The bigger question for them is: can the miracle of the cerrado be exported, especially to Africa, where the good intentions of outsiders have so often shrivelled and died?

"There are several reasons to think it can. Brazilian land is like Africa’s: tropical and nutrient-poor. The big difference is that the cerrado gets a decent amount of rain and most of Africa’s savannah does not (the exception is the swathe of southern Africa between Angola and Mozambique).

"Brazil imported some of its raw material from other tropical countries in the first place. Brachiaria grass came from Africa. The zebu that formed the basis of Brazil’s nelore cattle herd came from India. In both cases Embrapa’s know-how improved them dramatically. Could they be taken back and improved again? Embrapa has started to do that, though it is early days and so far it is unclear whether the technology retransfer will work.

"A third reason for hope is that Embrapa has expertise which others in Africa simply do not have. It has research stations for cassava and sorghum, which are African staples. It also has experience not just in the cerrado but in more arid regions (called the sertão), in jungles and in the vast wetlands on the border with Paraguay and Bolivia. Africa also needs to make better use of similar lands.

"Still, a word of caution is in order. Brazil’s agricultural miracle did not happen through a simple technological fix. No magic bullet accounts for it—not even the tropical soyabean, which comes closest. Rather, Embrapa’s was a “system approach”, as its scientists call it: all the interventions worked together. Improving the soil and the new tropical soyabeans were both needed for farming the cerrado; the two together also made possible the changes in farm techniques which have boosted yields further.

"Systems are much harder to export than a simple fix. “We went to the US and brought back the whole package [of cutting-edge agriculture in the 1970s],” says Dr Crestana. “That didn’t work and it took us 30 years to create our own. Perhaps Africans will come to Brazil and take back the package from us. Africa is changing. Perhaps it won’t take them so long. We’ll see.” If we see anything like what happened in Brazil itself, feeding the world in 2050 will not look like the uphill struggle it appears to be now."

August 29, 2010

Virginia Goats in Forestry


Boer goats were developed in South Africa.  They are bigger and more solidly built than most goat breeds, which makes them better as meat goats.  They are not as agile as other breeds, which is good since they are not as likely to climb onto structures and through fences.   They were really developed as land clearing machines.  They can climb steep hills and will eat almost everything in their paths, including thorny bushes and vines, such as multiflora rose, blueberries, kudzu and honeysuckle. That is why I am interested in them.

I want the goats to eat down all the brush that grows underneath my pine trees, especially after we do the thinning.  They would be well-adapted to that job, since they can and will eat all the common brush that vexes me.  In addition, they also fertilize as they go.   There is also a growing market for goat meat because of the growing immigrant populations from Central America and the Middle East.  It seems almost too good to be true.  They don’t need much care, but unfortunately, I don’t think I can give them that.


Since I was taking Alex back to school at JMU, I took the opportunity to visit the goat farm of Jeff and Loretta Whetzel in rural Rockingham County.   They are semi-retired.  Jeff joked that goats are his hobby and he is lucky to break even.   I enjoy the same situation with my forestry, so we understood each other.   The Whetzels started raising goats only a few years ago and are kind of easing into the business. 

The goat business is still mostly a small-farmer operation in Virginia.  Although goats have been resident on American farms since the first settlers landed in Virginia and founded Jamestown, they have never been a big business.   But the changing demographics might be creating business opportunities for goat farming.


Goats are fairly easy to take care of and do well in Virginia.  Goats are criticized as “desert makers” because of their voracious appetites and promiscuous eating habits.  But this is not a problem in Virginia, where we have enough rain and good soils to make the grass and brush grow.  Goats are browsers, not grazers.  That means they eat mostly leaves and brush, unlike cows that eat mostly grass, legumes and forbs.  (Of course, goats also eat grass and forbs; they just have a wider diet.)

Goats will eat pine needles and so you cannot put goats into a working pine forest until the trees are tall enough that goats cannot reach the tops or the vital branches of the crop trees. For practical purposes, this means the trees need to be about ten feet high (about five years old for a loblolly pine in Southern Virginia), since goats can reach up about five feet by standing on their hind legs. They will eat pine bark, but only if there is not other things to eat.  Presumably this would never become a problem if the goal was brush clearing. Jeff says that pine needles in the goat diet are beneficial, since something in the resin helps prevent worms.

The goats are very friendly. They are like dogs in that they follow you around. I can see the attraction of having them around.

But after talking to Jeff & Loretta, I realized that I cannot put goats on my lands unless and until I have to more time to devote. For one thing, I would need a lot of them to eat down 80 or 100 acres. I would also have to build electrified fences and dig some ponds or other water sources. My farms have flowing water, so that could be done. But you have to watch them. They require some grain supplements etc. And they need protection.

Coyotes are a problem.  Jeff and Loretta have a big dog called Yogi that chases them away. He is a Pyrenees sheep dog, very big and tougher than coyotes, developed by shepherds Spain to fight off the local predators.  He looks a lot like the podhale dog in Poland.  This is another reason why I cannot put the goats on our land and be there to watch.  The goats can be left more or less alone for a long time, but a dog cannot. We have coyotes, along with some bobcats and a few bears, in Southern Virginia too, so we need that protection.

Anyway, I have to put my goat plan on hold for at least the next couple of years when I am in Brazil.  We are thinning eighty-six acres this year. I plan to burn under those trees in 2012.  After that and after the brush grows in, maybe it will be time to deploy some Boer goats.

Links to some related posts are here and here.  

August 28, 2010

Country Roads


I used my new GPS to find the goat farm of Jeff & Loretta Whetzel (more on that in the next post).  I am a late adapter of the GPS for the car. I had one a long time ago that I used in my forestry, but it was not really good enough for precise measurement.  This one (see above) is nice and was much cheaper. It tells you when to turn etc.  I made it speak in Portuguese so that I can practice. Of course, vocabulary is limited. Also can play audio books.


Above you can see road work.  We had to wait around fifteen minutes while the cleared out the rocks.  They are widening the road.  The rock is shale, which is common in the Eastern Mountains.  It is very good for paving running trails as it breaks down into flattish chips and forms a springy surface. 

kudzuBelow is kudzu growing along US 211 (also called Lee Highway, BTW, a continuation of the Lee Highway that runs near my house) and doing the one thing it is good at - holding a steep bank. The government encouraged Kudzu planting in the U.S. because of its extreme ability to grow. That was not an entirely wise idea. What makes it a great cover for everything also makes it a troubling invasive, since what grows over rocky hillsides also grows over trees and other plants, choking them off.

I drove the country way home from Harrisonburg, through Luray and over the mountains. I enjoy driving that more than the freeway. It is a bit shorter in miles, but takes about the same time since you have more curves and have to drive slower.  It is not a good idea to drive through the mountains during the winter or at night, but it is nice on a nice day like today.  

Most of the way after the mountains is the way home from Old Rag Mountain, so I have been driving this way for twenty-five years. The area up to Warrenton is very built up, and much of US 29 has become a big strip mall. This includes areas near the Manassas Battlefield. It kind of takes away from the historical feel.  But after Warrenton, it has not changed that much.  It is still very rural, green and pleasant. Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties are among the nicest in Virginia. It is a great pleasure to pass through them. 

August 22, 2010

Wind Bags

I found this about wind power. All the swells love wind power until it comes anywhere near them. They can often even get the local Indian tribes to claim it violates some sacred something or other to make the opposition more PC. Evidently it spoils the view from some burial grounds. I am not making this up. Who knew the dead were so sensitive?

some textWhere to put it is a serious problem for any type of alternative energy. Oil and gas, for all their problems, have small & shrinking footprints on the land per unit of energy produced and it is less important for them to be near places where they are consumed. Wind, solar and biomass production are very land hungry AND because of transport & transmission challenges they are better situated near where they will be used, i.e. near people. And since some of these people will be rich & powerful, as with the Kennedys and the Cape Wind Farm, they can effectively kill many projects.

BTW - You can see from the chart nearby that the U.S. is now the world's leader in wind energy, with more than 1/3 of the total world production. You might not guess that from all the caterwauling you hear about the U.S. falling behind in these things. Any guesses about which state is the leader?

August 09, 2010

Land Investments

Nottoway River near Purdy 

I made an unexpected trip to the farms yesterday. I wanted to look at a piece of land near the Nottoway River.  FM wants to buy the timber and wants me to buy the land. In other words, he gets the wood; I get land to grow new trees. It is a long-term proposition for me. I couldn’t even thin until around 2025. On the other hand, I can get the land cheaper and grow the trees later.  

Natural loblolly regeneration

The land would not be only for forestry. There is a lot of road frontage and the property is across from the Nottoway River, which you see in the picture. (It was a very foggy morning, as you can see and chilly. It later got hot and humid.) They would leave the trees near the streams etc, so it would remain wooded and attractive. There is a public boat launching place across from one corner of the property.  It was a very foggy morning, as you can see and chilly. It later got hot and humid. Under the right conditions, I could sell off some lots right at the corner with the river, where people could build “farmettes” or cabins. I have no idea how that works, but I bet I can figure it out. That would help pay for the land.

Land is inexpensive these days because of the recession. It won’t stay that way forever and this may be a good time to buy. But the timing is always tricky and I don’t have that kind of money to just risk.  The forest land and its produce will essentially fund large chunks of my retirement, or not. In a rational market, this land would become more valuable. Markets are always rational … in the long run.  But as John Maynard Keynes said, “Markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent." 


Anybody want to come in on a forestry investment?  Or maybe buy a beautiful home site near an officially designative senic river? Well, I have to figure out the finances. I really just don't know.



The first picture shows the boat landing on the Nottoway River. The picture under that is the part of the property I was looking at that was cut in 2001. This is natural regeneration and would remain on the land.  I would have to mange it a little, but the trees look healthy. As comparison, you can see my trees on the CP property (same day. The sun came out.) They are only six years old (planted 2004) but they are bigger by a couple feet and fuller because of better genetic stock and some management.  The second lastpicture shows the pines on our Freeman property.  They were planted in 1996 and will be thinned later this month (first thining). They need thinning. Light will reach the ground and it will be better for wildlife. The last picture is a dog that just wandered by. He has a tracking collar, so he is probably a hunting dog. I offered him a piece of ham from my sandwich.  He took it but remained a little spooked.

August 05, 2010

Hunting Season

Hunters are the backbone of rural society. People who live in cities and suburbs rarely appreciate that fact. I thought of this in relation to my own land and was reminded when Chrissy’s sister Diane visited a friend who lives in western Virginia. The friend owns some forest land in the Shenandoah.  Local hunters watch over it,  make improvements and generally take care of the place.  She was a little surprised at the role of local hunters. I used to be too, but not anymore.

The hunters on my land have been there for generations. Much of what I know about the land comes from them. They knew how long the roads had been in place. They remembered when the streams had flooded and when they had gone dry.  They had experience of fires and storms.  And they loved the land and understood the relationships with the animals on them.

Deer hunters are working to create better habitat for the animals they hunt and improve the herds.  They always have done this.  Much of the county’s wildlands were conserved by hunters.  Lately the equations have changed a bit.  The burgeoning wildlife and especially deer population has shifted emphasis from any deer to quality deer. Hunt clubs are actively managing the herds through selective  hunting, feed plots etc.  I get a magazine called “Quality Whitetails” from an organization by the same name that provides a place for the exchange of information and experience. It is very interesting the things hunters are doing in the conservation field, literally out in the field.

Another big factor is development and urban encroachment. A generation ago, there were a lot fewer deer and they were spread over a bigger area of undeveloped land. Today deer populations have grown to almost nuisance levels in some areas and this is exacerbated by the fragmentation of the forests.  This is another reason to emphasize quality of the herds over mere numbers.  The numbers problem is no longer a problem.

Hunting keeps people closer to the land.  One of my friends down in Southside Virginia spends most of his free time working on conservation projects on land his hunt club leases. He helps restore wetlands, makes wildlife corridors etc. He has helped a lot on my farm, at no cost to me since we work in our mutual interest. This guy doesn’t hunt very much anymore in the traditional sense.   He just really enjoys the conservation and wildlife management aspects of hunting.  Most of the hunters I know enjoy the sport more for the insights it gives them into nature than the actual shooting deer, which is only one part  of a full-year, multi-year effort.

The numbers of hunters has been declining over the past decades.  There still are enough, but if the trend continues, this will be a serious threat to the health of rural communities and the rural environment.  Somebody else – probably at taxpayer expense – will have to do what as work hunters do joyfully and for free. In fact, they actually pay to do it.

I am not a hunter myself, for the same reasons that the number of hunters has been declining.  I was a city kid, with no hunting tradition. I am also a terrible shot.  I support hunting by working with the hunt clubs  on my farms and supporting some hunting organizations, such as Quality Whitetails, that provide hunting education and advocacy.

Beyond the environmental benefits, hunting has a long tradition in American culture.  It is very different in the U.S. than it was in many parts of the world.  In Europe, hunting was a rich man’s sport.   When the ordinary people hunted, it was usually called “poaching,” especially when talking about bigger game, a crime that was severely punished by the aristocrats. Besides just wanting to keep the animals to themselves, aristocrats sensed the fundamental democratizing nature of hunting.  Besides giving the common man access to weapons and the training to use them, hunting allowed individuals a personal connection with nature, unfiltered by the hierarchy of the old world.  It also provides a means of support. One of the older hunters down near the farms told me that when he was young, hunting wasn’t just a hobby; it was needed to put meat on the table.  One of the things that impressed former-peasant immigrants to the early America was that they COULD hunt.  They were the owners of the land and didn’t have to kiss the ass of the local baron or “his” deer and elk untouched in the forest where only the fat-cats could hunt.  

So this is my paean to the pastoral pursuit of hunting in our great America, whether it is deer, turkey, geese, quail, ducks or bears (yes we have a few on the farms now).   We should appreciate what hunters and hunting have done for us.

July 26, 2010

Biofuels: Food, Fuel & the Future

Wilson Center  

Biofuels can be a part of our energy future, but are not a solution and they will never play a dominant role.  That one of the big ideas I took away from a talk on biofuels at the Wilson Center, called Biofuels: Food, Fuel & the Future. The reason we use fossil fuels is that they are so wonderfully concentrated. Coal, gas or oil represent millions of years of concentrated power of the sun captured by photosynthesis. Any crop we grow captures only one season of energy or maybe a couple decades in the case of trees. This is a fundamental limit even if we can figure out how to efficiently capture the energy stored in corn, sugar, wood, palm oil or switchgrass.

Outside the Reagan building 

We noticed the BP oil spill because it is quick and compelling, but scientists have long known about the Gulf dead zone, a more persistently serious problem. This is a vast area of the sea near the mouth of the Mississippi where fertilizer runoff (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) have caused extravagant growth of algae. When the algae die back and decompose, it sucks the oxygen out of the water, making life for fish impossible. Much of this fertilizer runs off of corn fields. To the extent we turn more corn into ethanol, we increase this problem. We tend to notice fast developing problems like the BP spill while the slow motions ones, like the dead zones, escape notice. 

Don't step on the grass water sign
One of the dangers of something like the BP spill is that people panic and politicians and special interests take advantage. You can see this already in the calls for more biofuels and other alternatives.  Remember the cause of the dead zone in the paragraph above. But it gets worse. The nitrogen fertilizer for the corn is often derived in part from natural gas and we have to account for the fossil fuels that go into planting, moving and refining the 1/3 of the American corn crop that becomes ethanol.
W/o massive government intervention, there would still be an ethanol industry. It would just be a lot smaller. Ethanol has a good use as an oxygenator added to gasoline. It makes gasoline burn more effectively & cleaner. In the early 2000s it replaced MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), which had itself replaced lead as an octane enhancer a generation ago. But a little ethanol is good; a lot is less useful.  Gasoline packs a lot more energy per gallon than ethanol. As you add ethanol beyond a small amount, it begins to decrease mileage. There are also other problems related to corrosion and evaporation, but I will let anybody who cares learn about that elsewhere.
Suffice to say that the push to use more ethanol as transport fuel moved it from being a high end additive to extend gasoline mileage to a low end commodity. Since it is less efficient & more expensive than gas, it raised the prices. Yet the push for more ethanol continues because it is driven by politics, not by economics or common sense.
Let’s digress a little. You can make alcohol from almost anything that grows on earth. You can see that from the vast array of alcoholic beverages available worldwide, made from potatoes, corn, cactus, grapes, apples and even watermelon. But it is easier to make ethanol from some things than it is from others. It is relatively easy to make ethanol from sugar cane. That is why Brazil has an ethanol advantage. It is significantly less efficient to make it from corn and so far prohibitively expensive to make it from cellulous (i.e. switchgrass, wood chips etc).     

The U.S. does not have a competitive advantage in making ethanol. For one thing, corn is not a great feedstock and to make that worse we (the U.S.) has a relative advantage growing corn as food for man and beast, but when we make it into ethanol, we manage to negate our natural advantages, converting a product we do well into a product that we do merely okay. Beyond that, corn ethanol tends to be produced near where corn grows, i.e. in the middle of the country. Much of the demand for liquid fuel is on the coasts.  Ethanol cannot be transported via gasoline pipelines because it is corrosive and tends to create evaporation problems. Transporting ethanol by road and rail is relatively expensive. On the other hand, ethanol from Brazil is cheaper and closer – in terms of transport – because it is produced near ports in Sao Paulo state and can be easily sent via sea transport to places like Norfolk. That is why we have to subsidize ethanol production in the U.S.  by $0.45 a gallon AND put a tariff of $0.54 on ethanol from Brazil.  

In other words, public policy is pushing us toward one of the most expensive energy alternatives made even more expensive by public policy.
What about cellulosic ethanol? This can be made from materials that now go to waste, such as forestry waste or stalks and sticks from crops. We can also easily grow some crops, such as hybrid poplars or switchgrass, specifically for energy. The biggest problem is that we still cannot do it efficiently. Nature has been evolving for millions of years to prevent wood from easily being converted (i.e. fermented or rotted).  There are better alternatives. The more you have to process something, the more costs you add.  Wood chips, for example, CAN be turned into ethanol. But it is a lot easier to make them into pellets or burn them directly to make heat or electricity.

The problem is liquid fuel. Gasoline makes great liquid fuel and alternatives cannot compete. Direct government attempts (such as subsidies and mandates) to change this equation don’t work well for that reason. Beyond that, alternatives and gasoline are locked in a feedback loop. If alternatives, such as biofuels displace a lot of gasoline, the price of gasoline drops relative to the biofuels in question, making them less competitive.

Government has a role, but it is supportive and indirect. Government should not try to pick particular technologies. The ethanol debacle should have taught us that. It can help with infrastructure and basic research. Real, sustainable gains come from increasing productivity that lowers costs or costs of doing business, rather than tries to pay them down with taxpayer money.

A final interesting concept they talked about at the seminar was “peak gasoline.” People talk about peak oil. Peak oil is the theoretical spot where we have used up half of the petroleum available on earth. It is a slippery concept that is meaningless w/o specifying a price. At $5 a barrel, we reached peak oil years ago. We may never reach peak oil at $500 a barrel.  Peak gasoline is an easier concept.  Given the changing nature of our society, our driving habits and mileage efficiency, we probably reached the maximum amount of gasoline we will ever use. We cannot expect consumption to rise forever. Consumption is already dropping. Of course, we have not and may never reach “peak energy.”

There will be no magic solution to the energy problem. We choose our energy portfolio based on cost, convenience, availability and mere preference. This is how it will always be. It is an ongoing situation, not a problem that can be solved. No matter what elegant and wonderful solutions we devise (and we will come up with some) we will still be talking about the same sorts of things fifty years from now.  It is good to remember – despite the current pessimism – that our energy situation is better than that of our ancestors in terms of the amount of work we need to perform for each unit of energy. But as energy gets easier to get, we want more of it.

The picture up top is the inside of the Wilson Center. In the middle is the outside of the of the Reagan building, where the Wilson Center is located. In the lower middle is a sign warning that if you step on the grass, motion activated sprinklers will flow. It is an idle threat. I tested it and stayed dry. 

July 19, 2010

Ongoing Ecological Disasters

China is now the world’s biggest consumer of energy. It passed the U.S. as the world’s bigger emitter of CO2 a couple years ago and accomplishes these things with an economy 1/3 as big as ours. Low energy efficiency and excessive dependence on dirty coal explain why China falls high on the list of ecological disasters. Over the next fifteen years China will build 1,000 gigawatts of new power-generation capacity, the total amount of all electricity-generation capacity in the U.S. today. The big environmental problems will increasingly be beyond our borders. We have to drop our America-centric viewpoint.

As environmentalist, we have to be concerned about our world, not only our back yard, and the world is generally dirtier than our back yard. Oil spills like the recent BP catastrophe are routine in Nigeria. In fact, you would not be far wrong if you characterized the whole coast of this part of Africa as one big spill eternal. In all fairness to the Nigerians, natural oil seepage was common even before, but not like this.

But before we get too excited about the ecological cost of fossil fuels, consider what happens to forests when poor people depend on biofuels (i.e. wood). The people of Haiti have created a wasteland out of a naturally ecologically rich island. The problem is charcoal production. We can see how this used to work in Europe if you want a historical perspective. Europe’s forests returned during the 20th Century because the stress was taken off when Europeans shifted from biofuels to fossil fuel. But charcoal was not the only thing destroying forests. Horses did their part. Horses eat a lot of grass and grass cannot be grown in the heavy shade of forests. As long as horsepower was really horsepower, large areas had to be devoted to growing horse food. I know everybody likes horses, but it is not good to have to depend on them. Fossil fuels replaced this too.

