December 16, 2013

How the world has changed

The argument today is whether or not the U.S. should export oil. I continue to marvel at energy developments of the last ten years. The U.S. will soon be the world’s largest energy producer, an energy superpower. All the experience of the past forty years has been overtaken by events. It is the energy equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall and will have consequences as far reaching.

I should not be so surprised. I have been an optimist all my life, trusting that human imagination, intelligence and innovation can overcome all obstacles. But I came to maturity during the dark and cold days of the late 1970s, when President Carter told us that we would have to recognize limits, when books and movies emphasized the end of our resources. It is hard for me to believe that it is all so different.

When I was young, people around me made stuff out of raw materials. It seems perfectly intuitive that you could - would - run out of raw materials if you kept on making stuff. I remember hearing stories about the great range Mesabi Range in Minnesota just running out of iron ore. I pictured it just as empty.  It was the end of the line.  Those big iron ore boats coming through the lakes would come no more. I remember being a little surprised by the great song by Gordon Lightfoot about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. I thought those boats had mostly stopped already.

It seemed to make sense to see the world as a bunch of boxed filled with resources. Our ancestors had emptied lots of these boxes and we were emptying them even faster. Soon there would be no more full boxes and we would be out stuff and out of luck. This formulation is easy for child to understand, maybe because it is childish.

In real life, we have constantly developing technologies and techniques. We do indeed "run out" of some stuff, but by the time we do we have transitioned into something else, usually something that works better for our needs.

I recall my first class is business policy. We were assigned a well-known business and told to ask what business they were in. I was assigned McDonald's and it seemed an easy answer. McDonald's was in the hamburger business. This was the wrong answer. I expanded to fast-food. Still not right. I finally ended up with a vague "customer satisfaction" explanation. This was almost right, but still not broad enough. McDonald's is in the customer satisfaction business, using mostly a fast and integrated process to do that. It is also in the logistics business, the technology business and the real estate business, among others. If people stopped eating hamburgers, McDonald's would face challenges, but it would not necessarily go out of business, especially if the changes took place over some years. In fact, we have seen McDonald's diversify its offerings since that time many years ago when I first gave my incorrect answer.

McDonald's is just one firm. How much more adaptive is the great diversity of our society? I could have been asked a similar question about energy. Back in the 1970s, I might have talked about the need to secure foreign energy sources and to cut way back on energy consumption, maybe put on a sweater, turn down the lights and sit in the cold as President Carter implied. But things don't really work like that.

So today we talk about how much energy we should export. The big energy producers in the world worry about the U.S. as a competitor. They can no longer ration our energy or use it against us. If they embargo oil to us, we don't really care. In fact, the big geopolitical talk of today is whether or not we will ALLOW Iran to sell more oil. How the world has changed.

May 24, 2013


Linden Trees 

Sense of smell is a very persistent and emotional sense.   It can evoke feelings and memories like no other sense.

St. Louis is a Midwestern city and so is familiar to me on a visceral level. Some of the familiarity has to do with the sights; some is sound.  St. Louis has my familiar robins and red wing blackbirds, with their pretty calls and the grackles without.  But a big deal are the smells. I am here at the right time of the year.  The hawthorns are blooming.  This brings back memories at least back to sixth grade when we took a field trip to Hawthorn Glen.   That was back in 1966.   I also remember the smells from Grant Park. It is a distinctive smell. At the hotel, I am near the pool. I like the smell of chlorine, reminds me of my swim team days.


Another memorable smell is from the linden trees.   They are just coming out here.  I have written about this before.  There are not many lindens in Milwaukee. Although their American cousins, the basswoods, are very common, they don’t have the same sweet smell.   I remember the lindens from my first trip to Germany.  They are a common tree in central Europe.   Poland also has lots of them, so many than their word for the month of July is Lipiec from the Polish word for linden, which is lipa.   In North America the lindens flower in late May or June.  In Poland they are out late June or July, hence the name.   