The Soviet Union was an ongoing ecological disaster in itself and the evils done by communist central planners lives after them. You can see the example in the Aral Sea, now perhaps better referred to as the the “Aral Depression”. This used to be a really big expanse of water, complete with a fishing industry. But during the 1960s, the Soviets built dams, dikes and canals to support their planned cotton industry. The Aral Sea literally dried up. I have seen the dramatic pictures of boats in the middle of fields used as examples of global warming, but it is merely garden variety central planning that did this. It gets worse when the wind picks up sand and salt from the erstwhile seabed and blows it all over the place.

As you probably have noticed by now, I have been picking up my ongoing ecological disasters from FP-Online. The last one they mention is the Pacific garbage patch. This is a kind of Sargasso Sea of plastic bottles and wrappers concentrated by the current and floating on the ocean surface. The currents pick up garbage from the coasts of North America and Asia and send it in a continual loop in the Northern Pacific.

I think the world is in a kind of development race. As societies develop, they get cleaner. America was much more polluted a generation ago than it is today. As China, Nigeria or the countries of the former Soviet Union develop we can hope they also become more environmentally responsible. But it will be a dirty couple of decades as we wait for it. Fortunately, they don't have to make the same mistakes that we did. They can jump the line to the best technologies. Our duty is not to stand in the way of those developments.

Putting the Forest Back Together Again


It is obvious that a 100 acre forest ecosystem separated into ten parcels is not the same as one that is fully intact. Even a lightly traveled road cutting through forests may be hard for wildlife to cross. Watch a turtle or a salamander cross a road.  Roads divide and can destroy local reptile and amphibian populations as well as change drainage patterns, accelerating runoff and worsening erosion. Small forests also mean practical management and harvest problems. Maybe it is just worth it to deploy a crew or expensive equipment to harvest a few scattered trees.   

Unfortunately, dividing forests into smaller and smaller units – forest fragmentation – is a continuing problem in Virginia and throughout America.  With populations continuing to expand and development continuing to spread out, the situation will only get worse, so we in the forestry community better come up with ways to adapt and maybe even benefit from the trend.
That is why I was interested to hear that Jenifer Gagnon, from Virginia Tech, was developing a program to help real estate agents in Virginia take forestry into account when showing and selling properties to customers who may not have any experience with forestry and who may not ever have even thought about it. The program will give Realtors, land brokers, closing agents and others who deal with rural and large-lot sales continuing education opportunities explaining how important well-managed, healthy forests are to Virginia.  It will also include information that helps make a sale, providing sources of cost-share assistance, identifying yard trees, and giving real estate professionals what they need to talk about site quality and productivity  Whether they are talking about 100 acres ten, good forest management makes a difference as do the benefits of forest certification programs such as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) that help connect individual owners to those who can help manage the forests as well as add the value of certification to any timber harvested from the property.  

Real estate professionals will also get New Landowner Packets to give their clients (for free).  These packets have  information about forests in Virginia, describing the services provided by state and federal natural resources agencies and contact information, include information on Tree Farm and the American Forest Foundation, Virginia Forests magazine, and DOF tree ID book.   In other words, all they need to get started on good forestry management. 

This will not stop forest fragmentation, but it may bring many more landowners into the system of sound and responsible forestry.   And when people become aware of the resource and its value, they are better stewards of the land.  They may also team up with neighbors to jointly manage, or at least understand the plans of others, which might mitigate the negative effects of fragmentation.
Working with this new type of owner will mean that it is not forestry practiced as usual or as it can be in more isolated rural areas.  Forest fragmentation and the likely relatively dense human presence around and within forest parcels will make it more difficult to harvest, spray burn or do many of the things good forestry practices would recommend.   On the other hand, having many more landowners involved with and supporting forestry is great.  The new forest owners, at least at first, will be on but not of the land, i.e. they will not have the long experience and history with the places they live.  But their voices will be increasingly important in protecting and prospering forestry in general.  As development creeps farther and farther into the forest, we better hope and work toward the goal that the people, the voters, who come into these new developments understand that trees can be harvested sustainable and that each cutting or thinning does not mean the end of the forest, but rather just another step in its continuing healthy development.
Many people want to live on a working and living landscape; they want to be part of it, not mere separate sojourners.  Our modern world makes this harder and harder to do.  It is harder to make the connection with the living land if you see trees only as decorations outside your windows.  Programs that integrate humans into their surroundings, giving them some feeling of having a stake in the future, are a winning formula all around.  Having hundreds of acres under good forestry management is an excellent and tested way to grow timber sustainably while protecting the water, soil and wildlife that lives on the land.  We know how to do that.  But we will increasingly have to also know how to integrate people into this system.  We prefer not to have our forest land fragmented and we should do our best to protect larger tracts whenever we can.   But when we can’t, we need to manage the smaller parts right.
All the time I was writing this posting, I kept on thinking of the old Humpty-Dumpty story. You know the one - "Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; all the kings horses and all the kings men, couldn't put Humpty together again."  But I don't think that is true of forests. Forests are living and adaptive systems. We can adapt too if we just figure out how.

June 25, 2010

Resisting Calls for Active Managment

Government big and small suffers from the admirable if often misguided urge to complete tasks assigned to it w/o thinking through the larger systemic consequences of what happens if it succeeds.  Of course, this is a problem for all fallible humans, but because of the challenges of agency and its ability to command resources, government has it worse.
My homeowners’ association shows on a micro level what scales up to bigger problems for bigger organizations. We have had a recurring problem with successive homeowners’ boards to get them to do little or nothing about a “problem” with shade and drainage.  (Yes, for me a good outcome in this situation is that nothing be done.)  I won’t go into details.  Suffice to say, we have an area with growing trees that do the things trees do; they shade, drop leaves and create humid conditions near ground level. These are good things from the environmental prospective
People say they like the trees and nature, but they don’t seem to like most things about them. I have found that very often they want to protect the environment, as long as it is not too inconvenient.  You get the picture? So with monotonous regularity, we get calls to “fix” the problem in back of our houses.   

People have complained that there are too many mosquitoes and I hear that a couple people have demanded that the board install French drains, a kind of open storm sewer trench filled with gravel and rock, to quickly channel water away from the houses so that mosquitoes cannot breed. Sounds reasonable.  Here’s why it’s not when you take the time to understand the problem.
First, the mosquitoes in question are Asian tiger mosquitoes.  They are another of the many gifts we have recently received from China like the Asian long-horned beetle. These little pests have the nasty habit of being active during the day. The thing to remember about tiger mosquitoes is that they are “container breeding insects,” products of co-evolution with humans that breed only in man-made objects such as pots, discarded bottles, rain gutters or even folds in plastic tarps where water pools up. They do very well in cemeteries because of the presence of plastic flower vases. They specifically do not breed in puddles with dirt bottoms, of which, BTW, there are not many anyway in the area in question. So a French drain would do nothing to slow the mosquito population and in fact the standing water in a man-made drain might increase their breeding opportunities.
Second is a bigger thing – the Chesapeake Bay.  Industries, Federal & local governments  eliminated most significant point source pollution (i.e. industrial and sewage plant discharges) years ago.  Today most of the pollution comes from dispersed non-point source runoff.  Agriculture is still the largest source, but it is diminishing.  The only category where this problem is growing is in runoff from urban and suburban areas. What you do in your yard and around the house affects the crabs and fish in the bay and silt covers growing water plants.  One way to mitigate this problem is to slow the runoff and allow water to soak into the ground, where it will find its way into water tables and/or be cleaned by natural processes, i.e. simple things like silt settling, nitrogen and phosphorus being absorbed by living plants etc. Slowing the water flow is also important to avoid storm surges that overwhelm and erode stream and waterways.  This has become more and more a problem as the amount of pavement has increased.  The bottom line is that you don’t want to do things that would discharge rain water more rapidly. A drain system is designed to do just that.  
Of course, that assumes the system will work, which may not be a valid assumption.  The saving grace, from an environmental perspective, may be that the drains rarely work as promised to quickly shunt away storm water for long distances.  They tend to clog with mud, making them useless unless constantly maintained.  Actually, they are less than useless, since you have the initial expense of building them and then their presence tends to make it more difficult to grow plants that would do some of the ecological services such as slowing and filtering storm water. 

Specifically for the mosquito problem, what needs to be done is for everybody to get rid of pots, containers, tarps etc that can hold water. This may include very small things, like a broken cup or piece of plastic. All homeowers should also make sure that their rain gutters are not clogged. If all these things were done, the population of tiger mosquitoes would collapse locally, although the chances of all these things being done is slim to none and slim has just left the building.
As for the more general moistness problem, the best possible solution is to plant shade tolerate ground cover under the trees and celebrate the ecological benefits of a small moist forest floor environment.  (I have done that on the section in back of my house and there is no longer a problem with erosion or mud.  Interestingly, the ground level is a couple of inches higher now than it was five years ago, as the plants have slowed and captured silt, just like they are supposed to do.) If Association wanted to spend a little more money, we could build a rain garden to create an even more diverse environment.  A low cost solution would be simply to stop mowing the “grass” in the area under the trees.  In places the workers have neglected or consistently forgot about, a decent cover has volunteered. 
So if we sum up the possible solutions, the best is the semi-passively systemic – working with nature solution.  Next best is doing nothing at all, actually doing less than nothing if we stop mowing. The worst is the active what we might call an engineering project to build drains that will cost a lot ot establish and require subsequent maintenance.  So which do you think keeps on popping up?
The more passive, but effective solutions do not “solve” the mosquito problem. That is true.  (BTW – tiger mosquitoes are easily managed if you just wear long pants. They are low fliers and don’t tend to sting above the knee.) The more active solutions actually make the problem worse and cost a lot of money, but they have the illusion of action and leadership can loudly claim that they are working on the people’s concerns.  Beyond that, contractor can make money off the projects.  They come with nicely done sketches and bogus statistics beautifully graphed on shiny paper.   They dislike it when you ask people to walk across the street to see the clogged French drains installed a couple years ago, now providing only mosquito heavens and lots of mud.  Of course, not many people will follow you when you ask them to look for themselves. There are too many mosquitoes and too much mud.
I am afraid that this is how it goes. Big solutions make lots of people happy and some people rich, even when they don’t work – especially when they don’t work because there is more activity required to fix each problem serially created by the initial solution.
We should remember that if it is not necessary to do anything it is necessary NOT to do anything. But with an attitude like that, you are unlikely to get elected to anything. Very often the politician code is just the opposite, more like "Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it." Much easier to promise and to be like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.

BTW – I have written on this subject before and if you follow this link you can see what happens when a really big rain lands on area.

June 21, 2010

Killing Ticks Working in the Woods

baldcypress on the farm

I went down to the farms yesterday and did some spraying, chopping and rock moving. Above is the baldcypress in our wet area.

On the plus side, the road that the utility company repaired along their right-of-way has settled nicely and their plantings are growing vigorously. I also saw a lot of quail and almost a dozen wild turkeys.  I tried to sneak up on them, but they flew off. I think they have good eyesight.

I sprayed down some resurgent tree-of-heaven, many of the vines and some of the hardwoods mixing in with my pines. It was really hot and not very pleasant work. I got a four gallon backpack sprayer, which makes it easier to do the work, but it is heavy. Today I have a stiff neck from reaching and spraying while carrying that thing on my back. The good news is that I found a product that keeps off and actually kills ticks.  It is called “Repel.” You can apply it to your boots and clothes. It irritates the skin, so it is good only for heavy duty tick killing, not casual mosquito avoidance. I pushed brush all day and picked up no ticks or chiggers, so the stuff works.

One interesting thing I heard at the local gas station in Freeman is that there may be plans to open a wood pellet (the kind they use for heating) plant near Jarratt, VA. This would be a good development, since it is near my forests and would provide a market for thinned trees and pulpwood. Maybe the prices will go up a little. They are abysmal now, so it cannot hurt.

Making small wood into pellets for home heating is a better idea than trying to turn it into liquid fuel like ethanol, which takes as much energy as it produces. You are usually better off being as simple as possible.

May 31, 2010

May 2010 Forest Visit

Alex and Espen at the cloverfield 

I bought a couple gallons of Chopper Gen2 and some backpack sprayers. The boys and I went down to the forests to check up on them and spray down some of the vines. I have mixed feelings about spraying.  I would spray the whole place if I was really doing intense pine management. They usually do this with helicopters and it would cost me around $6000. I don’t like to spend the money and I don’t like to spray everything.  I want some diversity, but the vines are getting out of hand. The backpack sprayers allow more precise applications and they cost much less. The materials cost a couple hundred dollars and labor is cheap, essentially free. Getting the boys involved with the land is also a good idea. So that is what we did.

Espen and Alex on grassy path to Genito Creek 

We got an early start, but only worked until about noon. It was getting too hot and I didn’t want to kill the boys or make them not like the forest.  We got the easy targets, i.e. the places within easy reach of the roads and paths. I like to do these things in iterative ways. This will give me a chance to see how it works and decide if I want to do it more widely. It will also give me something useful to do on my visits.  I can spray down some of the offending vines each time I go down and do it selectively.

Cloverfield on CP farm 

I talked to Larry and Dale Walker from the hunt club. They also work at a forestry company and showed me their operation last year. You can see pictures and read about that here and here. They are honest guys and their firm does a good job.  We talked about thinning on the Freeman property. It would be good to do it this fall. This would be my first significant harvest and I look forward to it.

Utility right of way on Freeman farm 

The utility company put in new poles. They ripped up the dirt a lot, but have since leveled it out and reseeded it.  The grass is coming up. The wires and the right-of-way are useful, despite the fact that they take up eight acres of my land.  The opening provides good wildlife habitat and the long, narrow aspect produces a lot of the “forest edge” so favored in wild ecology. From the practical point of view, the most useful thing about the right-of-way is the road. The electric company maintains the road and they just finished fixing it up. It was really rutted before, but they put in rocks over the washouts and made little stone banks to divert the storm water. All this will provide good infrastructure for the thinning operation.  If for what they did, I would have to do it and/or the timber companies would have to do it and that would cut into what they could pay me for the wood. It is a de-facto subsidy for me.

Me in my cloverfield 

The pictures are from the farms. You can see the roads along the right-of-way. The picture of Alex and Espen shows the grassy path Larry Walker made down to the creek. It is a “wildlife corridor” Alex is looking very buff these days. They are hard workers and strong boys. They can get a lot more done than I can. My clover fields are looking good. Other wild plants are beginning to seed in and this is okay.

May 22, 2010

Fighting the Alien Invaders

Japanese honeysuckle is very pretty and it has a sweet fragrance.  That is probably why gardeners planted it all over the East Coast.  I suppose its robust vigor was also a factor, but it is precisely that aggressive robustness that makes it such a formidable invasive species.

Japanese honeysuckle on Johnsmatel tree farm 

I didn’t hardly even notice it growing on the CP last year, as I pulled down the trumpet and grape vines.  But these earlier infestations were small potatoes compared to the Japanese honeysuckle, which seems to have grown exponentially this spring.  That’s the way exponential growth works.  As it doubles and redoubles, you don’t see it until it is too late to stop before it covers everything.  Well, it isn’t quite that bad, but I can't just let it stand.  I ordered some “Chopper Gen2 and next week the boys and I will go and address the problem using the backpack sprayers.

Tree of heaven in Old Salem, NCChopper Gen2 has evidently replaced Arsenal AC in the constellation of BasF forestry management products.  I have been reading about vegetation control.  The Japanese honeysuckle has to be controlled; otherwise it will climb and bend the trees.  If we set it back this year and maybe next, the trees will be big enough to mostly shade it out.  We have more or less defeated the tree-of-heaven infestation.  There still are a few of them cropping up and we can zap them with Chopper too. BTW - the picture along side is a tree-of-heaven in Old Salem.  This is the biggest I have seen. They are not bad looking trees and are fine - in their place, which isn't in the woods.

I was hoping to burn out the honeysuckle, but the guys at the tree farm committee told me it would be a bad idea.  My trees are still a little too small.  A prescribed fire could work, but any bad luck might kill half my trees.  It isn’t worth the risk.  I got enough chopper for the whole farm for just over $200, so along with my in-house labor force, waging chemical warfare against the invasive species will be the way to go.  My research shows that Chopper Gen2 is much better than the first generation, both in its effectiveness and it benign environmental impacts.  It also gives the kids some stake in the place.  Espen and Alex still brag about their hard work in fighting against the tree-of-heaven and setting down the streambed rip-rap.


Invasive species are one of the most threatening environmental problems we face. They have a greater impact than the projected consequences of global warming, but it is not as cool to “rock against” honeysuckle or phragmites.  Most gardeners are complicit in the invasion.  I planted some wisteria on the mailbox shelter across the street from my house.  It looks good and grows well.  Many of the invaders are indeed better than the natives, but they can get out of hand.

May 15, 2010

Dying Hemlocks

Hemlock trees on Biltmore Estate 

The Biltmore estate had lots of big and beautiful trees, including some hemlocks.  Hemlocks are common much farther north.  They hang on in the southern Appalachians as a relic of when the climate was much cooler thousands of years ago.  Or maybe we should say they hung on and that they were common farther north.

The hemlocks on Biltmore don’t look good.  It is not bad management or climate change that did this. This destruction is probably the work of the hemlock wooly adelgid, an invasive pest from Asia that arrived in 1924 and has now spread from Maine to the Carolinas. This is an ecosystem altering monster, although the insect itself  is almost too small to notice. It threatens the existence of hemlocks in eastern North America.  The hemlock is a beautiful tree that grows well in shade. It occupies this special shady niche and w/o the hemlock many of the woods will be a lot more open and hotter. The destruction of the hemlock is a slow motion disaster.

When I first visited Old Rag mountain in the Shenandoah, the start of the trail was shaded by giant hemlocks. That was twenty-five years ago.  Today they are gone.  All that is left are dead and decaying skeletons.  Some of the guide books still describe the cool shade and the deep green solitude of the place, but if you won’t find it no matter how hard you look.  Hemlocks make a particular sound when the wind blows through.

We lost the chestnuts before I was born.  Now the hemlocks are going.   We did manage to bring back the American elm, however, so maybe there is still hope. A lot of good work is being done in biotech and plant breeding.

May 11, 2010

Growing the Best Trees

Below is my article for the next issue of "Virginia's Forests", the publication of the Virginia Forestry Association.  It draws on a blog post from a few months ago, so it might be familiar, but there are changes.  I am going past the farms on Sunday, so I may have some pictures to add.

Growing the Best Trees

I have been a like a proud parent with my forest land, taking pictures of my growing trees and the changing face of the land I own.  One of the tracts was clear-cut in 2003 and the next year replanted with genetically superior loblolly pine,  so the trees are now six years old.   I know that as a relatively new forest owner, I am just experiencing things that many readers have seen long before, but I still think it interesting to mention.

Differences show up

At first the biggest trees were not those planted ones.  The volunteers or the trees that had just been coming up when the stand was cut had a quicker start, and those were the pines I saw and captured in pictures in 2005.  But the equation has been changing. The “old” trees are still growing vigorously in many cases, but the “new” trees have now caught up and generally grown taller. There is one particular place where I have been parking my truck and using it for comparison in pictures each year, where I notice this especially.  A couple years ago, the old trees looked pretty big, but now the new trees are bigger.  The new ones are also shaped better, much less spreading branched and rounded. Beyond all that, the new trees responded much better to my application of biosolids fertilizers. If I can see (and have pictures to prove) this difference in five years, imagine what it will be like in twenty.

Genetic improvements have greatly changed forestry in the last fifty years. This is especially true for loblolly pines, the most commonly planted timber tree in the South, which are unusually adaptable. The “original” loblolly is a fast growing but often crooked and unattractive tree. Some of my volunteer trees show these characteristics.  Genetic improvement can be very simple. You just choose the trees with the best characteristics and try to plant more of them. We are now in the third generation of loblolly and the differences are remarkable.  

The new trees take thirty years to get as big as the original trees did in eighty.  They are also a lot straighter, more resistant to disease and have a better branching structure. You can achieve these goals in different ways. The easiest is the simple one I mentioned above:  Just gather the seeds from the best trees, grow them and repeat.    The trees pollinate themselves, so there is randomness in this process.  Another  method is to control pollination in order to ensure that the best fertilize the best. This is more labor intensive, since you have to put little bags on the trees to be sure that only the right pollen gets to the right flowers.  

Bring on the clones

The most recent method being deployed is cloning, although it is not really new.  Most gardeners have cloned plants.  You can clone a willow or a cottonwood just by shoving a stick into wet ground.  A grove of cottonwoods along a river may all be the same tree – genetically – as trees sprouted from roots or from sticks that lodged in the mud.  I once inadvertently cloned a cottonwood when I used a freshly cut cottonwood branch as a marking stick.  A couple days later it sprouted into a little tree. Pines are harder, but they can be cloned too.  Among the pines, loblolly is relatively easy because it can re-sprout from a cut when it is young. 

I  have to say that I am a bit uncomfortable with using clones. It is too much of a monoculture.  Without the subtle genetic variations, the whole stand may become easier prey for very adaptive bugs or disease, as has happened with some apple varieties.  On my land, I would prefer to go with a little more genetic variety, even if that means lower yields, but that is a judgment each tree farmer must make for him/herself.

Good genetics can move the whole curve higher, but variation remains and good genetics are most profitably deployed as other conditions improve.  As I mention above, the superior trees responded significantly better to my biosolid application.  Many of the costs associated with establishing and managing a stand of trees remain the same no matter what you plant.  If you are planning to expend a lot of energy and time on management, [“planning” is repeated in sentence] you are well advised to spend a little more for genetically superior trees. All trees will do better with better management, but the better trees will do better than the others. 

Improving conditions improve the better trees even more

In other words, the more you improve conditions and remove obstacles, the more results are determined by genetics and the greater the gap between the superior and the inferior trees.  It makes sense when you think in terms of potential.  It doesn’t make much difference if one tree has the genetic potential to grow 80 feet tall in twenty years while another can only grow 40, if limiting conditions prevent any of them from growing more than 30 feet tall.

So what are some of the limiting factors? The most obvious are climate, rainfall, soil and elevation.   These make a difference when choosing a site, but after that they are beyond our control.  We can control, spacing among the trees, thinning schedules, rotation timing, competition control and fertilization.

So I guess the trees you plan to plant or allow to grow on your land should depend on how much you are going to put into it.  If you plan to do not much of anything except cut them sometime in the future, it probably doesn’t pay to invest in superior trees. If no attention is paid to spacing, thinning, fertilization, etc., they won’t grow to their potential anyway and almost any old tree will do.  But the more you plan to do, the more you need to do it right.

I am just enjoying my land and trying to learn as much about forestry as I can, with a little help from my friends and fellow tree farmers.  And when I learn something, I try to pass it on too. That is what it means to be a tree farmer with your land in the American Tree Farm System.

May 02, 2010


Highway 81 through the Shenandoah Valley 

We are back home in Virginia and we have evidently missed spring, at least late spring. It is now summer.  The leaves are all out. Today was hot & humid, mostly humid, at least compared to the cool weather we had when I was last here a couple of weeks ago. It will get more or less cooler again. May is a pleasant month; we usually don’t get that oppressive heat until late June. 

Creek and flowering trees in James Madison Aboretum on April 17, 2010 

I went to see Alex just before I left for California. We went to the arboretum in Harrisonburg, but I never wrote a post or posted the pictures.  It was a pleasant spring day. I am posting the pictures today, but they are a couple weeks out of date.

Flowering trees in James Madison Arborteum 

The Shenandoah is one of most pleasant places on earth in the springtime. The picture on top I-81 that passes through the valley. It is a busy truck route, that carries much of the goods along the East Coast. The trucks make it a hectic drive sometimes. They are bigger than the cars and they know it. The middle pictures are flowering trees in the arboretum.

Spring forest floor at James Madison arboretum 

Pond at James Madison arboretum 

Above is the pond on the arboretum. Below is a pocket park in Arlington. It is near the place where we first lived when I joined the FS. It is just one block of green, enough to give kids a place to play and provide a nice space for the neighbors.

Pocket park on Pershing Av in Arlington VA 

Below is the lawn in the park. It is a "real" lawn with clover and some weeds. I like this better than the chemical lawns so common around malls and new developments. The Chesapeake Bay is polluted with run off. They blame farms and farms do contribute, but at least they also produce something.  But it is just wrong when we use chemicals and fertilizers to create perfect lawns. This one is better all around.

Mixed weedy lawn 

May 01, 2010

Salton Sea & Wind Blasted Rocks

Interstate 10 in the distance 

We left the Joshua Tree National Park and keep on going on a little road toward the Salton Sea. (Above is Interstate 10 in the distance.)  The area is below sea level and w/o irrigation it is a hot and desolate place.  With irrigation, it is a hot and productive place.  This is the Imperial Valley, one of the most bountiful agricultural areas in the world, where a lot of our lettuce, grapes, berries and broccoli come from.

Salton Sea looking south 

The Salton Sea is a fascinating accident related to the irrigation. In 1904 the irrigation dikes broke and almost all the water from the flow of Colorado River poured into the below-sea-level desert depression for almost three years. The escaping water had created a vast fresh-water lake.  It is so big that you cannot see across it.  Had they not fixed the dike, the Colorado River probably might have simply changed course and eventually found its way to the Gulf of California by alternate means. (This, BTW, happened periodically with the Mississippi.   If not for human intervention, the Mississippi probably now be following the route of the Atchafalaya River, bypassing New Orleans.) Geologists say that the Salton Sea has been formed and dried up many times in the past w/o the intervention of man.  You can see the Salton Sea chronology at this link. 

Grapes near Salton Sea in Imperial Valley 

At first it was great.  People put in fish and the bred fast in the warm and empty waters.  But the water in the Salton Sea didn’t stay fresh for long.  The salts and minerals from the lake bottom soon dissolved in the water and with no outlet to the ocean, it was in the same situation as the Dead Sea.  It is getting saltier and saltier.   Many of the fish are dying out.  The only ones still thriving are tilapia, which can survive almost anywhere if the water is warm enough and are now being used for cat food. 

Gas station in Imperial Valley 

The dying of the Salton Sea is a problem from several points of view. Migratory birds have become very fond of using the Salton Sea as a stopover.  If it becomes a dead sea, it cannot serve that purpose.  The State of California is trying to “save” the place, but it is hard to see what they could do, short of breaching the dikes again and sucking in the Colorado River.  It “benefits” from some irrigation discharge, but this is not water of the highest purity. The Salton Sea is essentially a big puddle, with no reliable sources of replenishment or discharge.  It is a very temporary lake and in a moment of geological time it will return to its former condition.

windmills along I 8 

We almost got to Mexico on the last leg of the day’s journey. We caught I-8 in El Centro, California.  Not too far along the road, we were stopped at an immigration checkpoint. I didn’t know they had such things except at the border.

Rock pile mountain 

The road to San Diego is very interesting.  The first set of mountains look like a pile of stones.  If you didn’t know better and they weren’t so massive, you would think that humans dumped and piled these rocks.  It just doesn’t look natural. As I wrote earlier, the wind really blows out here.  They have signs on the roads warning about the high winds.  The winds sandblast the rocks, and everything else, and knock off the rough edges.

As we got farther west, the mountains became green and beautiful.  In other seasons the grass is probably brown, or golden as the Chamber of Commerce might describe it, but the green was really nice. Below is another picture of Chrissy.  Sorry to post so many, but she looks good and really liked the car.

Chrissy driving again

We ended up at the Courtyard Marriott at Liberty Station.This used to be a Naval Training base and now it has been redeveloped into hotels, shops and restaurants.It is very pleasant if a bit too neat, see below. Chrissy has already left for Washington.My flight is a little latter so I am writing this at the airport.It has been an interesting visit to California.

Liberty Station palms in San Diego 

April 30, 2010

Joshua Trees & the High Deserts

Joshua trees 

The only place Joshua trees grow is in parts of the Mojave Desert, on elevations from 2000-6000 feet, and their highest concentration is where they are protected in the Joshua Tree National Park. This is high desert and cooler than the Sonora Deserts lower down and farther south. You pass through the transition zone between these two biomes as you drive south across the park. From the north you cross a vast expanse of Joshua tree savanna.  


Joshua trees are a type of yucca. They don’t grow like ordinary trees, with rings marking each year’s growth, so it is hard to tell how old individuals are. They don’t get very tall. They look sort of like crazy people waving at you. This seems to confirm one of the stories about how they got their names. The story goes that early Mormon settlers thought the trees looked like Joshua welcoming them to the Promised Land.  They were also sometimes called desert oranges.  This story says that land sellers wanted to entice settlers to this barren land, so they not only implied that these were productive fruit trees, but even went around and tied some oranges to the trees near the roads. It evidently didn’t fool anybody.

Joshua tree specimenThe landscape is beautiful in that harsh sort of way, a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here. We were seeing it at its best time. Spring rains have made it greener than usual.  The day was very windy, which I understand is fairly common. That is why they have all those windmills nearby.  It also explains the sculptured roundness of the rock outcroppings: natural sandblasting smooths off the rough edges.  

The Joshua trees dominate the open spaces, but in among the rock outcroppings you find pinion pine, California juniper and scrub oak. These communities are under some stress, however. The climate was wetter until the 1930s. The same hot and dry conditions that provoked the dust bowl affected the local climate. I couldn’t find out details about this, but evidently the previous relatively more verdant environment did not return. There are hot/dry and cool/moist cycles in climatic patterns and this could not have been anything new to the plant and animal communities. 

scrub oak and pinion pines at Joshua Tree NP 

The difference may have been human development. Cattle grazing took out some of the natural cover and made it less resistant to the changes.  But the bigger problem seems to be invasive species, such as cheatgrass. These things deliver a double punch.   During wetter periods, they fill in below and among the pines and oak. In drier times, they die back, but don’t quickly decompose. This makes wildfires hotter and more destructive, which kills some of the trees that would have otherwise survived. When the area regenerates, these non-native grasses form a thick layer of turf that makes it harder for the pine and oak seedlings to get a roothold. This is not a very generous environment and there are not that many second chances.  

Cactus flowers at Joshua Tree NP 

IMO, the native environment is better than what we will get if we let the invasive take over, but it will be sustainable only with a little human intervention and probably chemical warfare. BasF makes a good herbicide that can take out cheat-grass and its ilk, while leaving the oaks and pines intact.  This should probably be done periodically. I don’t know if it is. I would get more involved if I lived nearby.  This is certainly an environment worth saving. Doing nothing is not a good option.

Rock climbers at Joshua Tree NP on April 28, 2010 

Above - Joshua Tree NP is a favorite for rock climbers. Below is a lake made by ranchers for cattle by building a dam at a runoff point.

Barker Dam at Joshua Tree NP

Below is the dam holding back the water. The little lake has become a major wildlife attraction, as one of the only steady water sources in this arid place.

Barker Dam at Joshua Tree NP 

April 29, 2010

Windy Energy Alternatives

windmills on road to Palm 

It has been very windy today and I can understand why they built all the windmills as we drove through the forests of them to get from the coast to Palm Springs. 

Wind power was the topic of NPR’s Science Friday a few weeks ago, this time from Oklahoma. If you read between the lines, you understand why alternative power is still alternative. When one of the producers of wind turbines was asked why he wasn’t selling more in windy Oklahoma, he honestly responded that electricity rates were too low. His turbines couldn’t compete with the stuff from the grid. There’s more.


I generally favor a diverse portfolio of energy. I am especially fond of biomass fuel, specifically wood chips. But I recognize that even with this simple and well-known fuel there are problems. The biggest challenge to almost all fuels is that they are not where you need them to be. I have acres of wood literally rotting away, but gathering it up and transporting it cost more than it is worth.

What annoys me about some of the alternative fuel advocates is their unjustifiably smug attitude that they have found some big thing and that the only reason it is not widely used is because everybody else is stupid or “big companies” are too greedy to allow it. Besides overlooking obvious drawbacks in the fuels themselves, they are almost always overlooking costs and troubles of transport and distribution. They sort of assume these are free or should be covered by someone else.

So let’s talk about wind power. Wind is free; capturing it is not and neither is getting it from where the wind is blowing to where the energy it produces will be used. A caller to the NPR program talked about getting off the grid with wind power. The guy who sells the turbines admitted that you really need the grid. Wind is unreliable and if you wanted to be off the grid, you would have to invest around $100,000 for all the back-up systems you would need to keep the lights on. The grid costs money to build and maintain. If you account only for the cost of the turbines, you are missing the biggest investments. It is like the kid who thinks he pays the whole cost of a car by filling up the gas tank on weekends.

Most people will not have their own wind turbines. That means that the turbines will be some distance from the consumers. The wind blows mostly on the plains and in the ocean, far away from cities and factories. So we need transmission lines. But we need more than the kinds of transmission lines we have already. Big power plants need transmission lines, but they are at least coming from the same place. Wind turbines are by necessity spread out. You need transmission lines from the wind farms to the cities, but you also need lines between and among the turbines.

Transmission lines are not free and they are not 100% ecologically benign. Each time you build transmission lines, you also cut through the environment, across streams and migration routes, to build roads to service the line and you build pylons every 100 yards. That’s a lot of rock, steel and concrete when you add it up over many of miles, not to mention lots of gas burned by crews building, checking and maintaining it all. So when anybody tells you that a wind farm takes up only a couple acres, recall the many miles of transmission lines. I personally have eight acres under power lines. I can't grow trees there and while I think it is good to have it as edge community (it can be managed as excellent quail habitat) too many of these kinds things will fragment environments.

The fact is that we use carbon based fuels because they are cheaper, easier to move and more convenient to use than alternatives. When alternatives get to be cheaper, easier and more convenient, they stop being alternatives and just get to be mainstream. That is what it means to be a viable alternative. As long as earnest advocates have to try to convince skeptics about its virtues, it is not viable. Energy consumer really aren't that dumb. When something really is cheaper and easier it won't take earnest advocates; they try very hard to get more of it.

Wind, solar and other alternatives are indeed getting cheaper. When their time comes, there will be no stopping them.  (I assume that the wind turbines we passed make some money.)  Until that time artificially pumping them up won't really make it happen. And we have to remember that no form of energy is trouble free. There are always trade-offs.

April 27, 2010

Pea Soup, the Wisdom of Crows & Torrey Pines

I have a few odds and ends that are not enough for a whole post, but I don’t want to lose.

Crows at San Simeon 

Wisdom of crows

Crows are among the most intelligent birds.  It is something you notice when you just walk around.  They have a sentry in the tallest trees and they caw differentially as you walk under.  If you are carrying a shotgun, they all fly off.  If you are unarmed, they just ignore you.

Crows at San Simeon 

The job of eating food scraps around people eating lunch outside is usually the job of pigeons but at San Simeon the task belongs to crows.  The crows are scarier and not only because they are shiny black and raven-like.   Unlike pigeon, which are just stupidly annoying, you can see the calculating intelligent in the crows’ black eyes. The pigeons also are little fat-boys; crows look lean and mean.  You don’t want to mess with the crows, especially if you are driving a convertible.  You know that they will forget you never more and maybe come back to retaliate. BTW, Alfred Hitchcock filmed "The Birds" up the coast.

Speaking of bird-brained intelligence, turkeys are really dumb. They used to be thought “elusive” but that was only because there were not many of them.   A couple of them wandered across the road on our farm.  They just stood there in front of the truck. I had to get out and toss stones in their general direction. I am pretty sure that I could have caught them with my bare hands. 

The turkey population has exploded over the past couple of decades and our scientific understanding of them has changed.  We used to think that turkeys needed large ranges and significant protection to survive.  Today we have learned that any decent sized clump of trees will do, whether it is next to a farm field or a suburban street.   We should probably encourage more hunting of these big birds, along with the now ubiquitous Canada geese.   Some people could probably save a lot on food bills.

Chrissy at Andersen's restaurant in Buellton, California 

Pea’s porridge hot

We stopped off at a Danish bakery and pea soup restaurant. The Andersen restaurant claimed to be selling pea soup since 1924. Pea soup was one of my father’s staple menu items (along with bean soup, polish sausage and green tomatoes) and I like pea soup. 

Andersen pea soup restaurant 

I don’t often make it because you have to make big pots of it at a time. The canned varieties just aren’t right, even Progresso, which usually produces good soups. Chrissy and I both got pea soup in a sourdough bread bowl. The bread mixed with the soup made it into pea’s porridge. It was good and worth the stop.

The world’s biggest Torrey pine

World's largest torrey pineWe stopped in Carpinteria to get gas. We didn’t, because the gas station (yes we passed only one) charged a $.45 “convenience fee” for using a credit card.  I can't believe there is still a place that doesn’t have a pay at the pump, much less charging a “convenience fee.”  It was an Arco Station, which I thought was a major company.  

But it was worth the diversion. As we stopped looking for another gas station and decided to turn back to the highway, we noticed a very large pine tree. I got out to take a look and noticed the plaque that claimed that this was the largest Torrey pine in the world.

The Torrey pine is locally endangered in the wild of its own natural range, where few of the species get as big as the one we saw and most are slow-growing and picturesquely twisted. But it is grows fast, tall and straight when used in plantations in Australia and New Zealand. It just doesn’t like it at home.

I bet that if we looked hard enough, we would find that the largest Torrey pine in the world is in Australia or New Zealand - if not now, soon. I read that the tallest California redwoods will soon be the ones planted in New Zealand during the 19th Century. I saw some really beautiful sequoia trees at the Ambassador's house in Geneva and a whole beautiful forest of redwoods growing on the hills near Sintra in Portugal. In fact, Sintra has a castle a lot like a smaller version of San Simeon.

April 26, 2010

El Camino Real Spanish established a road, El Camino Real or the royal road, from San Diego to San Francisco to connect and supply their missions and forts.  Today I-5 and U.S. 101 follow the route and we drove along both today on our way from San Diego to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.

The route is marked with bells suspended from question mark shaped pipes.  These are good promotion and the reason we noticed that we were on the route. 

I originally rented a Chevy Cobalt and I used it to drive up to the botanical garden mentioned in the last post, but it was such a crappy car that I took it back to Alamo before I picked up Chrissy.   Chrissy always said that she wanted to drive a convertible, so I splurged and surprised her with one.  It was fun to drive in the convertible on the coastal highway and we look forward to more fun when we drive inland to Joshua Tree National Park. 

Below is Chrissy with the car. 

The coastal highway goes through some beautiful county.   The part I like the best is the oak savanna.  I think they call them oak woodlands out here.  The ones along the coast tend to feature California live oak.  They are similar to oak openings in the Midwest, but the California hills are more majestic, especially when set against the Pacific surf.  The park-like widely spaced oak forests make a truly pleasant environment.  They are maintained by frequent low-intensity fires and are endangered when fires are too carefully prevented by humans.

California oak savanna 

Above is an example of the oak savanna/oak woodland biome.  Below is the road ahead north of San Luis Obispo. 


April 25, 2010

Conservation too Conservative becomes Pointless Preservation


Relationships long established should not be changed for light or transient causes.  Everything exists in a complex web of interrelationships and changing any part may bring unexpected systemic changes and unwelcome changes.  But everything is always in the process of becoming something else.  Change is constant and avoiding it is not an option.  The best we can do is work toward sustainable, predictable change.

Citrus groves 

I thought about change and continuity, as I walked through the Quail Botanical Gardens north of San Diego.   The Southern California environment most people know, love and want to preserve is largely man-made, as I wrote in an earlier post.   The local environment has a lot in common with some places in South Africa, the Mediterranean and Australia, so plants from those places tend to do well in Southern California. Below, however, is a familiar tree from Brazil. I never knew what it was called. It is a floss silk tree (weird name).

floss silk tree 

There is some emphasis on trying to reestablish native or nature ecosystems.  IMO, sustainable is important; natural or native really are not. The problem with natural is that the concept is too slippery and unrealistic.  As for native, it all depends. Native plants and animals might be well adapted to the local environment and fit in the overall environment, but sometimes non-native plants and animals can be as good, or better. I am glad that banana, oranges, apples, wheat, potatoes, horses, honeybees etc have spread beyond their narrow native regions ... and improved in the process. 

Sustainable, usually means a decent diversity and some non-native plants can become invasive, obliterating too much of the competition.  It is also possible that invasive species might have undesirable characteristics. But it requires judgment of the whole system.  There is no blanket native = good/non-native bad formula.  Some native species may have become un-viable because of other changes in the environment.   We cannot reestablish “pristine” environment and we have to resist the feeling that “what was, is good.”

With all the changes of the last century, and all that will come in this one, what used to be "natural" will no longer be sustainable.  That is why sustainable is better than natural.

Cork grove 

Above is a grove of cork-oak. The bark can be harvested every ten years or so after they mature.  they live around 150 years.  Cork grows naturally in Spain, Portugal and parts of N. Africa. Below is an old world desert plant landscape.

old world desert 


April 04, 2010

Spring Forest Visit

Cloverfield at CP showing six year old loblolly pines 

It was a little early to go down to the farms. The trees haven’t quite started to grow yet and the clover is still small and not flowering. I will be back in a few weeks. But I wanted to check on flood damage now. Above are the trees near the clover field at the top of the hill. The truck gives perspective. The land was clear cut in 2003, so you can see how much the trees have grown since then. The biosolids helped them grow faster last year. Below is another truck comparison. There is an interesting detail. Look at the two trees behind the truck. The round top one is a "volunteer" i.e. natural regeneration. It was probably a little tree when the place was cut. The one next to it is a planted genetically "super tree." Because of their location at the crossroad, I have been paying attention to this place. The round top tree was twice as big as the ones around it when I first noticed. Today, you can see that the one next to it is a little bigger and I expect that after this growing season it will be significantly bigger. I will take another picture.

Comparion with truck at crossroad on April 3, 2010 

I saw clear evidence of heavy rain and lots of runoff, but no real damage. The places near the streams overflowed, but that doesn’t hurt the trees. The water is running UNDER one of the water pipes. I figure it will undercut the road, but I don't think there is much to do about it. I will put in a load of rocks and turn it into a ford when/if it collapses. I think it will be better for the water to run over instead of under. 