There is also lots of lavender.  Lavender is an interesting memory.  I became familiar with lavender smells because of air fresheners.  When I first encountered lavender in real life, I was surprised how much it smelled like air fresheners.  I guess Glade does a good job of mimicking it.

Urban farm 

A few blocks later was the tannery. That was probably the worst stink.Just past the river, we got into the yeast smell from Schlitz & Pabst breweries.When the wind was right, you got the sweet chocolate smell from Ambrosia Chocolate factory.            

Today the air is much cleaner.  When it has any smell at all, it tends to be perfumed with flowers and trees and not the old familiar industrial smells.  It is better, but it was kind of interesting to be able to tell where you were in the city by the taste of the air.

My pictures show lindens, hawthorns, a nice fountain and an urban farm. St. Louis is looking good. 

April 15, 2013

New forestry developments in SE Virginia

Boys at new forest river 

We went down to the farms.  The boys came with on Saturday. I stayed an extra day to talk to our local friends. Trees look good. They have only just started to grow for this season, so I look forward to seeing them again next month.

Boys at pines 

Lots of things are happening in this part of Virginia. An old International Paper Mill was repurposed for fluff pulp in 2012.  Two new wood pellet plants by Enviva are opening this year. Some of this is sold to the EU as part of their renewable requirements. And Dominion Power is converting some of its plants to biomass from coal. This will create demand for wood chips. 

Espen in truck 

If the housing industry picks up a little, we should be in high cotton (or high pine) by the next time we harvest some of the trees.

The top picture shows the boys plus their friend Colin at a stream crossing on the new farm. Below they are near ten year old trees at CP and the bottom is Espen in the truck.

April 06, 2013

Good forestry or politicized environmentalism

My forest is certified by the American Tree Farm system, the world’s oldest forest certification plan. It is affiliated with the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI). Nobody can care for his forest more than I do. Yet the wood I grow sustainably on land that has been growing sustainable forests for generations is not edible to be used in LEEDs buildings because of they only accept wood certified by the politically better connected Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). Silly and harmful to America.

MOST American certified forests are SFI certified. Three quarters of our continent's wood is not FSC certified. That means that when you build a LEED building - supposedly "green" - you pay more for the wood AND there is a good chance that the wood will come from someplace outside the United States. It will be shipped to the U.S. on trucks and ships burning fossil fuel, so you end up paying more to create more pollution.

So let's sum this up. You want to build a "green" building, so you look to LEEDs standards. But the standard themselves force you to use wood that is less environmentally friendly, costs more and employs fewer Americans because you are locked into FCS wood.

I looked into these certification schemes. The differences on the ground between SFI and FSC are impossible to find. The Society of American Foresters says "FSC or better is neither logical nor scientific, especially when it continues to reinforce misconceptions about third-party forest certification and responsible forest practices." I chose American Tree Farm System for my land because it was well established with a long and good history in the U.S. I know for sure it works.

FSC is more politically active. They have lots of allies among urban greens. People like my neighbors spend more time working their land than thinking about PC and PR. So FSC manages to intimidate and trick people into thinking that they have a monopoly on sustainable forestry. They don't. They are just more political and less American.

I know that few people reading this know or care much about this. You probably have seen FSC or SFI logos on your wood or paper products w/o paying attention. Certification for timber in North America is not an issue. There is little illegal logging in the U.S. Most landowners certify their land as a way of affirming their commitment to the land ethic and their neighbors. IMO, FSC and SFI provide nearly identical "protection" for the forests, but if you want American wood, you may want to go with SFI.

In any case, don't be impressed by the LEED standards. And if you or your government is tied into using only FSC wood, you are probably paying too much and costing jobs in American forests.


April 04, 2013

Gains and losses

tree stump 

It is colder than I thought it would be, but I expect spring will come while I am still in Virginia.    