Wetland on CP 

One of the little streams changed course last year. It went back to its older course. When I dig down, I find sand and gravel all over, indicating that the stream has changed course a lot. It creates wetlands until the mud piles up into natural levies, and then it moves again. You can see from the picture above that there have been times when the ground was dry for a long time.  The dead trees were alive when I got the place in 2005, when the stream shifted and evidently drown the roots in wetland. I suppose that now the stream has shifted again, it will be dryer, although the whole place is spongy.

I also think that runoff will decrease over time as the trees on the slopes get bigger and their roots absorb more of the water before it hits the streams. 

I want to get the trees on the Freeman tract thinned this year or next, before I get to Brazil.   Above you can see from the comparison with the truck that the trees are big enough and thick enough. They will be fourteen years old this year, which is a little early for thinning but within the range.  Below is the power line right-of-way. They replaced the wooden pylons with steel and kind of tore up the grass. I have eight acres under those things. I am looking into establishing quail habitat, since I cannot plant trees (or allow them to grow) that would interfere with the wires.  On the plus side, it provides a long area of forest edge and wildlife plot and the utility company maintains the road. 

March 24, 2010

Various Facts About Foresty around the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge

Skid trails during forestry operation 

I drove with Frank Sherwood to the Virginia tree farm of the year and got a chance to talk to him as we walked around on the ground. Frank has been doing forestry in Virginia for thirty-five years and I got some good information on drive down from Winchester. 

This area of Virginia features a lot of mixed hardwoods and white pines. I was very familiar with white pines form Wisconsin, but I really had a lot to learn about them. For example, white pine wood is light and not as hard or strong as loblolly.  It is good for fence rails (it doesn’t twist) and it is used in log cabins, but it is not as much use as structural timber.  Frank lamented that there is not much of a market for white pine saw timber in the immediate area, besides in those two limited uses. A lot of the local white pine had not grown straight and un-branched.   The newer plantations are doing better. 

White pines have not been developed genetically as well as loblolly and it is less likely to be planted, since natural regeneration works very well.   A white pine rotation is around fifty years (15-18 years longer than loblolly) with two possible thinning. 

Pulp prices have remained steady over the years, Frank told me.   Some people are a little concerned about biofuels, which would compete with pulp and drive the prices up (good for landowners), but there currently is not a biofuels market in the Winchester region.  You can make ethanol from cellulous, but it is not worth it with today’s technologies.   That means that effective biofuels for wood is to burn it directly and for that you need local facilities that burn it.   The alternative is to make wood pellets, but that industry is also not present locally.

Landowners have a couple options for timber selling.  The one you get the most money for is saw timber.  Saw timber will yield $150-400 per 1000 board feet.  Pulp is the cheapest, maybe biofuels in the near future.  Pulp yields $5-7 a ton for pine and $2-3 for hardwood.  In between is scragwood.  These are small diameter but straight trees that can be sawed into rough boards used in crates and pallets.

Frank feeds the mill in Luke, Maryland.  He says that the mill’s catchment area is getting bigger because it is harder to find wood in local areas.  Development and forest fragmentation are the causes.  You can do forestry on small tracts, but at some point it gets to be economically unviable.  You probably need around forty acres to do decent management. Development has been taking forestry out of business. Although the recent economic downturn has stopped much of it, development will resume when the good times roll again. Too bad.

Frank doesn’t know of anybody using biosolids or animal manure on forest lands in this part of the Shenandoah valley or around.  There are several chicken operations (we drove past a Perdue operation) that produce a fair amount of chickenshit, but Frank didn’t know what they did with it.  Chickenshit is a powerful fertilizer, high in potassium, but as I understand it, chickenshit has to be left to decompose a little otherwise it can burn out the crops.  IMO forest lands would be a good place to dispose of some of these farm wastes.  There is a lot of forest and they could absorb and use the nitrogen and phosphate w/o letting it slip into the Chesapeake Bay. Of course, the problem is transportation. Manure is bulky, heavy and stinky.

The problem is concentration.  These large animal operations concentrate the crap. That changes it from a valuable fertilizer into a potential pollution problem. The difference between a life-giving medicine and a deadly poison is often the dosage.

Anyway, those are some of the things I learned from Frank.  The biggest benefit of writing the tree farm of the year article is getting to talk to people like him while actually setting foot on the forests.

March 23, 2010

2010 Virginia Tree Farm of the Year Visit

American Tree Farm system sign 

Noble Laesch, the father of the current owner Judith Gontis, bought this acreage in the late 1960s and it has been a certified tree farm for the last twenty-eight years. Laesch and Gontis did not live on the land and so for the last twenty-eight years it has been forester Frank Sherwood’s business and pleasure to look after these 927 acres of hilly mixed forest just inside the Rockingham County line.

White pine understory with mixed hardwoods on top

It is a tree farm with great diversity in terms of species composition, topography, soils and microclimates. The ridges are still dominated by mixed hardwoods, although gradually white pines are taking over, both through natural processes and forestry practices. We looked at a logging operations and examined some of the recently cut stumps during a recent visit. The partially shade tolerant white pines had seeded in naturally under an older stand of mixed hardwood, mostly scarlet oak, but were suppressed until released by the forestry operation. 

 We counted 130 rings on a scarlet oak stump. For the first sixty years of life, the tree grew slowly and crookedly. It is clear that there were too many trees here competing for sun, nutrients and water. We have no record of how the neighboring trees were thinned, but the tree started to grow much faster at around sixty until it slowed in older age. Unfortunately, although very big, this scarlet oak, like most of the others in the stand, had begun to rot in the middle. It was past time to remove them and give the white pines their time in the sun. Within a few years this will be an almost pure stand of white pine.

Cutover grown up after around five years.

Farther down the hill was a recently thinned plantation, a total of 126 acres of twenty-year-old white pine and a clear cut left to regenerate naturally in white pine. The trees were vigorous but widely spaced. The blueberries had come in very thickly and perhaps they just outran the pine seedlings.   The plantation was clearly better for timber production, but the naturally regenerated area had cost nothing to plant and the widely spaced trees were providing excellent openings for wildlife.   As with any management plan, it depends on what the landowner wants and it was interesting to see the side-by-side comparison of different choices.

The tulip-poplars that grow so profusely on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge do well here too, but only in coves or bowls that have deeper soil than the rocky and sometimes sandy slopes.   In these places you find towering tulip poplars that can be harvested at regular intervals and regenerated naturally.

The rest of the tree farm is mixed hardwoods, especially white and red oak, plus some maples, as well as white pine.  This is white pine country. Although loblolly can be grown here too, the white pines do it naturally. With Frank Sherwood’s advice, Mrs. Gontis, as her father before her, manages for pulp and saw timber mostly through selective cuttings.  

Like all well-managed tree farms, this one provides a home for wildlife, a place for recreation and protection for water resources. The farm is drained by Runion Creek, whose waters find their way into the Shenandoah and the Potomac and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. Although there is some development in the region, it looks like this tree farm and its 927 acres will continue to provide these kinds of ecological services for years to come. 

March 22, 2010

130 +/- Years

Tree rings on a 130 +/- scarlet oak from Rockingham Co VA taken on March 22, 2010The stump is from a scarlet oak that started life sometime around 1870 up the hills just over the northern boundary of Rockingham County, where I was visiting this year's tree farm of the year. I didn’t count all the rings, but it is close. I sharpened a little on the picture so you can see the pattern. It tells a little about Virginia history.

You can see that it grew hardly at all for the first sixty years. This is probably because it was severely overcrowded. This area was almost completely cut over in the decades before the Civil War. Some of the wood was used for building, mining supports & staves, but mostly for charcoal for little foundries and lime kilns in the region. The trees grew back after the industries moved along and they came back thick and for about sixty years, roughly from 1870-1930 there wasn’t enough sun or water to go around. (In those days there weren’t as many deer and other varmints around. These days, they would browse down some of the trees.) Our tree was also leaning a little. You can see that it grew as a reaction more on one side.

But something happened around 1930. Somebody probably cut down some of the trees.  Or it could have been a fire or insect infestation, but that seems less likely, since whatever it was didn’t harm our tree here. In fact, it started to grow a lot faster, until it slowed again down because of its age.

Scarlet oaks are part of the red oak family, but they are among the worst members. They wood is not as good northern or southern red oaks and scarlet oaks tend to rot in the heart or have other irregularities. The logger said that the logs in the pile shown in the picture were probably not up to saw timber standards because of this.

Stacking logs 

All members of the red oaks family have open pores, which is why they cannot be used for barrels and generally do not do well when exposed to water. Even as seasoned firewood, they can hiss when burned, since they absorb water easily and a little rain will soak in. The oak whiskey barrels used for Bourbon whiskey are always white oak. White oak also makes better firewood. 

There were mostly scarlet oaks on this ridge, mixed with white pines. White pines are partially shade tolerant when they are young, so they will come in under the oaks. The loggers cut out the scarlet oaks and the forest will come back as mostly pine. The scarlet oaks were almost done anyway. Many were already rotting in the centers and they were well past prime as timber trees.

yellow poplars in cove with deep soil in Rockingham County VA 

This part of Virginia is white pine country, at least on the hillsides. In the coves, where the soil is deeper, the yellow-poplars do very well. The picture above shows some of them. They grow very fast. This stand has been harvested twice since the late 1970s and it is ready for a third cut, as you can see.

Yellow-poplar is good for furniture inside drawers and cabinets with veneer of oak or other high quality wood on the outside. Yellow-poplar doesn't shrink or swell very much, so it is good for that purpose. 

I will write more about this subject tomorrow. 

February 21, 2010

Rain Dancing

70+ year old Ford engine still pumping water from the Euphrates for irrigation in Iraq

Sometimes there is nothing you can do, but everybody expects you to do something. That is the time for the rain dance. Put on a good show, create a lot of sound & fury to keep people occupied so that they will keep you around long enough for things to improve, so you get credit. Politicians are master rain dancers, butt all of us have done a few. Sometimes you just have to be seen to be doing something.

I have been reading a book about real rain dances, called Floods, Famines and Emperors:  El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations.  The author talks about the various times when climate change caused civilizations to thrive and crash.   One chapter talks about the Pueblo of the Southwest.  (I think that is where the term “rain dance” comes from, BTW.)  Their population expanded during relatively wet times and then their populations starved and dispersed during when the same Medieval warm period that brought prosperity to Western Europe brought droughts to Southwestern North America that lasted decades or centuries.  Changes always bring winners and losers.

The author Brian Fagan says that a lot of early civilizations were based in part on the implication that priests and rulers could control the weather. Their activities to do this ranged from the merely wasteful to the downright gruesome.  A lot of complicated rituals and ceremonies were designed to do things like make the Nile flow or bring on the season rains.  The ancient Maya seem to have based their belief system on the need to capture, humiliate, torture and kill people from neighboring areas in order to sacrifice them and appease bloodthirsty gods who otherwise would bring drought and destruction.  They left some nice pyramids, but living through in those times must have been like being a minor character in a endless horror movie.   Unfortunately, these kinds of superstitions were the rule and not the exception in pre-scientific societies.

At our safe distance, we sometimes think of these superstitions in the benign fairy-tale sense of an enchanted forest full of fairies, elves etc. But think of how horrible it would be if you really believed it. The pre-scientific world must have been a frightening place. Everything you did could offend some spirit or nymph, so you needed to turn to shaman, witch or priest to protect you from capricious nature, which they (and you) attributed to benign or malevolent intelligence that had to be mollified.  

Some ritual had to be performed, but nobody was ever was sure if they worked.  Of course, they didn’t work but sometimes they might look like they did. If I do ceremonies to make it rain, and it eventually rains, I take credit.  A smart shaman probably had an intuitive sense of probability, so he did his rituals at times when things were moving in the right direction. You can see how the shaman might have added some value by his experience, on balance, however not. 

I suppose superstition is a step toward science. Alchemy led to some real discoveries about chemistry and physics. Astrology gave us some of the tools later needed by astronomers. 

Superstitions are an attempt to put some planning and order into an unpredictable world.   The problem is mostly based on mistaking correlation for causality, poor record keeping and the evidently natural human propensity to see patterns that don’t exist. Superstitions are a kind of distortion of reason, but they can be ostensibly reasonable.    

Of course, we still do rain dances too. The world is still an unpredictable place.

Anyway, I recommend Floods, Famines and Emperors. A lot of his ideas seemed very familiar, but I didn’t put it together until I started writing this that I had read one of his earlier books called The Long Summer.  It is still sitting on my bookshelf. These books help put the climate change debate in its historical perspective. We have been here before and maybe some perspective on how earlier climate changes affected earlier people may help us in the future.

February 13, 2010

National Climate Service

NOAA is establishing a National Climate Service, analogous to the National Weather Service. This is a good step for the very practical reason that it will facilitate planning and adapting to changes in climate. But it also carries with it the legendary pitfalls of prognostication.

You can listen to the NPR story about it at this link.

Weather predictions have become a lot more reliable in the last ten years. You can make reasonable plans based on hours of the day. For example, I was able to make drive across my state ahead of a blizzard because the weather service was able to accurately predict sun in the morning before the blizzard hit in the afternoon. Climate prediction is still not up to the scientific level of weather prediction, but it is getting better. We should soon be able to make reasonable predictions on the regional and sub-regional level.

This brings the obvious blessing that we can take advantage of changes and/or minimize losses. For example, as I have said on many occasions, it is positively insane to rebuild the below-sea-level parts of New Orleans. We should not extend subsidized flood or storm insurance to any new construction on low-lying coastal plains and we should encourage people to move to higher ground, even if that means building higher premiums into insurance policies and mortgages of those who won't.

BTW - we DO NOT have to mandate this, if we just refrain from getting governments to subsidize or require insurance or mortgages be available at "reasonable" rates. The market will sort out which places are too risky. If someone is willing to insure your house on a mud-slope, it is his business and yours. People can build if they want, but we should not become accomplices to stupidity. We might also plan to retire some crops or cropland and get read to move into others. Advanced plant breeding and biotechnology will be a great help here.

Climate change will create winners and losers. Having a reasonable idea of the shape of the changes will make it possible to reap more of the benefits and suffer fewer of the penalties. But think of the troubles along the way.

Somebody today owns valuable land near major ports or in the middle of today’s most productive agricultural land. On the other hand, somebody today owns near worthless land. These might change places. Think of the ports around Hudson Bay. How many of us can even name one? If you look at a globe instead of a flat map, you can see that Hudson Bay is more convenient to many parts of Europe or Asia than is Los Angeles or New Orleans. The problem until now has been ice. The place was locked up most of the year. If this changes, so does the shipping calculation.

Are the current owners of prime real estate and infrastructure going to welcome all the newcomers? Are they going to welcome a study that shows investors and government decision makers a future that makes their wealth creation machines redundant?

Woe to the GS-13 bureaucrat who issues the report proving that no more government aid should go to New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Imagine how much more this will be true of more crucial and expensive infrastructure owned by politically powerful people and interests.

I think the National Climate Service is an excellent and useful idea. It will help us adapt and prosper in the future. But I fear the daunting politics.

I remember talking to a guy from North Carolina during disastrous floods a few years ago. He told me that they had detailed maps that could accurately predict almost the exact shape of a flood, but they couldn’t use them because people objected when the places they wanted to build were shown to be in the middle of seasonal swamps. We have seen this kind of stupidity in New Orleans and continue to see it.

There is a whole genre of literature involved with someone getting a prediction of future events and being unable to do anything about it. Predictors are dismissed (e.g. Cassandra) or often the twist is that the very attempt to stop the predicted event is what brings on the tragedy (e.g. Oedipus Rex). Let’s hope that our prognostication works out better.   

February 10, 2010

Snow - Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

We are off from work again today and the government will be closed again tomorrow. They say that we got more snow this year than any time in recorded history. This is less impressive when you recall that they have kept detailed weather records for only a little more than 100 years. Nevertheless, it is a lot of snow and it has been a cold season. 

There is a real blizzard today and I can see why nobody should be driving. Espen tried to drive the truck to visit one of his nearby friends. He got stuck in our complex. Fortunately, Chrissy and I could walk over and dig/push him out. Yesterday, however, wasn’t bad until around 5pm. In fact, the main roads were perfectly clear.  As I wrote in yesterday’s post, I drove down to the forestry conference in Keswick , near Charlottesville. It is a little more than a two hour drive. 

I took a little different way than usual. I started down I66 to US29 as usual, but then I cut off on US15 through Culpepper and Orange. The drive takes you through a really beautiful countryside, full of horse farms and vineyards with the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop.   James Madison’s estate is nearby and so is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The soil is good and the climate is moderate. You can see what it looks like covered in snow. It is even prettier in springtime. 

February 09, 2010

Nature versus Nurture

The debate about whether heredity or environment is more important in shaping human behavior has been a hot topic for many years. The “blank slate” idea dominated thinking when I was on college and I remember being embarrassed by the castigation I got from one of my anthropology professors for suggesting that human events were influenced by genetics.  We have reached a more nuanced understanding, but books like “The Blank Slate”, by Stephen Pinker still cause controversy.   And suggesting innate differences among people can still get you in serious trouble in some places. 

The tree and genetic determinism

So let me talk about genetic determinism in trees. Presumably none of them will be insulted or feel that I have diminished their self esteem. Getting the best genetic stock and managing it for optimal results (nature & nurture) was a topic at the Forest Landowners’ conference on forest productivity that I attended.  They were going to hold it at the Virginia Department of Forestry in Charlottesville, but the snow knocked out the electricity, so they moved it to the Rivanna Volunteer Fire Department (above), where they have a big meeting room (below). 

Both genetics and environment are important and they build on and affect each other.  The anger of my anthropology professor just showed that he was not qualified to teach the subject.  Unfortunately he was reflecting the mainstream scientific consensus of those times.

Genetic improvement changed forestry

Genetic improvements have greatly changed forestry in the last fifty years. This is especially true for loblolly pines, the most commonly planted timber tree in the South, which are unusually adaptable. The “original” loblolly is a fast growing but often crooked and ugly tree. Genetic improvement can be very simple. You just choose the trees with the best characteristics and try to plant more of them.  We are now in the third generation of loblolly and the differences are remarkable.  

The new trees take thirty years to get as the original trees get to be in eighty.  They are also a lot straighter, more resistant to disease and have a better branching structure. You can achieve these goals in different ways. The easiest is the simple one I mentioned above.  Just gather the seeds from the best trees; grow them and repeat.   In this system the trees pollinate themselves, so there is randomness in this process.  A next step is to control pollination to ensure that the best fertilize the best. This is more labor intensive, since you have to put little bags on the trees to be sure that only the right pollen gets to the right flowers.  

Below are Virginia pines squashed by the snow.  Virginia pines are weedy trees and not much use. They don't live long and break easily.  I saw lots of broken Virginia pines along the road. 

Bring on the clones

The latest step is cloning. Let's explain a little about cloning in plants, lest we think about a “Caprica” scenario. Most gardeners have cloned plants.  You can clone a willow or a cottonwood just by shoving a stick into wet ground.  If you see a bunch of cottonwoods along a river, there is a good chance that they are all the same tree – genetically – as trees sprouted from roots or from sticks that lodged in the mud. I once inadvertently cloned a cottonwood when I used a freshly-cut cottonwood branch as a marking stick.  A couple days later it sprouted into a little tree. Pines are harder, but they can be done. The clones are all genetically identical, so they can be a good test for the nature v nurture question.

Good genetics can move the whole curve higher, but variation remains and good genetic are the most profitable deployed as other conditions improve.    Many of the costs associated with establishing and managing the stand of trees remain the same no matter what you plant.  If you are planning to expend a lot of energy and time on management and planning, you are well advised to spend a little more for genetically superior trees.  All trees will do better with better management, but the better trees will do better than the others. 

Improving conditions make good genes more important

In other words, the more you improve conditions and remove obstacles, the more import genetics becomes to the results and the greater the gap between the superior and the inferior trees.  It makes sense when you think in terms of potential.  It doesn’t make much difference if one tree has the genetic potential to grow  80 feet tall in twenty years while another can only grow 40, if limiting conditions prevent any of  the trees from growing more than 30 feet tall.

Limiting factors

So what are some of the limiting factors? The most obvious are climate, rainfall, soil and elevation.   These make a difference when choosing a site, but after that they are beyond our control.  But there are many limiting factors that we can control, including spacing among the trees, thinning schedules, rotation timing, competition control & fertilization.


Trees will grow faster and stronger if there is more space between them.  It is like thinning flowers in a garden. Everything else being equal, a similar amount of wood will grow on a given piece of ground no matter how thick or thin the trees are planted, but the health and quality will be very different.   If planted too thick, you will have lots of small, maybe worthless trees.   The optimal number of trees per acre is still debated among foresters.  

Some of it depends on your goal.  If you want to produce lots of pulp, you might want to plant thick.  If you are trying to grow saw timber, you need to plant thinner.  Another consideration is that if the trees are close enough together, they will sooner shade out competition and also shade out lower branches so that the trees will essentially prune themselves, leaving wood with fewer knots.


Thinning schedules are a type of spacing issue, but with additional considerations. Thinning does not have to be a random selection.  You can take out the inferior trees when you thin, so thinning both produces more space, more sun, water etc, but also leaves the better trees.