Tree ringI counted the rings.As well as I can count, the tree was about chest high in 1900.It probably took a few years to get there, so it was an acorn maybe in 1890.Oak trees require some cover but a lot of sun.There are other big oaks nearby.My guess is that these oaks were on a property line, where there were other trees but cleared fields in both directions.Fairfax County has good soil for pasture and was an area of mixed dairy farms before it became urbanized.There is a good chance that was this, but I really don’t know.The big tree was actually two trees that grew together.It looks like there might have been a third tree in the middle. 

How different this place was when this tree started to grow. 

I felt bad when I saw the tree was gone, but I don’t want to make this a narrative of loss.  It is easy to fall into a narrative of loss when you really have loss, but we don’t think of the gains. The forest around is growing. Light that now gets to the formerly shaded ground will let other things grow faster and better. There really is no loss.  Back in 1890, a big tree may have fallen down to allow this big tree to grow.  The rings clearly show differences in the decades of growth. The likely cause is other trees crowding in and then being cleared. 

You can see the stump up to, rings next and some other trees growing together, maybe forming future big trees.  On the stump picture, you can see a dime, which gives some perspective.   Double tree

March 20, 2013

Woods of Home

I am in São Paulo again and I like it here.  But I was rereading “A Sand County Almanac” and I felt a lot of nostalgia for Wisconsin.   For those who don’t know it, “A Sand County Almanac” is one of the classics of conservation, written in 1948 by forester Aldo Leopold mostly about his farm in southern Wisconsin.  

The part that drew my attention was an essay on bur oaks and oak openings.  These are the places in the Wisconsin praries where thick barked oaks content with grass in what Leopold characterizes as the front lines in the battel between grasslands and forests.   The equilibrium was broken when settlers moved in and stopped the periodic burning that had favored grass.  Many of the forest covered hills in southern Wisconsin were grasslands 200 years ago.  The forests date from the 1850s when this part of Wisconsin was settled.

I have loved bur oaks since as long as I can recall.  There are some really big ones in Humboldt Park near the lagoon that I remember from childhood.  They were giants when I was young.  They seemed about the same size when I last saw them and I expect they will be there still when I am composted.   I miss the woods of home.

March 09, 2013

New environmental solutions

It is amazing how fast America is switching over to natural gas.  I read today that railroads are considering changing from diesel to natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner. Power plants are quickly substituting natural gas for coal.  All this is helping the U.S. reduce its carbon emissions while becoming less and less dependent on imported oil.  U.S. carbon emissions have been reduced by 13% in the last five years and we are down to 1994 levels.  If this goes on much longer, the U.S. will reach its Kyoto goals w/o having ratified the treaty thanks mostly to natural gas.

I have written about this natural gas boom many times before.   It is as close to a gift from God as it is possible to get in the energy world.  Natural gas is clean, abundant and American.  Better yet, it is widely distributed in the U.S., so the prosperity will be widely shared.

Another interesting permutation is genetically modified food.  They are also reducing CO2 emissions by improving land use.  And now investors are looking for ways to adapt to global warming and many environmentalists are embracing nuclear power as a sure way of delaying global warming.

I think it is very interesting that the solutions of many of our environmental problems come from sources that many of the traditionalists neither expect nor even much like.   CO2 emissions are reduced by the use of a fossil fuel extracted in a new and more efficient way.  Land use is improved by the use of genetically modified crops, the nemesis of many ostensibly green consumers.  Nuclear power may save the world and the free enterprise system will help us adapt to changes.

February 12, 2013

Speaking of leaving things undone ...

morning glories 

My sheep experiment didn’t work and I don’t have an animal to eat the grass, so I decided to declare my lawn a nature preserve and stop mowing.  You can see what it is like in the pictures.  I didn’t only stop mowing.  I also gathered seeds when I ride my bike past flower beds on the median strips for my wild garden.