Controlling competition

Competition control is crucial. If you don’t control hardwoods, they will out-compete pines in most situations. Some hardwoods, such as gum and tulip trees just grow faster, but hardwoods also often have the advantage of an established root system, since they sprout from stumps or roots even after many years of being shaded out. Hardwoods can be controlled with physical methods, such as cutting, but the best way to control hardwoods these days is chemical.  

BasF makes a couple of products called “Chopper” and “Arsenal”. They kill most hardwoods but leave the pines. Unfortunately, they don’t work very well with herbaceous plants or with blackberries, which easily over top the little trees, but they still do a good job with the hardwood competition, which is the key.   

It is smart to spray with Chopper when you are establishing a pine stand. After that, you can go in with backpack sprayers.  The boys and I killed off a couple acres of invasive Ailanthus using hack and squirt (where you smack the stem with a machete and then squirt in some arsenal) and I still have to go after individuals constantly. The good thing for the landowner is that the prices of these chemical has plummeted, as they have gone off patent. IMO it is still good to buy the name brand because they support the product better and the name brand product is also fairly cheap.


Fertilization is still not much used in forestry but it can increase yields. Most forests in Virginia grow on bad soil, either naturally poor or depleted by bad farming practices of times past. (The key crops of Southern Virgina, cotton and tobacco, are hard on soils.)  If the soil is good, the land is usually devoted to row crops, which pay more than trees.  (An exception is recently converted tobacco land. When the government stopped supporting tobacco crops, many tobacco farmers left the business and the land has been planted in trees. These trees are only a few years old, but they seem to be growing well.) 

Deficient Virginia soils

Virginia forest soils are almost always deficient in phosphorus and nitrogen and trees grow a lot faster when they are provided with them. You have to give both, since just providing one or the other doesn’t do much good.  You can fertilize when the stand is established and or fertilize after 6-10 years. Until that time, there is usually enough P & N for the little trees.

I fertilized my CP property with biosolids in September 2008.  It seems to have given them a good jump. 

Anyway, those are some of the things I learned at the meeting. I have drifted a little from the nature versus nurture.  I think both are important.  We cannot choose between them, since it is nearly impossible  to know where the effects of one stop and the other start and they actually change each other by being in contact. As the trees show, equalizing or improving opportunity and conditions will make genetics more  - not less - important and will make inequality more - not less - acute.  The trees don’t care; people might.

February 08, 2010

Shiploads of Snow; Vibrant Spring Expected

Dulles Airport got 32 inches of snow, a record amount. Reagan-National only got 17 inches.  This is the 4th largest amount.  But it ain’t over. It is good to have Espen at home for the snow. He is a strong boy and actually shoveled us out w/o us even having to ask.

Espen digging out the driveway on February 7, 2010 

We didn’t have to go to work today. The government was closed. It will be closed again tomorrow.  They already announced it. I am betting that the government will be closed on Wednesday too.  We are supposed to get another foot of snow on Tuesday/Wednesday night. That will paralyze our Nation’s capital again. Below you can get an idea of the snowfall with the picture of our cross the street neighbor making a path.

Digging out from the blizzard of February 6, 2010 

We had around three feet of snow on the back deck. I was a little afraid that another foot of wet snow would cause a collapse, so I pushed most of it off. On the radio, they warned people not to overdo the snow cleanup and specifically not to push the snow off their own roofs. You should get a licensed contactor, they said. They featured some poor old woman who hired a kid to push the snow off her flat roof.  She seemed to have good sense and didn’t really take it seriously.  I suppose it is possible that somebody will fall off, but I think that risk is well worth it compared with the wimpy idea that you would have to get an officially sanctioned person to do that. Maybe we should bubble wrap ourselves before we go out. I don’t think they were talking about decks, but I felt offended anyway. I didn’t like the earnest way they seemed to care about my welfare.

Espen was stranded at home. They canceled classes at GMU today and tomorrow. We had planned to pick up Alex on Friday, but were snowed out. His classes were also canceled so he is hunkered down in the dorm, but he says he can get to the chow hall, which is open, so all is well.

I don’t recall if they ever shut down University of Wisconsin because of snow, although sometimes nobody was in class. I remember trudging to class through some very high snowdrifts. But the difference was distance.  We walked to school and those that drove didn’t have to drive that far.   Now they have to worry about a very wide metro area. Like all old guys, I think we were tougher back then.   I also remember walking across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis when it was 25 below – real temperature not that wind-chill dodge. It was several minutes before I could get my frozen glasses off my frozen eyebrows.

It is not nearly as cold here as it gets in Minnesota or Wisconsin but the snow piled all around is starting to make me feel at home. And it looks like it’s not going to let up for at least another week or two.  We are getting a real winter here.  Below is one of our meadows sleeping under the snow last week.  It is piled higher now. 

On the plus side there should be a lot of good soil moisture for my trees and clover and the cold weather will freeze out most of the southern pine beetles. Of course, none of my trees were infested before anyway. But I will really enjoy looking at the burst of green this spring in the wildlife pastures. The hard winter will produce a vibrant spring. 

January 31, 2010

Snow in the Virginia Woods 

It has been cold again this year but this year we are also getting more snow. They got a lot of snow in southern Virginia & North Carolina, so I wanted to go down and look at the snow on the farm.  Well, it wasn’t a lot of snow by Wisconsin standards and it will melt in a few days, but there was more than usual and it created a different look for the place. You really wouldn't guess that you were looking at southern Virginia. 

I saw a couple cars in the ditch on the way down and I didn’t dare take the back roads, as I usually do.  Instead I went down I95 all the way down to Emporia and then went over on 58. I also didn’t dare drive down the dirt roads on the farm.  You can see that 623 was good in the spot above, but look near the bottom and you can see why I didn't want to drive up the farm road.  It is harder to walk through the snow but it is nice to feel it underfoot. There were a few animal track, but it was otherwise undisturbed. It is nice to have land. 

It was a long trip to see it and it took longer because of the adverse weather conditions. I finished almost the entire audio-book Infotopia, which I found very interesting and useful (I hope) in my job.   This was one of the three audio downloads on that Mariza gave me for Christmas.   It was a good gift.  Audio books make long drives bearable and even beneficial. I lose my NPR a few miles outside Washington.  I don’t like music radio or those silly talk shows that purport to give advice that will solve problems that I don’t have. Audio books do the job. 

Another good audio program is “the Teaching Company”.   Alex likes them too because they are around forty-five minutes long, which fits his workout schedule.

Anyway, take a look at the nice pictures. 

Complete set of photos are at this link. 

January 23, 2010

Natural versus Sustainable

Below is my article for the next issue of "Virginia Forests".  It is based on an earlier blog post, so if you have a feeling of deja vu, that is why.

Everybody has his/her own idea about what is natural, and often thinks everybody else’s ideas are wrong.  What is a natural forest, for example?  Is it made up only of native species?  Does it feature only local species?   Is a tree farm natural? The distinction most often made is that “natural” is what the situation would be like absent human activity.  Of course, nobody has ever seen that.  The “natural” Virginia of 1607 was the result of thousands of years of human activity.  Natural is not an attainable or even a useful goal when talking about forestry.

I think the goal should be sustainable, not “natural.”  Natural is a slippery, arbitrary and often arrogantly used term.   It assumes also that an environment that results from random chance and the interactions of non-human animals and plants is somehow qualitatively different than one with human influences and implies that human interventions are always damaging. This is just not true.   Besides all that, some environments that are natural are not sustainable and some environments that are sustainable are not natural.  Many of the most productive, beautiful and sublime environments are the results of long term human interference and management.   They are not “natural” if that term implies human-free.   But they beautiful and productive and they are sustainable.  

That is why I also quibble with words like “recovery” or “damage” used too freely when talking about human interactions with the environment. They can sometimes be appropriate.  Humans do serious damage to the environment and recovery may be necessary, but they too often go too far.   Some radical misanthropes who call themselves environmentalist actually believe that somehow the earth would be better off without humans.  Of course, this is a very short-sighted and ironically very human-based point of view. 

We would not want most human-influenced, human created, environments to revert to a pre-human state, even if that was possible and even if we could determine what non-human even looks like, since there has not been such an environment in most of the world since the end of the last ice age or before.  The wonderful “natural” environments of pre-Columbian America were by no means natural.   They were created by Native American activities, especially the use of fire, for example.  Humans have changed the environment ever since there have been humans.  Other animals have done so too.  Change is written into the book of life and all life creates change.  Everything is always in the process of becoming something else. Natural environments come back quicker than we often think and The truth is that it takes a lot of human effort to prevent nature from obliterating the most of the works of humans. 

Sustainable is clearly the better concept.  It provides a wide variety of choices and varieties of human influence. We will always have human influence as long as we are here.  So let’s go with sustainable, which is achievable and good, rather than some hypothetical “natural” state.

A well-managed tree farm clearly meets the standards of sustainability and through the “ecological services” it provides, such as cleaning water, providing wildlife habitat and just making the world a prettier place, it helps make the rest of Virginia a sustainable environment.  The constant learning and experience sharing provided by organizations such as ATFS, university extensions, departments of forestry and others helps us all adapt to changes in the environment.  This is a sustainable ecological system and we can all be proud to be participants.

January 17, 2010

Forestry From the Air

I talked about my flight over the farms with Brian in my last post.    The aerial perspective was fun.  I could see the interrelations of the wildlife plots for the first time.  Below are some pictures with comments. 

Above is a panorama of the feed plots and a picture of almost the whole CP farm (the wing covers only a small corner.)  You can see how they are connected and how form openings in the woods.  They are mostly covered in clover, which appears a lighter green this time of year.  The picture below shows the sun reflecting off the streams.  It has been a wet year, so they are wider than usual.  I was a little surprised how much water is spread over the wetland area near the center of the photo.  BTW, the gray trees are the broad-leaf forest, currently bare of leaves, around the streams and boundaries, so you can see things clearer this time of the year than when everything is green. 

Below is the Freeman tract.  You can see the boundaries with the deciduous bare branches.   It is roughly rectangular.  You can see the Vulcan quarry off to the NW.  It is much closer to our property than I thought.  You have to drive a long way around to get to the farm gate. As I wrote in yesterday's post, that quarry may eventually become a deep lake, which would be a nice addition.   The utility lines that run through the property were recently upgraded, and the dirt was a bit torn up by the machines.   I have a total of eight acres under those lines, so it is not inconsequential.  I would like to plant this over in warm season native grasses and encourage some quail habitat.  The long narrow aspect provides a lot of edge environment. 

The Freeman trees will be fourteen years old this year.  It is an exceptionally good stand and I think they will be ready for thinning, maybe even this year.  I have spent a lot less time on this tract.  The CP farm was my first one, so I spent a lot of time there just getting to know forestry, it is also more interesting because it has a greater variety of environments, including the wetlands and hills.  You cannot really tell from the pictures, but CP is a lot hillier than Freeman.  But Freeman is more valuable for growing trees, acre for acre.  Less interesting is often more valuable. in Brunswick Co VA on January 16, 2010 

Above is a panorama showing the local lay of the land.  My forest is only part of the bigger picture.  The whole area looks like this.  You can see how important forestry is to southern Virginia. Flying over made that clear. It is not just covered in forest, but also lots of clearly managed forests.  BTW, the distortion you see in the picture is just the reflections from the window glass.

December 11, 2009

So Far, So Good on the Climate Change Negotiations

The Obama Administration is exceeding our expectations at Copenhagen. Todd Stern, our chief negotiator has adroitly thrown cold water on developing county blackmail while our delegation makes the joyous noise with environmentalist. It has been an excellent balance of realism and hype that might actually lead to a workable agreement instead of the usual crap that comes out of these big convocations. So far, so good, let’s keep it up.

Calling their bluffs

Stern has called the climate community’s bluff, as we hoped he would. No more can plaintive voiced people get away with just saying how bad we are, how terrible things might get and – with a tears in their eyes – say that it would all be just great if only the U.S. would do the right thing. Stern pointed out that 97% of the new emissions will come from developing nations. Unless they step up, nothing will work. A little tough love was what they needed and what they are getting. One of our most potent tools is the resort to higher authority. This is something you learn in negotiations 101, but most people hate to use it. It does our egos a lot of good if we can say that we are the final decision makers, but it is a very bad negotiating position. It allows you to get rolled and/or carried away by the tide of events. This is what evidently happened at Kyoto. Otherwise it is hard to explain how our negotiators agreed to such a monumentally stupid agreement.

The negotiator proposes; the Senate disposes

How does the resort to higher authority work in this case? Our negotiators know and they have let other know that no matter what kind of agreement they reach at international venues, the U.S. Senate will have something to say about it when all the dealing is done. If the agreement is too absurd, the Senate will reject it, as the unanimous Senate did with Kyoto. This is a powerful incentive for everyone to be reasonable and not allow the exhilaration of the moment overpower the longer term realities.

Good guys and bad guys

There is another negotiation tactic that it seems that the Obama administration is using. That is the one we all recognize from watching cop shows – good guy/bad guy or good cop/bad cop. It is closely related to the higher authority gambit in that President Obama gets to be the good guy while the vaguely identified opposition plays the villain role. The incentive is to give something to the good guy so as to avoid rewarding or even having to deal with the bad guy. George Bush could never have pulled this off. He would have been undercut by the U.S. environmental community and, anyway, he didn’t have the persona to pull it off. Obama can. We all hope that he can swoop in at the end and scoop up some of the marbles that we otherwise would have lost.

America holds a strong hand this time

Addressing climate change is a big job and it will cost trillions of dollars. We agree on the goal, but there are ways to do it that are more and less effective; more or less costly and more or less costly particularly to the U.S. That is what these negotiations are about. And this is something that those most loudly braying about the need to “save the planet” are often trying to obscure.

U.S. CO2 emissions relative to the rest of the world have been dropping for a long time. The blame America idea is just a non-starter. America is a big part of any solution, but if others, especially developing countries, don’t step up the problem cannot be solved.

Beyond that, everybody knows that the U.S. can more easily adapt to climate change than many others. Another bluff that many developing countries are running goes something like "give us money or we will drown ourselves." That is another bluff we can call.

America has more advantages this time than ever before. We should be fair but also tough. We cannot afford free riders. As we wrote elsewhere, the U.S. is now in a better position in relation to many others. We can plausibly promise real reduction in CO2 emissions, but it is very important how we sell reductions. You don’t give things away in negotiations because you get no credit in the international community if you just do the right thing w/o making a big deal about it. Multilateral negotiations are a kind of kabuki play. You have to scream and grimace at the proper times or else nobody pays attention. You have to call attention and claim credit for good things that just happen. You know that you will be blamed for the bad things.

Climate change talks should be about … climate change

We have to insist that the climate change programs remain about climate change. They cannot be sidetracked into a general push for development aid or some kinds of transfer payments from the rich countries to the poor ones. Many national leaders and NGOs come to climate change talks with the hope of hijacking them precisely in this direction. The threat of climate change has given them a potent weapon, which they are not eager to relinquish. That is why they often reject sensible solutions such as nuclear power or want to concentrate all their efforts on the developed world industries.

Physics doesn’t distinguish among emissions

So let’s keep on task. The job is to mitigate climate change and adapt to what we cannot mitigate. This is a practical problem involving lots of physics and physical infrastructure. The Chinese Ambassador disingenuously called for soul searching when talking about climate. If he can find a place to sequester carbon there, let him search his own soul. Otherwise the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 might just want to do something practical.

You have to be willing to walk away

Finally, the most powerful tool of negotiators is the ability to walk away from a bad deal. Developed countries like the U.S. accounted for most of the historical emissions, but they emit less than half of the GHG today and this percentage will drop now and forever. If current trends continue, China alone will emit more CO2 in the next thirty years than the U.S. did since 1776. China's emissions alone more than swamps any “historical damage” done by us.

Nevertheless, many big and future developing polluters have a big incentive to play the victims. We already hear the silly rhetoric and attempts to guilt us into doing something stupid. (The Sudanese, you recall the guys who brought us the genocide in Darfur, had the guts to ask us to remember the children. Well, we do.) We should not let the idea that we MUST make a deal stand in the way of making a good deal. If many in the developing world have their way, we will send a lot of money with few or no strings attached to countries that historically have not managed their finances well. They will talk a lot about reducing CO2, but not do very much about it. In fact, the big buck infusion will enable them to pollute even more. This deal is worse than no deal and everybody has to understand that we will walk away than accept it.

Climate change is an urgent problem and we need to find solutions. But rushing to do the WRONG thing will just make the whole thing worse. It is like the dishonest salesman who wants you to sign w/o reading the agreement. He tells you that if you don’t act right now, it will be too late. The deal will disappear. It is usually better to let a deal like that disappear. But the funny thing about negations is that if they know you are willing to walk away, the other side usually gets a lot more reasonable. The ABILITY to walk away usually means you don’t have to. The world will get a more effective climate deal if the U.S. is tough and realistic. Let's not let another Kyoto mess things up for another decade.

Below are some sources you might want to consult on the climate debate.



Economist Special Report on the Carbon Economy

Nature Conservancy

Pew Climate Change Center

WSJ on Climate Debate


December 05, 2009

Forestry Investment

Japanese maple and new fallen snow 

This is Virginia.   We usually don’t get snow this early in the year, but this has been a cool and wet year and maybe winter will come early.  The pictures are taken from our back and front doors.   The snow is falling on some trees that still have not finished shedding their leaves.

Quinn Terrace in the snow 

Confirmation Bias?

Forbes Magazine has a good article about forestry as an investment called Buying Woodlands for Fun and Profit.  I cannot believe how lucky I was to get into forestry and I keep on getting confirmation of that. I admit that I went into it backwards.  I have always loved trees and wanted to have something to do with forestry. Since we are not rich enough to own such a thing as a luxury, I had to figure out a way to make it an investment, and I think I succeeded.

I sometimes worry that I am victim of confirmation bias, i.e. I notice the information that confirms what I already believe and just overlook or ignore contrary arguments.  I suppose the downsides are the large initial investments & long term commitment.   It also helps to know something about trees.  I got good deals on both my forest parcels. It is not only luck.  I looked at dozens of properties and I could envision what the land would look like in a few years.   This is now the fifth year we have owned the first piece of land.  It is developing about as I anticipated, only a little better.  

View from the back porch 

Everybody has to save for retirement, especially these days.  Forestry is a good option.  

Given the ways the deficit is shooting faster than it has since World War II, I don’t think anybody can count on Social Security and other investments will be devalued by the inflation that will have to come in the wake of our enormous spending binge, not to mention paying for health care and the raids on the trust funds.  Forestry is a tangible asset. It will rise with inflation. But it is much more than an ordinary investment. 

It is just a joy to walk across MY land and I believe that I am doing something that has lasting value. I just don’t get that same feeling from mutual funds in an IRA.

The joy of forest ownership

Owning a forest has changed my thinking on forestry and changed my life. I understand a lot more about the moral imperative to make forestry work.  It is much more work and better for the world to grow and sustainably harvest trees than it is to set up a “sanctuary” or “preserve.” I feel a little like I am swimming against the tide of environmental perceptions.  And when I think back to how I used to think, I understand the misconception. I just have to make it my business to explain how it really is.

Read the article if you are interested in forestry or owning a forest.  If not, you probably have not gotten this far down the post anyway.   It is not something everybody wants or can do, but it is easier than most people think. You just have to really want to do it. It requires a commitment and you have to recognize the terms. You won’t get your money back quickly and your fortunes are controlled by the rhythms of nature. You have to think of it as a long-term retirement asset, not a quick turnaround investment. It literally grows slowly over time.  But it is a great thing if you can wait for it.

I understand that the chances are small that I will live long enough to make the final harvest, but that is okay.  We all plant trees for the next generation as the last generation did for us.  Life is one long chain letter.

November 15, 2009


I went down to the farm to check for flood damage.  The farm got more than five inches of rain in a couple days, which is about double the usual monthly average for November.  Larry Walker told me that the road flooded and the Meherrin River was seven feet above flood stage. 

flooded forest 

The water was lower by the time I got there, although the creeks are clearly higher than usual.  The forest near the river was still flooded but this is not uncommon even in more “normal” wet weather. There was no serious damage, however. It doesn’t hurt the trees if the water doesn’t stand too long and the sediment deposits are good soil builders.  That is why forestry is so good for watershed protection.  Judging from the sediment deposits, the water spread at least 100 yards from Genito Creek and up the road.  My guess is that it must have been at least eight feet higher than usual.  I have never seen it do that. 

fall colors 

It was lucky that I went down. I got a last look at the fall colors (see above) & I fixed my bald cypress.  The flooding had undercut it. I am very fond of that tree and it is the only one I have on the farm.  I built up the base with rocks and put in some dirt.   That should hold it.  Maybe it will be better rooted by the next time we get such a big flood.

I also had the chance to meet with Larry Walker’s boss to talk about thinning schedules.  He is going to take a look at the Freeman place to see if it makes sense to thin the 86 acres of 1996 pine this year.  It is an exceptionally good stand of trees.  I think that early thinning might be a good idea, even if the pulp prices are low.  Some of the inside trees are already dying back.  You have to balance the benefits with the risks.   Ice storms become a danger the years after thinning, but that will be a problem no matter when you do it.

2006 view of 623 

Above & below is the CP forest from 623 today and three years ago.  The trees did well this year. Notice the cedar tree more or less in the middle. It stands out in the field in the top picture,  You have to look hard in the bottom one, as the pines are now almost as big or bigger. In fact, you can hardly see the pines at all in the top picture.  Of course, seasons are different.


November 13, 2009

The Desert Speaks

Sonora desert landscape at Bryce Thompson arborteum near Phoenix 

We spent our last day in Arizona at the Bryce Thompson arboretum, where you can see trees and plants native to the desert southwest, the Sonora and Chihuahua regions, as well as those from deserts in South America, Africa and Australia.

Cactus flowers 

Desert landscapes are strange for someone who grew up in Eastern North America, although the Sonora vegetation is vicariously familiar because of all the cowboy movies.   Almost everything has thick skin and thorns and takes a long time to grow. 

Cactus fruit 

The exception is the gum tree or eucalyptus. It is a type of miracle tree from Australia.  It can grow very fast in dry harsh conditions.  This wonderful capacity for growth and adaption has made eucalyptus an invasive species.  It can often out-compete the native desert flora, but it provides little for wildlife to eat.  

Grove of gum trees 

Kuala bears eat the leaves, but most other animal avoid them. I suppose this is because they smell like Halls Mentholypus cough drops and probably taste like them too.  It is an acquired taste.  Like everything else, its value can be judged only in context.  Eucalyptus are great trees to provide shade, cover and erosion control.  They get big. The one pictured below was planted in 1926.  And they are attractive individually and in clumps.

Big eucalyptus tree 

Date palms were familiar from Iraq. Dates are a very productive desert tree.  I have written about them before. I cannot tell them apart, but I understand that there are dozens of varieties.

Date palms 

An arboretum is not only a pretty place. It is also a place to learn about natural communities. They say the desert speaks, but I like to have someone put up a few signs to interpret it for me.  The biggest surprise was an Australian she-oak.  It is not related to our oaks (quercus).  I had absolutely no idea what it was.  Below are Maleah, Diane & Christiana in the date palm grove.

Maleah, Dianne and Christiana 


November 10, 2009

Take it Easy

Lighten up while you still can

Winslow, AZ 

We finally got down to Winslow, Az.  Winslow is world famous among fans of the 1970s pop group “The Eagles,” since one of their hits “Take it Easy” features a hitchhiking vignette when the singer is “…standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.”   We didn’t actually see the corner, although I looked for it and evidently drove past it on the way to Highway 87.

Burning Brush

Smoke from controlled burn near Grand Canyon 

The geography changed as we climbed from the semi-arid grasslands through juniper and back up to beautiful ponderosa pine forests. I regret that it was getting a little late and we were losing the light so I couldn’t tarry longer.  This is part of the Coconino National Forest and the Forest Service was busy burning the brush.  We saw a lot of smoke and even some flames.  You can see the smoke in the distance in the picture above. I am encouraged to see the proactive use of fire to restore the landscapes.  The park-like ponderosa forest, with its interspersed meadows, is one of nature’s most beautiful communities.  Below is a well-managed ponderosa forest.  The ones with the red bark are at least 100 years old.  Younger ones have black bark.

Ponderosa pine woodland along Highway 87 south of Winslow, AZ 

Cool Air and Cooler Sunsets

Although Arizona was experiencing a heat wave, and temperatures in Phoenix were reaching into the nineties, the air in the piney woods was cool.   The thermometer in the car registered 59.  You might think you were driving through upper Michigan.  As I wrote above, we were losing the light and I didn’t want to drive the narrow, curvy roads in the dark, so we cut sideways to catch I-17.  We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen with red clouds turning purple before going dark.  I think the smoke from the prescribed fires contributed to the color.  I didn’t even bother trying to get a picture.  Beautiful sunset pictures are cliché.   Part of the beauty of a sunset lies in its ethereal & ephemeral elements.  Taking a picture is like trying to grab a handful of air.  

Meadow and forest along Hwy 87  

The picture above is taken near a gas station in Happy Jack, AZ.  Interesting name for a town.  We didn't see the actual town. 

We lost altitude as we approached I-17 and the temperature rose to 81 degrees, in spite of the coming of evening.   It was 86 by the time we got to Phoenix.  Back in the desert.  It is interesting that you can get such changes in such a short time and distance.

November 08, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt & the Lodges

El Tovar Lodge

Above is the hotel were we stayed. The El Tovar lodge has that rustic elegance characteristic of the early 20th Century.  It was built in 1905, financed by the Santa Fe railroad as a sort of rail destination. President Theodore Roosevelt took the first steps to preserve the canyon about that time and the lodges here reflect that muscular personality of Roosevelt and America of that era. The Canyon was declared a national monument in 1908 and a national park in 1919.

moose head 

The dark log walls are studded with actual heads of moose, deer, mountain goats and even bison.  I always wanted a moose head for my wall, but I have never had enough walls to handle something as big as a moose head.   You need a really big room with really high walls.  Actually, you probably need something a lot like the room in a big lodge. Moose are not native to Arizona, BTW, so the head came from somewhere else.

Below is Bright Angel Lodge. 

Bright Angel Lodge 

November 07, 2009

Four Legs Good; Two Legs Bad

john matel using walking sticks at Grand Canyon 

Chrissy and I went down as far as Indian Gardens.  This is an oasis on the Bright Angel trail and it is the logical terminus of a day hike for a person in average condition.  It took us around three hours to get down but only around two and a half hours to get back up.  It doesn’t make intuitive sense.  I think it is because of all the rocks.  I walk gingerly among them going downhill.  We also had to get to the side of the path to let hikers pass who were coming up or mule trains coming down. There was less oncoming traffic on the return trip and no mule trains came past. 

Christine Johnson on Bright Angel trail 

Of course I am not counting the leisurely lunch-break we spent at Indian Gardens.  The cottonwoods and willow make very pleasant surroundings.  Both are fast-growing adaptive trees but are often unloved because of their weak wood, short lives and susceptibility to wind damage.   Of course, it depends on where they are.  As long as they are not near houses or roads, they do just fine.  Except that they grow in generations, i.e. a lot of them come up the same time and whole clumps grow, live and die together.  This is not a problem except during generational change, when the whole clump of cottonwoods begins to die back about the same time.

cottonwoods at Indian Gardens 


john Matel at top of Grand CanyonThe morning later I my complaining muscles reminded me that I am no longer in the top condition I used to imagine.   The pattern of pain was interesting, more characteristic of overdoing cross country skiing than overdoing ordinary hiking.  I suppose it is because of the poles. 

My legs hurt a lot less than I would have guessed, but my arms, chest and lats are screaming. 

I used to cross country ski a lot when we lived in Norway.  I am sure I used the poles the way the Norwegians taught me, which is to push off in back of your body instead of leaning forward on the sticks. I recognize the feelings.   The good news is the pain confirms that the poles worked.  I pulled myself out of the canyon w/o overstraining my legs or knees.  

As they say (for different reasons) in "Animal Farm", "Four legs good; too legs bad."


The link to my earlier trip down the canyon is at this link.  That time we did it in 117 degree heat and went all the way to the river and back.  That was stupid.  The bottoms of my shoes melted off on the hot rocks. Really. 

This time we had perfect weather. Cool at the top and only warm near Indian Gardens. AND we didn't go all the way down.

November 05, 2009

Watering Tucson

University of Arizon 

They have been planting trees at the University of Arizona for a long time, so it is not only a pleasant place but also a place where you can see a great variety of plants from around the world.  The climate in Tucson is almost tropical, but the soils and moisture levels are very different, so it makes for some interesting combinations. 

I came here to talk to some University of Arizona professors at the agriculture and soils department.  They were courteous and hospitable.  I can always find good people willing to tell me about the place they live and what they do and I enjoy getting the local angle wherever I go. Their ideas are reflected in the post on Mt Lemon.  They told me about the environment there and suggested that I make the trip up the hill, so I thank them for that piece of local intelligence too. 

Palms at University of Arizona 

My hosts were proud of their town and happy to live in Tucson.  It is not hard to see why.  Tucson has a lot to like.  But the recent rapid growth has presented challenges to the local ecosystems.  The extension services at the University of Arizona and the county extension are actively involved in their communities, helping local authorities, landowners and developers do the right thing to maintain a sustainable environment. 

As with all cities in arid environments, water is a problem.   Tucson depended on ground water and is one of the largest cities in the world to do that.   The ground water renews itself (it is not like the Ogallala aquifer) but not at the rates now required.  They now have a water plan that uses a water allotment from the Colorado River. Importing water creates its own challenges.

Minerals and salts can poison soils.  This is what happened in large parts of Mesopotamia and it is an ancient lesson that we have to be careful when irrigating dry fields. The water itself brings with it minerals and salts and water sitting on irrigated fields can bring salts and minerals to the surface. In either case or in combination, the result is the same. The general idea is that you need enough fresh water dilution to wash out the salts and minerals.  Rainwater is pure except for the small amount it might pick up from things like dust or smoke, but once on the ground it begins to pick up minerals and salts.  When water evaporates, it leaves the minerals and salts it brought along.  Most arid irrigated regions have a positive salt balance, i.e. more come in than goes out.  Over time this buildup is a problem.

Old Main at University of Arizona 

There is a lot you can do to conserve water, but conservation is not w/o its own problems.  There really is no such thing as a decision w/o some negative consequences.  All life involves trade-offs. Conservation means you use less, but using less concentrates the minerals and salts in smaller volumes of water, which may be worse for the soils.  That is one reason there is a limit to the amount of gray water (semi-treated) that you can apply to irrigation. The water is reused and recycled … and the salts and minerals are concentrated.   If you live in a place where it rains a lot, you don’t think about these problems very much, but you have to if you live in a arid place like Arizona, with rapidly expanding populations.

On the plus side, the growth of urban populations might REDUCE water demand.  That is because no matter how much water an urban population reasonably uses, it is often less than irrigated agriculture had used with the methods employed in the past.   Ranchers can convert their irrigated agriculture to dry land production and sell the water saved to the growing urban regions.   Production declines, but it might be more profitable.  Municipalities also buy up land, along with the water rights.  This has the double benefit of providing water and open lands for parks and nature reserves.

Rocks on the way to Mt Lemon 

We learn from experience how to maintain a sustainable environment.  As I often say, yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems, but that does not mean we made stupid mistakes in those solutions of the past.  As conditions change, often BECAUSE of our solutions, our responses must also change.  That simple knowledge should make us less critical of the “mistakes” of our ancestors and less arrogant in our out decision. There is no end to this game, just one move after another. The good player just get to keep playing. Some people think this is depressing (These are often the same ones who were upset when they discovered the principle of entropy.) I find this exhilarating.  It is almost the very definition of being alive.

Tucson is a pleasant place and a lot of people want to live here.  With good management and some foresight, they can accommodate more while keeping it a place people want to come.

November 04, 2009

Retire Smokey the Bear

Cactus forest on the slopes of Mt Lemon 

I know it is ecology101, but I had never actually done the road trip version of driving from the Sonora desert biome into the alpine/Canadian biome in around an hour.  To get the same sorts of changes you see as you climb Mt Lemon from the roughly 2500 ft near Tucson to around 9000 ft at the peak,  you would have to drive from southern Arizona up to just south of Hudson Bay.

Scrub forest on Mt Lemon 

You start in the scrub and cactus forest on the lower slopes.  Next is semi-arid grassland. Soon you get into junipers, some cottonwoods and oak woodland, followed by montane ponderosa pine and then the spruce of the boreal forests. The biomes mix and match in ways they would not if spread over a larger area, as subtle changes in elevation and topography create micro-climates.

Mixed forest and cactus in a draw on Mt Lemon 

It was more than twenty degrees cooler on the top than on the bottom the day I went up.

Ponderosa pine forests on Mt Lemon 

They call these “sky islands” because boreal and montane forests are islands of this sort of vegetation in a sea of desert.   As with all islands, the environments on them are fragile because of its isolation.   If species are eliminated from a relatively small area, there may be no nearby seed stocks to bring them back.   These communities have been in place since then end of the last ice age, when the cool weather systems were present all around.  We can think of the deserts like rising water as the earth warmed 10,000 year ago. 

Spruce forests on Mt Lemon 

It is important to manage these islands carefully, but sometimes good management seems counter intuitive. It seems to make sense to protect the ecosystems from destructive forces such as fire, but years of fire protection have endangered them.  Fire is a natural part of the ecology.   When it is artificially excluded by human efforts, the ecological communities change and large amounts of fuel are left standing in the forests or lying on the ground.   Instead of being a useful and healthy clearing process, fires under the man-made conditions become major disasters.  

Burned out forest on Mt Lemon 

When people see these fires they often demand even greater “protection” making things worse and worse. Above you can see the results of a fire made too big by years of fire suppression.  If we continue to "protect" this land from regular fires, the forest will grow back - again too thickly - until the next big fire.  Below is one of the reasons we exclude and fight fires.  The new cabins are named "Adam," "Hoss" & "Little Joe" after the characters on Bonanza.  Hoss is the biggest.

Village at the top of Mt Lemon 

Fire is a natural and necessary part of a healthy ecological process.  If we exclude fire, we change the environment in undesirable ways and make it less robust.  Smokey the Bear should probably be put on pension or at least modify his pitch.  He has done too good a job.  Smokey is cute, but when he hired on we didn’t understand as much about the environment. 

PS an interesting article I read after writing is a this link.

November 03, 2009

Fixing Things

I went up to Mt Lemon yesterday and have some pictures, but I cannot currently post them since I am lacking a connection.  But I have a picture and some general thoughts from the day before.

Marana Arizona from Carl and Elise''s yard 

Above is another view from Carl and Elise's yard, this time during the daylight.  It is amazingly green, although you see that the ground itself is bare.  There were all sorts of birds flying around.  Especially common were desert quail.  They walk around most of the time and only fly when flushed out.  Their calls were very nice to hear. 

I was comparing this desert land to Iraq. I think the land in Iraq is just misused for millennia. The challenge of the desert is that it is unforgiving.  You can get away with a lot more in a wetter place, where grass and trees will quickly grow back after a disturbance. In the desert your mistakes are written on the land for many years or centuries.  I bet that much of Iraq could be as rich in natural diversity as Arizona, but there are too many goats and the country has been too abused for many centuries.  Plants in the desert grow slowly and they depend on the other plants in the natural community.  The brush you cut down or let your goats eat might have taken decades to get that big.  And once taken out, it is hard for it to come back. 

John Matel with Iraqi friends in Anna Iraq in August 2008 

The picture above is me talking with some Iraqis who want to restore their land.  I think it can be done and so do they.  We are standing in the middle of one of their projects.  It is a good start. It just takes work and long-term - multi-generational commitment. 

We have learned many good lessons in land management.  If we just follow our own best management practices and strive to continue to learn, we won't suffer the fate of the ancient lands of the Middle East.  And maybe if we all learn the right lessons, we can help them return to a better place.  That is a truly worthy enterprise.

October 28, 2009

Bees Exposed

Exposed bee nest 

All the bee hives I have ever seen were rounded or in protected places like hollow trees.  Then I saw this up in a tree in Montgomery.  It looks like the bees didn’t bother to put up any defenses or walls, maybe because it never gets very cold. I noticed that many of the houses in the Deep South are also open to the elements.

Bee nest in Montgomery, AlabamaBTW - I would not have seen this bee hive except for a stranger telling me about it.  I found the people of Alabama extraordinarily friendly and open.  People at shops and restaurants talked with me and were very happy to tell me about their town.  

October 22, 2009

Golf, Pools, Horses and Sheep

Fork in road at Maxwell Air Base golf course 

I don’t know if it is true, but several people told me that air bases are required to have golf courses, the idea being that all that flat, grassy space is available in emergencies for landing or at least the storage of aircraft.  It sounds a little glib, but who knows?  Home owners in some arid regions sometimes get a discount on their fire-insurance policies if they have swimming pools that can serve as reservoirs.   We got a discount on our insurance from USAA in New Hampshire because our house was within a convenient hose length from a pond.  I thought that was just a specious reason until the condominium clubhouse caught on fire and the fire department did indeed tap the pond water.   Their attempt to save the structure was futile but they did prevent the fire from spreading to the neighboring woods and homes.

Pond in Londonderry, NH in 2004

On the left is pond in New Hampshire.

A surprising number of people hate golf courses.  They are evidently offended by them and work themselves into a frenzy saying things like the land and resources devoted to golf courses could be used to feed poor people. I suppose if we were close to subsistence, this would be true and if we plowed up all the golf courses we could feed a few more people.  Of course, there are lots of other places food is wasted that would come first.  We have all sorts of fruit trees we don't harvest and all kinds of unused land.  I think the real problem is that luddites associate golf course with affluence.   I don’t golf, never have.  But golf courses are usually attractive.  They provide nice vistas and often good places to run -around the peripheries; golfers get annoyed if you get to close to them.

Horses at Maxwell Air Force base on October 21, 2009 

Maxwell Air-Base features another luxury item – horses.  Even the luddites rarely object to horses because they are graceful and beautiful.  I would not want to own one, since I don’t know how to care for them, but I am glad to have them around.  Mariza is very fond of horses.  If she (and we) lived nearer to the tree farms, we could buy one for her.

Longleaf pine at Maxwell Air Force Base

Grazing animals are good management; of course a couple horses are not enough. It is good to have different types of animals, such as sheep or cows or goats to rotate in the pastures. Animal species have different digestive systems. The sheep help slow the spread of horse parasites and vice versa and tend to favor different mixes of greens. Healthy pastures are diverse because of the different habits of species and the different characteristics of their manure. 

They have lots of nice trees on base and Alabama is a big timber state. Slash, Loblolly & longleaf pine together are called "southern pine"  and they sustainably supply around 58% of American timber needs.

October 21, 2009

Yesterday's Solutions are Today's Problems

Water on the ground near Gettysburg PA 

We are starting to notice the remarkable, game changing development in energy. Scientists have discovered a new way to get natural gas out of shale. They call it hydraulic-fracturing. And there is a lot of potential. This new technique has increased American gas reserves by something like 39% in the last couple of years.   Experts estimate that we have as much usable gas in the U.S. as the Saudis have oil and if only half of our coal powered plants converted to cleaner burning natural gas we could easily reach our greenhouse gas reduction goals. 

Gas is cleaner than oil and much cleaner than coal, both in terms of actual pollution and in terms of greenhouse gases such as CO2.  Another important consideration is that WE have our own vast new supplies of gas.  Most exportable oil is under corrupt, unfriendly or unstable countries.  It is better not to send American money to some of these guys.  Our gas, on the other hand, is in peaceful, pleasant American places like Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and West Virginia.  Many of these rural areas could use the jobs that domestic natural gas could bring.

I traveled though much of the area where the gas is when I drove from Syracuse to Virginia.  It is the same area where we did a lot of coal mining.  This is no coincidence.  The same forces that turned Paleozoic plants into coal also made gas.  The gas is trapped in shale formations and you can easily see how the roads were cut through the shale formations. 

Chesapeake Bay watershedBut I noticed something else about the geography of natural gas. It is also the geography of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and much of the water that isn’t running off into the Chesapeake flows into the Great Lakes. We worry about these bodies of water. While listening to local radio driving near Wilkes-Barre, PA I heard reports of firms extracting gas were asking permission to discharge water into the local streams. The HYDRO part of hydraulic-fracturing has to go somewhere.  I don’t know the details of the process, nor do I know about the quality of the water discharge, but I do know that any discharge in large enough amounts is going to create disruptions in the local ecosystem, in this case the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Some people are already raising concerns.  The process may turn out to be benign.  It could even be beneficial if the water is clean, but we will have to think of this as a balancing among priorities. 

Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems and it follows that today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.   Abundant American natural gas will help free us from nasty foreign oil suppliers and help us reach climate change goals, no doubt at the cost of something in the future.  This is not necessarily a failure of wisdom or judgment.   It is an ordinary consequence of making choices, setting priorities and doing these things in the context of imperfect information.   All these things are part of the definition of decision making.

Shale gas

Future critics with access to much more information as well as the experience of the past can easily attack earlier choices, but the comparison is usually unfair, as it is always unfair to compare hypothetical solutions with a real ones.  

For now the smart move looks like going for the gas. 


October 16, 2009

Something New on the Erie Canal

vista of Syracuse NY from SU parking structure 

The Erie Canal was a wonder for its time.  It could move stuff many miles at very low cost.  Water was much more reliable than roads of those times.  But it moved only as fast as a mule could walk.  The golden age of canals was cut short by the advent or railroads. There were a few dead ends, such as plank roads.  They were roads made of boards (planks) that elevated the traveler above the mud.  They were very good for swampy areas.   One of the first plank roads in the U.S. was build right here in North Syracuse.   Lots of them were built and they were all the rage.  But they cost a lot to construct and wore our faster than their proponent projected.  If you included maintenance they were a really bad, if picturesque,  idea.  Their memory survives in place names.

Description of Erie Canal 

Those days were not really that different from ours.  That was also a time of great changes in technology, relationships and in their case geography.  Let's make a comparison using technological milestones.  The first Apple personal computer came out in 1976 - thirty-three years ago.  The Erie Canal was completed in 1825.  Thirty-three years later half the U.S. had gone from wilderness to settlement.  Railroads had spread.  The telegraph had been invented and lines were being strung across the county, so messaged that had taken days or weeks now arrived in secondss.  A dozen new states had entered the Union but the Union itself was looking shaky.  A lifetime in the second quarter of the 19th Century was at least as eventful as ours. BTW, the canal had to pass over rivers with a kind of water bridge or aqueduct.  Below is what they look like.

Erie canal aquaduct 

Great fortunes were made and lost betting on which technologies would come out on top.  Like today, the best didn’t always win out.  Sometimes you just had to jump on the one that had the most users.   

I went down to part of the old Erie Canal that was left near Syracuse.  Through town most of it is now filled in and forms the middle of Erie Boulevard, BTW.  There is a park along much of what is left of the old canal and it is very calm and pleasant.  The tow path is paved with gravel and it would make a beautiful running trail.  I didn't have time to try it out myself. I can imagine it was not so nice when it was in use.  Picture the mud, mule crap, sewage and garbage.   This is how it often is.  We get nostalgic for the old facilities and they get better looking with time.  Think of all those Civil War battlefields or medieval castles.  They were once factories of war.  Now they are just pretty and interesting.

Phragmites along the Erie Canal 

A closer look at the area around the canal shows that not everything is as it was.  Humans have totally remade the landscape and that goes way beyond digging the ditch that became the canal.  look at my pictures above and below.  The plants you see in the foreground above are phragmites, an invasive species of reed.  There are acres of them in the wetlands nearby.  Had you come to this place a generation ago you would have found native American cattails.  The phragmites are ecosystem changing species. Look across the pond on the picture below and you see Norway spruce.  They too are immigrants.  We tend not to call them invasive because they are not as prolific and they are pretty. Not in the pictures but in back of me were Norway maples, which look a lot like sugar maples and are replacing them in some places.  A 19th Century naturalist familiar with the fauna along the canal would be very surprised by the unfamiliar plants.  I couldn't get a good picture that showed the ruts on the hills a little farther away.  Chrissy's father explained that to me a long time ago.  The cows walk around the hills in habitual ways. Over the years, they create ridges and indicate that the hill was long part of a cow pasture. Of course, the cows and even the grass is not native.  Some people consider fescue invasive. Even the earthworms living in the soil were imported from Europe.

Norway spruce near Erie Canal 

We had a weather anomaly.  In Pennsylvania and much of western New York it snowed. Parts of PA got SIC inches.  This is the earliest significant snow on record.   A woman who drove up from nearby Ithaca said there were inches of snow there.  But Syracuse was like a donut hole.  It was rain or snow all around.  Here it was cold, but clear, so I got a good impression of the town.  It seems a nice place and Syracuse University is very charming. 

Syracuse University buildings 

We had a good symposium at SU, BTW.  I will write about my impressions tomorrow. 

October 10, 2009

Bringing Back Bobwhite

Open woods providing good wildlife habitat on farm in Virginia 

Bobwhite quail used to be common in Virginia.  Their population began to crash about forty years ago because of changes in their habitat.   Some of this was obvious.  Farmers became more efficient and in the process eliminated lots of the bugs and weeds that quail need.  Suburbs expanded and suburban dwellers are probably even less tolerant of bugs and weeds.  Both suburban lawn owners and rural landowners also got new and better techniques to achieve their goals, which usually involved creating a "neater" landscape.  The thick green lawns, beautiful but ecologically barren, are widely possible only because of chemicals and techniques developed in the last generation.   

Early succession field in Virginia 

Wildlife habitat in general and quail habitat in particular is ragged and messy from the human perspective.  Above is an early succession field, a lot of goldenrod and ragweed. A lot of people would feel the urge to mow.  Even the gardens of “wild” flowers many of us plant are NOT really natural.   Ideal Virginia quail habitat consists of the weeds and debris that comes the year after a clear cut.  It is the disturbance itself that is the key to success. Many of us demand that this kind of thing be “cleaned up” or avoided in the first place.

Mike Jones at quail habitat field day 

My friend Mike Jones led the wildlife habitat field day to discuss ways landowners could create places for quail and other desirable animals.   This is Mike just above. He is a landowner who recently retired from the NRCS and smartest person I know when it comes to the practical creation and protection of wildlife habitat.  Mike has tried out all of what he talks about on his own land and seen the results over a lifetime. The State of Virginia is wise to take advantage of his expertise and his credibility when explaining programs to landowners. 

Lunch line at Quail habitat field day 

These field days are a sweet deal.  It cost me only $10, which probably didn’t cover much more than the lunch.  The lunch line is pictured above.  But field days are really a kind of advertising and education.  Landowners make decisions about what happens on their land and it is in the best interests of everybody in the state if they make good ones.  I didn’t really comprehend how important this was until I bought the farms.   I have spent thousands of dollars and many hours of time making improvements to protect wildlife and water resources.   I am eager to do that, since I consider improving my land a long-term investment, but I need advice about what to do.   But there is no right way to do anything.  We need to learn from scientists and experts, but they also need to learn from our experience and we have to learn from each other.  These field days are part of the extension outreach done by the State of Virginia and our universities such as Virginia Tech and a great way to share practical knowledge.  

Quail management field day lecture 

You can make improve the environment and make profit from your land at the same time, but everything is a trade off.  Wildlife tends to thrive in a less dense forest with more space between the trees and some of that ragged and messy weed patches I mentioned above.  Of course, different animals favor different environments too.  All life is trade-off. You can see the open woods at the top of this post and you can easily see how this does not maximize timber production, but most people like it better on their land and they may be able to make back some of the money with hunting leases. I lease both my farms to local hunt clubs.  They provide a local presence and take care of boundaries.  

Wildlife corridor recently cut by Larry Walker on the Johnsonmatel tree farm.  

Hunting is a virtuous circle.  What is good for wildlife habitat is usually good for the environment, so hunters have an incentive to protect the environment.   Above is a wildlife corridor Larry Walker, a member of one of one of our hunt clubs, made for me on our land.  It will provide diverse edge community AND it allows me to get down to the creek w/o bushwacking.  He cut it through a couple of weeks ago and planted the cover that you can see coming up.  The hunters on my land have been there for a long time, in some cases for generations. They make the effort to understand the land in a way that almost nobody else does.  They have to understand and provide for the needs of deer, turkey or quail.   Hunters pays for a lot of wildlife conservation.  They also control numbers.  The deer population has exploded in the last twenty years.  In places w/o enough hunting, they are destroying the forests and preventing regeneration.  Of course, we don’t have that problem with quail.

 Genito Creek on the Johnsonmatel tree farm on October 7, 2009

Above is part of Genito Creek that crosses our property.  Larry's path makes it much easier for me to get down there and it is a nice place to visit. The creek meanders around, moving sand around the bed.  The water undercuts banks and brings down the trees periodically.  The creek used to be the boundary of the property, but around 1960 the whole thing moved around 100 yards in, so now both sides are on my land ... for now.

Bobwhite quailI mentioned some of the reasons for quail decline.   A habitat is only as strong as its weakest link.  When they are chicks, quail need lots of bugs to eat, so they need the mix of plants that bugs like.  This included weeds like goldenrod and especially ragweed, grass not so much.   When they get older they need seeds to eat.  They also need places to breed under cover, which is why they like blueberry thickets and they need brush and trees to hide from predators.  In other words, they need a great diversity of habitat type, with a lot of it in the early stages of natural succession.  By definition, the early stages of natural succession pass quickly, so we need a fair constant cycle of disturbance and recovery.

The State of Virginia wants to bring quail numbers back up.   They have devoted $9 million over the next five years and will hire five regional biologists to study the problem and provide advice to landowners.  They have some cost share programs for landowners targeted to five Virginia counties in order to focus efforts rather than spread them out and lose benefits too thin to do any good.  Brunswick is not among the counties.  Besides, they are aimed at crop land conversions, so I cannot get my forest lands in on any of them.

Bobwhite quail habitat on Johnsonmatel tree farm

But my farms do have a lot of good edge habitat, even if they are not part of the program.  The wildlife plots we established last year are doing well and the pre-commercial thinning has done a good job of establishing biological diversity.  I visited the CP farm after the wildlife field day.  As I walked down the road just before sundown, I spooked a covey of quail.  At least a half-dozen exploded out of their cover as I slowly walked by.  I took a picture of the spot and posted it above.  I can be plenty ragged and messy w/o cost share from the state, thank you. You can see that it has the goldenrod and ragweed.  It has the cover trees and the bramble blueberry and the combination of edge communities.  The edge is plenty weedy and ragged. Not bad. I should hold a field day on my farm(s).

October 04, 2009

Wood in the Ecological Value Chain

This is the draft of an article I wrote for the next issue of “Virginia Forests.”  It is substantially based on a post I did a couple months ago, so regular readers might get a feeling of déjà vu. IMO, this one is somewhat improved and the editors will improve it even more.

Spruce plantation near Latham Peak in Kettle Moraine 


Wood in the Ecological Value Chain

A chain is only as good as its weakest link, as the old saying goes, and you have to look at the whole chain from start to finish.  This is true in any business and it is even more crucial when talking about something’s impact on the environmental affairs.  Some products may look very green when you look at the finished product, but are not so environmentally friendly when you consider where they are coming from or where they are going, in other words when you look at the whole environmental value chain. 

Tree farmers can take satisfaction from knowing that wood is the most environmentally friendly building or structural product available when you look at the ecological value chain from start to finish.  

Start at the beginning.   Growing trees is an environmental friendly thing to do.   A growing forest removes pollution from the air, sequesters CO2, keeps water clean, provides wildlife habitat and makes the world more beautiful.  Think of the forest as the factory where wood is made.  Is there any more beautiful factory than the one on our timber lands?  The raw materials to make plastic, concrete or metal must be pulled from the earth and processed in noisy, dirty and energy intensive factories.  Wood is good.  

It is true that harvesting of trees requires the use of fuels, which will emit CO2 and may result in particulate pollution released into the air, and even the most well-managed forest harvests will impact local water quality to some extent.   These are serious issues, but they can be minimized and serious Virginia loggers are very careful to tread lightly in the woods.   Beyond that, these activities occur only once in many decades on any particular piece of ground and are much more than compensated by the many years of beneficial growth in between harvests. If you look over a thirty-five or forty year pine rotation, it is clear that the net environmental benefits of producing wood are overwhelming.

Changing leaves along US 50 in West Virginia on September 29, 2009

If you compare forestry to almost any other land use, forestry wins out as the most sustainable and environmentally friendly activity. No other ecosystem better protects and enhances soil and water.  Water that flows through a forest usually comes out cleaner than it went in.   Compared to the land use for other products, the difference is so extreme that we might actually miss it.   Twenty years after operations are completed, a mine, quarry or oil well is still only a hole in the ground unless costly reconstruction has been done.

Twenty years after a harvest a forest is … again a forest with young trees growing robustly.  

This renewal is what always impresses me when I interview the Virginia Tree Farmers of the Year. These guys have usually been in the business for many years and they have pictures from many years past.  I am astonished to see the old pictures and hearing about the changes.   I recall standing in a mature pine forest in Greenville County and talking to Mike Jones (2007 Tree Farmer of the Year) about his land.   He showed me an old photo of his grandfather standing in the “same” grove of trees where we stood as we talked.   But these were not the same trees.    This land had been harvested TWICE since the old man stood proudly among his pines.   His grandson could stand among his pines and future generations would still have the chance to stand among their pines.   That is what renewable means.

 Wood at Home Depot


Wood is completely renewable and renewable is even better than recyclable.

Let’s complete the ecological value chain.  We have seen that wood is ecologically good in its production, sustainable in its harvest and completely renewable, but what happens after you are done with a piece of wood?  We like to think our houses will last forever, but they won’t.  Wood may be with us for centuries but when its usefulness to us is done it is easily disposed of or cycled back into the natural world.   It can be burned as fuel.  It releases CO2 at that time, but this is the same CO2 recently absorbed.    That is why burning wood is recognized as carbon neutral.  If thrown away, wood decays.  It doesn’t take long before yesterday’s wood is fertilizer for tomorrow’s growing trees.  This again is in striking contrast to other materials. Steel can be recycled at a high energy cost.   If thrown away, it will rust away after many years. Concrete also can be recycled with much effort.  If you dump it, it will lay until the next ice age. Plastic is the most persistent product.  Some plastics will remain in the environment almost forever.   Recycling is a good when possible, but it really only postpones the problem. The plastic water bottle may be turned into a carpet or a computer keyboard, but eventually it will end up in a landfill where it will stay … forever. 

We need to use all sorts of materials: metal, plastic, glass, stone, concrete, various composites and wood.   They are all appropriate for some uses.   When you look at the total ecological value chain, wood deserves to come out on top in many cases.  Our Virginia tree farms can grow wood, sustainable, now and forever.   That beats the alternatives most of the time. 

The top picture is a spruce plantation in the kettle-moraines in Wisconsin. The bottom picture shows turning leaves along US 50 in West Virginia.

September 27, 2009

Fire & Ice: Always Becoming; Never Being

Kettle-Moraine trail 

Climate change is not something we face only today. Warmer temperatures helped during the rise of the Roman Empire and cooler ones probably contributed to its downfall.  It was warm around the year 1000, when the Viking colonized Greenland and they were later wiped out by the advance of the Greenland ice. Interestingly, archeology in Greenland is now revealing Viking settlement patterns that were buried by ice for hundreds of years. Yes, it was as warm back then as it is now with our warmer temperatures.

North and west of Milwaukee are the kettle-moraines. This is where the last ice age stopped. The ice sheets dithered over the land here making sort of waves in the landscapes. Where glaciers stopped are moraines, long hill waves. An ancient glacial river, where sediment settled, is called an esker. These snake around like raised rivers across the farmlands. Where there was a depression in the glacier and dirt accumulated is called a drumlin. These are now round hills. Finally there are kettles, depressions carved by ice as the glacier retreated. What happened was that shards of ice got stuck in the ground, like glass in tar. When they melted they left holes. Some became lakes or marshes; others are just holes. 

Most lakes are the gift of the glaciers, which is why you find so many in Wisconsin and Minnesota and not so many farther south. Over time, all lakes fill in and unless glaciers, man or an earthquake makes a new one, there are no more little lakes. I used to really enjoy the study of this stuff. Natural succession occurs when a lake fills in and gradually, through a succession of plant communities, becomes a forest. This can take thousands of years, which is why the lakes are still here.

Kettle-moraine forest 

The ice retreated from Wisconsin only about 10,000 years ago and the last ice age is called the Wisconsin glaciation, since there is so much evidence of it in Wisconsin. Besides the kettle-moraines, the area around Lacrosse, where Chrissy is from, is called the driftless area because the glaciers did not cover it and leave glacial dirt, also called “drift.” It was like a hole in the ice, but it was much affected by the glaciers. As the glaciers melted, water raced down forming long narrow valleys called coolies. Grand Coolie in Washington State is a really big example of the phenomenon. It was formed when a giant ice dam broke and washed away pretty much everything in its path. The area of Western Wisconsin is clearly different from the East.  Rolling hill give way to a more ragged landscape.

I road my bike from Lacrosse to Milwaukee a couple of times and felt the geography. It is hard going, up and down, until you get past Reedsburg. Then you go down a long hill, which I understand is the Baraboo Ridge, and the peddling gets easier. There are hills, but they are not quite as steep or abrupt.

Anyway, talk about climate change! 10,000 years ago is not really that long in the great scheme of geologic time. The glaciers also created the Great Lakes and are formed the basis for that great fertile soil you find in the Upper Midwest. I suppose you could blame them for the poorer soils farther north, since that is where it was pushed from. All changes produce winners and losers.  Climate change is no different. All things considered, we are better off now than during the ice ages

Ice Age trail marker 

Ice Age Trail

The Ice Age trail follows the edge of the glaciers throughout Wisconsin. I went to the Waukesha part, the Latham district. Latham was a naturalist of the 19th Century. He was instrumental in founding the national weather service.

I feel very at home in the Kettle-Moraines. That was my first contact with natural communities. We went out here on field trips from school and when I could ride my bike far enough I made my own visits. The landscape meshed well with my childhood love of natural history. The soil on the terminal moraines tend to be rocky and gravel and not so good. Ironically, that is one of the reasons we have ice age parks. The soil was not good for farming, so the land reverted to state ownership when the owners just walked away or else sold it cheap.

Oak savannah, oak opening in S Wisconsin 

The natural cover in the Waukesha kettle-moraines is oak-savanna, locally called “oak openings.”  The trees are spread apart in a park-like setting.  The trees do not get very big because of the poverty of the soil, so a century old tree might be only thirty feet high, but they get very picturesque.   Until settlement, the oak savanna was maintained by fires, set naturally by lighting or more often set deliberately or accidentally by Native Americans. I wrote about that in a series of posts about fire in the woods.  Indians burned the land to improve hunting and once a fire started it could burn for a long time. Since there were no roads and few clearings to stop it, a fire burned until the next heavy rain. For a long time after the European settlement, we excluded fire from the landscape and a lot of brush has grown up.  According to signs I saw along the trails, the State of Wisconsin is trying to reestablish the “natural” or at least the pre-settlement ecosystems.   This means the judicial use of ecological fire.

I think I should say something about natural succession, since not everybody is as familiar with it.   Basically, there is a succession of natural communities that establish themselves on any piece of land. Each natural community creates conditions that allow the next stage to prosper while, ironically, creating conditions where its own continuation is disadvantaged. For example, pine trees fill in a field, but as they grow together they create shade where young pines cannot grow, but the sheltered forest and the improving soil is a good environment for maples, which come to replace pines. 

If you start with bare dirt, the first things that come in are weeds, then perennial grass and so on.   In a reasonably fertile piece of dirt in Eastern Wisconsin, you will get the weeds, perennial plants, box elders and ash and finally maples-beech-basswood if there is sufficient moisture and soil depth, otherwise oak-hickory.  But in some places you won’t really get forest at all.  Wisconsin has a lot of prairie ecosystems.  Of course, we really don’t know what the “natural” succession would be because no human has ever studied one. The Native Americans burned too, as above.  

Field in natural succession in S Wisconsin kettle-morine 

You can see above a field that might be in the process of becoming an open forest. When I studied natural succession, we talked about climax forests.  That was the ecosystem that supposedly was the ultimate goal. Once established, the climax forest would remain until disturbed by nature or man.  This implied permanence unjustified by the evidence.  We now have a more subtle understanding of ecology. There really is no “goal”. Everything is just becoming something else.

September 25, 2009

Lions & Tigers & Bears - No Way

Cougar attacks mule deer at the Milwaukee Public Museum 

I spent a lot of time at the Milwaukee Museum as a kid.  It was a big part of my education and many of the images have stuck with me, so I was happy to see significant continuity in the exhibits.  The familiar animals stare out of their dioramas.  I went down to the museum with my sister and saw the old friends.

The one that stuck in my mind the most was the cougar, frozen in time about to jump on a couple of mule deer. When I hike in the west, in places where there is a resurgent cougar population, I think about that image and unfortunately cast myself in the role of the deer. The cougar is a stealth hunter. He is literally digging his claws on your back before you are aware of his presence. 

Cougars were once common throughout North America.  Our ancestors wisely drove them out to the lonely places of the continent and I am unenthusiastic about their return to settled areas.  I understand that there is an established population now in the Black Hills and sooner or later some fool will reintroduce them to the Appalachians, whence they will infiltrate into place where I walk.  I know they are beautiful and graceful, but I don’t favor any animal sharing the forest with me that can easily kill me and might have incentive to try. I don't believe, as some deep green environmentalists imply, that it would be ennobling for me to become "one with nature" by becoming big cat food and ultimately being converted to cougar sh*t. 

I am indeed a “speciesist” in this sense.  I want to stay at the apex of the food pyramid. Let big, dangerous cats stay in the North Cascades or other special ranges where we can be on the lookout for them.  It has been more than a century since any of their kind snarled their defiance in the Eastern Mountains. Good. Let's keep it that way.

I have no similar problem with wolves, BTW.  Little Red Riding Hood notwithstanding, they may be a threat to livestock, but just don’t attack people.  At least they have not done so in North America in our 400 years of reliable record-keeping.  The wolf has suffered mightily from bad public relations.  In Europe, where they lived in intimate contact with dispersed and technologically less sophisticated human populations I suppose they may have been a threat on occasion, but not here and now.

So to sum up in simple terms, IMO, MOST carnivores – wolves, coyotes, bobcats, lynx, fishers, martens, badgers and such like are good and should be encouraged on your land unless you have livestock or small pets that might be endangered.  Large bears and - especially - cougars are bad anywhere near where you want to live, hike or take a nap.

Gorilla exhibit at Milwaukee Museum 

Above is "Sambo".  He was a gorilla in the Milwaukee Zoo. He died back in 1959 (I think of lung disease) and soon appeared in the Museum as the "lowland gorilla". I never saw Sambo alive, but got to know him in the flesh, so to speak, later.  Below is "Sampson".   He was Sambo's zoo-mate (I think he might have been his brother), but lived a lot longer.  Sampson died in 1981 of a massive heart attack. He was evidently overweight.  I don't recall if he smoked or didn't exercise.  He was one of the most popular residents of the zoo, with a lot of mourning fans when he died.  Now he also stands in the museum. My own goal, BTW, is to become a museum exhibit someday. They can make a diorama with me as a character. 

sampson the gorilla in Milwaukee 


September 22, 2009

We're Cooked

Union Station in Washington from 8th Floor of Heritage Foundation on September 22, 2009 

I went to a discussion of the costs of cap & trade. There were experts from Brookings, CBO, EPA, Energy Information Agency, the National Black Chamber of Commerce & Heritage Foundation, so we got the full spectrum of analysis.  Lots of the assumptions were different and the ideology was contrasting, but they all came up with the same ballpark conclusions: cap & trade as it is now formulated in the House bill will cost a lot and probably will not work very well to control climate change.

As I have written many times before, I favor a broad carbon tax, which is why I could never run for office.   I support cap & trade BECAUSE it is a type of carbon tax, albeit a less efficient and possibly corrupt way to do it, but it looks like there is enough inefficiency in corruption in the House bill to question it.

One flaw in the bill is that it includes almost nothing about nuclear power.  In the long run, we will need to go with renewable power.  In the medium run, there is no way to achieve the needed carbon reductions w/o nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gas.  Many environmentalists stupidly reject nuclear power.    No form of power is w/o risks and costs, but if you believe that global warming is the existential threat some people say it is, doesn’t that almost certain risk of climate change trump the hypothetical risk of nuclear power?   Not one person has died in the whole history of nuclear power in the U.S.  Nobody was even seriously injured in the worst “disaster” in nuclear power history at Three Mile Island.

But a probably more serious problem is the phenomenal growth of emissions from developing countries such as China or India.  China is the world’s leading emitter of CO2 and their emissions are growing rapidly.   China adds the equivalent of two 500 megawatt coal fired plants EVERY WEEK.  In one year it adds the equivalent of the whole British power network and by 2030 China alone could emit as much CO2 as the whole world does today. In other words, if everybody else cut to zero, it wouldn’t matter.

Talk is cheap, BTW.  China has promised to cut emissions relative to GDP.  That is good.  But the U.S. has been cutting emissions relative to GDP since 1973 and in 2006, the U.S. was the only nation to cut emissions in absolute numbers during a time of economic growth. 

So my conclusion is that we are cooked.  We should think about adaptations to a warmer world.   And we should be working on alternatives AND building nuclear power stations.  Congress should go back to work and enact a true carbon tax that would get the government out of the business of picking winning and losing companies and technologies. Government has an abysmal record in doing this (consider the recent debacle re ethanol) and there is no reason to believe it has gotten any better. The current bill doesn’t inspire confidence. I like the idea of markets for environmental services in general. I was tentatively in favor of the climate bill. It has some good aspects, but it needs smarter leadership and some hard thinking.

BTW - the picture is Union Station from the window of Heritage Foundation, where the panel was held. 

September 20, 2009

Trimming the Tree

John Matel trimming treeChrissy & I trimmed the branches in our trees today.  One of our neighbors lent us a 12-foot ladder so I could climb into the tree and get at the internal branches that were crossing and rubbing onto each other. 

All the zelkova trees around here have a problem of crossing and interfering branches.  I think that the reason is the way they sell them from nurseries.   They trim them up nicely and encourage branching so that they look good at the date of sale.  That means they are fuller than they would otherwise be.   As they grow, the branches expand into each other’s space.  Now this one is taken care of.   Sarah, the woman next door is now very happy.  She was worried re the branches hitting her house.

I was surprised how much I cut out and how little it seemed to change the tree.  That is the sign of a good pruning.  If the tree still looks natural after the work is done, the work has been done well.  Although I probably should have waited another month to prune, I think it will work out.  We are having an early fall this year and the fall pruning should make it grow really fast next spring at the ends of the branches and it is too late for the sucker branches to grow now, so it will be okay.

I am getting too old to climb around in the branches.  Chrissy held the ladder and passed up the tools. I was glad to have her.  It always worried me that the ladder would fall when I was high in the branches or – worse – when I was standing on the ladder.  Now my only worry was that branches and sawdust would land on Chrissy.

Tree at Johnson-Matel house in 2000We cut the branches up and loaded them into the truck - filled the whole bed. I am going down to the farm tomorrow and will dump them down there.  It is good to have a truck and good to have land. My plan is to drive really fast backwards and then slam on the breaks, releasing the branches onto the ground.  

On the left is the same tree nine years ago.  I trimmed off the lower branches, but you can see the future branch tangle. 


September 05, 2009

Sustainable is Better than Natural

JohnsonMatel tree farm road showing five year old pine trees and wildlife opening 

We make a lot of distinctions w/o even thinking about it.  One of the most prevalent and potentially pernicious is the idea that some things are natural – almost sacred and untouchable – while others are profaned by human contact.  

I think the goal should be sustainable, not “natural.”  Natural is a slippery, arbitrary and often arrogantly used term.   It is a chimera that assumes also that an environment that results from random chance and the interactions of non-human animals and plants is somehow qualitatively different than one with human influences.  This is just not true.   Some of the most productive, beautiful and sublime environments are the resulst of long term human interference and management.   They are not “natural” if that term implies human free.   But they are sustainable  

That is why I quibble with words like “recovery,” “damage” or "natural" used too freely when talking about human interactions with the environment. They can sometimes be appropriate, but they too often imply that something is broken and that we have identified a problem that we need to fix.   Some radical misanthropes who call themselves environmentalist actually believe that somehow the earth would be better off w/o humans.  Of course, this is a very short-sighted and ironically very human-based point of view.  

In fact, we would not want most human-influenced, human created, environments to revert to their pre-human state, even if that was possible and even if we could determine what non-human influence means, since there has not been such an environment in most of the world since the end of the last ice age or before.  The wonderful “natural” environments of pre-Columbian America were by no means natural, BTW.   They were created by Native American activities, especially fire, for example.  Humans have changed the environment ever since there have been humans.  Other animals have done so too, BTW.  It is the nature of all life.

Sustainable is clearly the better concept.  It provides a wide variety of choices and modulations of human influence. We will always have human influence as long as we are here, who cares after that, so why even talk about anything else?  So let’s go with sustainable, which is achievable and good, rather than some hypothetical “natural” state, which is – BTW –itself an artificial human philosophical creation.

(I have long contributed to the Nature Conservancy and I recommend everyone do it. What I like about the Nature Conservancy is its do something good perspective.   I like it that my money helps conserve and restore places to sustainable nature.   Read some of what they are doing for sustainable grasslands at this link.) 

I read a three articles today that touch on these concepts.  The first talks about how quickly ecosystems will revert to a sustainable “natural” state when humans move away.   The truth is that it takes a lot of human effort to PREVENT nature from obliterating the works of humans.  Some would argue that the new state is not “natural” and it is not pristine or natural in the purist or religious sense, but it is sustainable, which is what we should really care about.  

The next article talked about new environmentally friendly processes that can make softwoods as hard and resistant to the elements as tropical hardwoods.   This is important because we and do grow softwoods (such as pines) sustainably.  Tropical hardwoods tend to be essentially mined from rainforests, often illegally.   Replacing tropical hardwoods with sustainably grown temperate wood would go a long way to slow or even stop deforestation.   It seems almost too good to be true, but many really big changes pivot on small improvements in technologies and techniques.

The last article is about an unsustainable, well intentioned hubris. Spain has been subsidizing solar power, but it has proven unsustainable, i.e. it is not viable w/o subsidies; it doesn’t look like it soon will be viable w/o subsides and Spain can no longer afford to provide subsidies.  The whole worldwide market for solar is affected.

This is a good example of why governments should not try to favor specific technologies.  Solar does work, but not as well everywhere. The kinds of decisions must be made on local levels to allow the greater variety and localization.  The Spanish debacle might well have a desired effect, just not in Spain.  Prices are dropping because of the Spanish withdrawal. The lower prices will encourage adoption, maybe in places and applications where solar actually makes more sense.  

We should take the lesson for our own environmental legislation. The best regulation is one that gives people and firms incentives to use their intelligence and imagination to create innovations appropriate to their needs. General directions are better than detailed instructions. 

We humans are going to be on this earth for a long time to come. We are part of nature. We should not pretend we can separate ourselves.  Our task is to live sustainably on this planet. Trying to establish a pre or non-human perspective is just plain stupid. Human interventions can be good or they can be bad.  Sometimes plants and animals do better around human "footprints."

August 30, 2009

Katrina plus 4: Move to Higher Ground

The news carries reports that some people are still living in FEMA trailers and many homes are not rebuilt four years after Hurricane Katrina.  

When a big tragedy hits, we feel the natural human desire to reach out and help the victims.   We certainly should.  But after the “first aid” and the flood waters have receded, it is time for everybody to get back to work as usual.  After four years, it is past time for the victims to be on the other side, i.e. willing and able to help others.  And it is not the government’s duty to offer indefinite help.  It starts to get abusive.   If my house burns down tonight, I don’t expect to be living in a FEMA trailer at all, much less still be there four years later. Beyond that, I learned that many of the victims were renters.  If you lose your rental home, you move and pay rent somewhere else.  The landlord takes the loss. 

I like to watch nature and science programs on TV. Going back many years, I have seen programs about the Mississippi River, New Orleans, global warming, sea level rises or all of the above.  They all said the same sorts of things.   Much of New Orleans is below sea level. Everybody knew that it was only a matter of time before a big hurricane would come and do what Katrina did.   And everybody knows it will happen again.  It is not “if” it is “when”.  And there is nothing we can do about it no matter how much we spend.  Those low-lying parts of the city should not be inhabited at all today or tomorrow and they should not have been occupied yesterday.  It was a mistake. The destruction of the wetlands to build these areas was a slow motion tragedy. The clock was set ticking a century ago.  We just didn't see it until the big one hit.  Actually, we did see it, as all the nature show programs said; we just didn't care, sort of like today. It gets worse. Global warming will cause sea levels to rise. Those lands currently below sea level will be even further below sea level.  Building/rebuilding is just a waste of time and a cruel hoax on anybody living there.

Let’s say it plainly. Start with the good news.  Those parts of New Orleans that are above sea level (including many of the historical areas) can and should be preserved. The port areas can be rebuilt and enhanced.    BUT New Orleans must become a smaller city. The parts of the city that are at or below sea level should not be rebuilt. 

The best use would be to make some of these erstwhile flooded neighborhoods, such as the 9th Ward, into wet forest or “walking” wet land used for agriculture. Letting these places return to a more natural state will serve to protect the salvageable and more valuable real estate.  There is really no other practical or ethical course. 

We should stop promising or implying that people will be returning to their homes on these once and future swamps, bayous and lakes.   It makes absolutely no sense from either the ecological or the economic point of view.   This goes beyond New Orleans, BTW.  

Decisions about where to build should be local decisions.   In most cases, I would not deny someone the right to build on his own property, even if I thought the choice was stupid.  But we should not help.  Much stupid development comes down to subsidized insurance.   If no private company will insure your new home, maybe there is a reason. The risk is too high. We certainly should not subsidize your bad decision.   W/o the unnatural public subsidy for  insurance to live on unstable places, most people would not build on barrier islands, flood plains, loose slopes … or below sea level in New Orleans.

We need to be realistic.   Some places are just not suited to some uses.   It is a tragedy if your house is destroyed by a flood … once.   If it starts to become a habit maybe you are just stupid.  Stupidity is not against the law and maybe you have a good reason to keep moving back, but stupidity shouldn’t receive government subsidies. 

The U.S has a lot of land.  We are not like Holland.  We don’t need to build billion dollar levees to protect hundred dollar real estate, nor should we sacrifice nature to our hubris.   We should help our fellow citizens in such situations, but we should help them move to higher ground.

There is an old joke about a preacher and a flood.   During a big flood, a preacher was trapped on the roof of his church.    A boat came by.   They said, “Reverend, get in.  It is still raining in the hills and the whole town will be covered.”  The preacher said, “I trust in the Lord.  He will save me.”  A second boat comes and it is the same.   Then comes a third boat.  The guy in the third boat tells the preacher, “Listen, this is the last boat.  Everybody else is out.  It is still raining.  Get in!”   The preacher just responds, “I trust the Lord.  He will save me.”    The last boat leaves.  Finally the preacher is up to his neck in water.   He looks toward heaven and says, “I trusted you to save me.  Why have you forsaken me?”   The Lord answers, “I sent three boats; why didn’t you get into one of them?”

Victims cannot always dictate the terms of their salvation.   Sometimes there are more important considerations. 

August 27, 2009

Nobody Works Harder than Loggers

Trimbing limbs at loblolly harvest 

Logging is a tough job.   Forests usually to grow in inconvenient locations, often at the ends of long dirt roads, so loggers have to travel long bumpy distances just to get to their jobs, which means waking up early and getting home late. I got to look at a day of their work, which I wrote about yesterday.   Here are a few more pictures along with some narrative.

Below is the inside of the cab of the buncher.  Is is not quite as armored as an MRAP, but as I said, yesterday, it is reinforced so that almost nothing in the woods could break through to the operator. I think the glass actually is bulletproof.  It has a break, but no gas pedal.  Once it starts, it keeps going unless you stop it (or I suppose it runs out of gas).

View from inside buncher  

Like anybody who works outside, the weather is important to loggers.   Modern machines can work under a variety of conditions, but rain and mud make the job a lot harder.

Alex & Espen by the big tire 

Larry’s team is paid by for production, so the quicker they are the more they make.   Individuals get a percentage of the take, depending on the job they do.   Since all the jobs depend on the others, it doesn’t make sense to create independent incentives.   It is important to move fast for the individual earnings, but also because of the high cost of the machines.   You don’t want to leave a million dollars’ worth of machines standing idle.

It is hard to find qualified workers to run the machines.  It used to be that there were lots of men on the job and some of them would learn to use the machines from the others, but young people are less interested in taking up this work.  Larry said that his firm may have to start a more formal training program.  

This is true of many jobs that require actual work.  I recall when a guy came to fix my furnace in New Hampshire back in 2004.  It was hard to get him to come.  You had to make an appointment well in advance.  He told me that he had too much work and had been trying w/o success to get an apprentice to help him.  The guy said was looking for a young person with no particular experience, but with a good work ethic and that the apprentice could expect to make around $80K a year within a few years.   You would think he would have no shortage of applicants.  Maybe the bad economy will help encourage them.  

Giant toothpick cleans bulldozer  

Each work site has its own fix-it truck, full of replacement parts and tools to fix whatever can go wrong with the equipment.   Nevertheless, sometimes the right tool is just a simple log.  Look at the pictures above and below.   A root got stuck in the track of the bulldozer and the giant steel hand was using a log like a giant toothpick to get it loose.

Cleaning the track 

Forest Thinning with Really Big Machines

Alex in forestry machine 

Above is Alex in one of the big forestry machines

Larry Walker has been working forestry in Virginia for more than thirty years.   I was grateful that he took the time to show me some ongoing forestry operations and explain some of the basics. 

Thinning loblolly pine in Virginia on August 26, 2009Forestry in Virginia is very different today than it was even ten years ago.   Much of it has to do with mechanization.   Some of the big machines cost around a quarter a million dollars but they do the job of dozens of workers and they make forestry a much safer occupation.  The machine just grabs the trees and cuts them in seconds.  Chain saws are gone. Good thing too.

Cutting with chain saws is just plain hazardous. The saw itself is dangerous and so is the falling log as well as all the branches up top.   They used to call heavy dead branches “widow-makers.” Modern machines eliminate all of this.  The operator sits in a reinforced cab.   If a tree falls on top of the cab, the tree breaks.   Larry told me that the machine can tip over and still the cab will not be broken.   The cutting machine can grab and hold six or ten trees at a time and a good operator can clear hundreds of trees in a couple of minutes.Cutting limbs off loblolly pine during harvest in Virginia on August 26, 2009

But the thing that really eliminated the chain saw was the machine that cuts off the limbs.  You can see it above. It takes seconds to pull through a bunch of trees.  Then a automatic saw cuts off the tops.  Later the buncher comes back, takes away the branches and spreads them more or less evenly around the woods. 

Circular saw blade 

We watched a thinning operation.   The trees were seventeen years old, which is a little old for the first thinning, but well within the “usual” time.   Smaller holders are unenthusiastic about thinning right now, since prices are low.   Larger holders, like the TIMO (timber investment managment organization, sort of a timber-land mutual fund) whose land we were visiting, thin on schedule no regardless of the market. Above is the cutting saw on the buncher.  Below is a clipper.  It works just as you would guess. The saw is the more effective and modern technology.

Clip saw for harvesting pine 

First the operator makes a row through the trees, taking out all the trees in the row.   Next he selects and cuts out the stunted, deformed or runt trees among the remaining ones.  When they are removed, the other grow significantly faster.  You can see how it works when you look at the tree rings.  The trees grow fast until the crowns close.   They grow fast again after thinning.  Loblolly pines respond well to “release”  i.e. they grow a lot faster when given more light, water and nutrients.   Not all tree species are so adaptive.   

Tree rings on loblolly 

If they are prevented from growing up to potential when young, some remain stunted even after competition is removed.   This adaptable characteristic of the loblolly is one reason it is the most common plantation tree in the South and is planted in faraway places like Brazil, South Africa and Australia.   Loblolly pines continue to grow rapidly until they are around thirty-five or forty.  After that, the rings are tight.   It is easy to estimate the age of a loblolly when they are young and a ten-year-old tree is very different from a fifteen-year-old, but although the trees might live almost 200 years, it is not easy at a glance to tell a forty-year-old tree from a sixty or eighty-year-old-tree.

It takes about ten fifteen or minutes to cut off the branches and load the trucks you see below. 

Triming the load of loblolly pine  

This particular forest has an interesting history.   There was a big forest fire two years ago and strong winds knocked down an electrical wire and then pushed the fire through the woods.   Larry’s firm was hired to do a salvage cut on trees that looked dead.   But there was a lot of rain and they couldn’t get their machines in.   The trees greened out during the waiting time.  It turned out that the fire improved the stand, burning out most of the brush and hardwood completion.

Ferns fill in after a forest fire 

After the fire, the ferns filled in.  I understand that this is fairly common.

August 05, 2009

Changing Priorities

Manassas battlefield scene in 1861 

Switzerland’s forests are taking over the countryside and they are abetted in their march up the mountain slopes by global warming.   It is strange to think of forests as a threat, but take a look at the article at this link.   A more nuanced view of nature makes sense to me and tracks with what I have learned over my lifetime.  It is not only Switzerland, BTW.  It happens in America too.  Above is the area around the Manassas battlefield, just outside Washington as it looked in 1861. It needed more trees then. Look at the bottom picture to see how it looks now.  

See the forest SYSTEM, not only the trees

When I was young, I thought that more trees were always better.  That kind of idea made good sense in 1968 because there seemed little chance there could ever be too many trees or too much land covered in forests.  Since then, I have learned to look at the total system.   I can now more clearly see the forest instead of just the trees and I can also understand that the forest is part of a larger system that includes forests, water, wildlife grassland, brush and even some bare sand & rocks … and people.    The most pleasant and productive systems are those that have a variety of different types and a lot of transition edges among them. Nature tends not to produce these sorts of places for very long.   

Solving one problem creates the next

Switzerland had developed a beautiful and ecologically sustainable land use that allowed for bountiful agricultural production as well as superbly managed forests.  Too many trees or forests that are too thick with trees threaten that sustainable balance.  You can have too much of a good thing.  BTW - take a look at the Swiss picture gallery.  It really is a nice place.
The seeds of this dilemma were planted more than 100 years ago. There was not much real forestry being practiced back then.  Instead there was the kind of denuding timber mining that is almost never now done anymore in rich developed countries but remains depressingly common in places w/o good regulator regimes and strong property rights. The bare slopes caused soil degradation, erosion and disastrous flooding, so back in 1876 the Swiss enacted a sensible law to prevent deforestation.  It worked.  That problem was solved.  And since yesterday’s solutions are often today’s problems, the results presented a new challenge.  

It goes up but never comes down 

Set in motion was a kind of ratchet.  In the normal course of things in an agricultural/forestry system, forests expand and are cleared.  Crop of pasture land might take the place of forest and forests might grow on lands previously occupied by crops or pasture.  If it becomes illegal to clear forests once they are established, the areas covered in trees inexorably expand at the expense of meadow and other uses.  Imagine how this happens.  A pasture is neglected for a few years allowing trees to fill in.  Now it is a young forest, which you cannot clear.  You don’t need this ratchet mechanism to produce similar results, BTW. Forests in the U.S. have also been expanding over former farm fields.  As agriculture became more efficient, less land was needed in meadow and field.  You can see this clearly in the eastern United States.  If you look at old pictures and compare them to what you see today, you notice that there are a lot more trees today than there were a century ago.  But the ratchet rules make it much harder to manage the land. 

Build on success

We really have to shift our paradigm. We are no longer the embattled preservationists we were a generation ago.  We won that battle. Now we have to be clever in land use and mange what we have preserved and what technology improvements have preserved for us.   The need to be good stewards of the land is as important as ever, but doing a good job requires a much more nuanced understanding of the overall ecology.   It will never end for us.  There is not finished state for the environment.  But it is time to move to the next stage. 

Below is what Manassas looks like now.  I like it better now.  The balance of forest in meadow is good, IMO.  Left alone, the trees, initially mostly tulip poplar, red maples and some cedars, would be around thirty feet high within fifteen years.  

Manassas battlefield in 2004 

Remembering that yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems, we have to assume the today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.  That does not imply failure.  A good solution under particular circumstances is less useful when conditions change.  We just need to be smart. It never ends.  Perfection and final solutions are impossible, attempting to create them is undesirable and despite all this we manage to persist.  Th