Front yard 

I scatter them and some things have come up. I don’t know most of the plants but some are familiar.  Morning glories and marigolds grow down here and I found some seeds from them.  One of the most aggressive volunteer plants is “Maria sem vergonha.”  This means Maria w/o shame.  The name comes from the fact that it grows easily almost everywhere.  Brazilians think it is a weed. It has the nice deep green leaves and pink flowers.

Re flower 

I don’t know what the red flower below is called.  There were a bunch of them growing on the median strip near my house.  I gathered a couple seed pods; only three came up.   I have no idea what the other one is.  That is just another volunteer. 

Front yard flowers 

I like it better than the carpet-like lawn, especially because I am not sure what will come up.  It is a surprise.  One thing that is disappointing is that there seem to be not many bees and butterflies.  Generally speaking, the grasslands around here are less exuberant than our plains.  I read that this is because the Brazilian grasslands lacked large ungulates, such as bison. These big beasts graze the grass, fertilize with their manure and help spread seeds.  I can help spread the seeds, but I don’t think I want to do the other two things on my lawn and I don’t want to repeat my sheep experiment.  Below is Maria sem Vergonha.

Maria sem Vergonha 

December 23, 2012

Forward to a better environmental future

Dear habitat in Milwaukee

We talk about how things peak and decline.  These are often illusions.  There really is no such thing as “peak oil” in any practical sense, for example, but we can see peaks in human activities. The U.S. probably reached peak gasoline in 2007, i.e. we will never again burn as much gasoline again. We probably reached peak U.S. CO2 emissions about the same time. Our emissions are generally falling. Today scientists believe we have reached peak farmland, i.e. our footprint on the land will be reduced in the future.

This thanks to improved agricultural productivity. In the not too distant past, farmland under the plow increased in relation to the amount of crops grown. From 1870-1940, for example, the corn harvest closely tracked acres planted. Today we produce five times as much corn each year, but on LESS land. We will ever again plant as much land in corn as we during the 1940s.

The total amount of land planted in crops worldwide continued to rise in recent years because population was growing and the world's people were improving their diet, i.e. eating more in general and eating more meat. But these trends are slowing too.

Population growth is much slower than it was a generation ago and is expected to slow and maybe even reverse within the lifetime of people already alive today. As for eating more, people's appetite for more and better food goes up, but then also stabilizes. Although we all know some people who are pushing the limits, eventually there is only so much a person can eat.

We can expect agricultural yields to continue to improve, especially if we can get beyond the troglodyte fear of GMOs. Even w/o this source of improvement, there are lots of things that can be done. I read recently about a lettuce bot that can efficiently weed, thin and pick lettuce. This will improve cultivation techniques, while dispensing with the need for backbreaking labor current applied in the fields.

We can already see the results of more efficient agriculture, although it is so much around us and happened so slowly that we might not notice. In the last century, forests in the Eastern U.S. and Western Europe have returned as cropland no longer needed was recolonized by forests. There is more forest canopy in the Eastern U.S. then there was in 1812. With that has come wildlife. Deer, turkeys and even squirrels were almost extinct in some states a century ago. Today they are common enough to be pests in lots of places. ears are back on our tree farms. Before about ten years ago, they had been absent for a hundred years. I am not sure I am completely happy about their return, BTW. (I prefer not to share my land with dangerous animals. I don't really think that they would be more afraid of me than I would be of them.) But return they have.

Anyway, the smaller footprint on the land will give us the luxury of small scale organic farming for the upscale markets as well as the capacity to conserve natural areas and better protect soil and water resources. We really need to update our conception. For my entire life we have talked about fragile nature.

It has been a narrative of sad loss. According to this paradigm, each year there was less: less clean water, fewer animals and trees etc. I recall "ecological clocks" ticking inexorably toward a bleak dystopia like those portrayed in movies like "Soylent Green" or "Blade Runner." But we have turned a corner w/o perceiving it. And we did it by going forward, not backward. Today we have more and better options than we did in 1970, when I first started to worry about these things. It has turned about much better than I thought it would.

In the new paradigm, we need to restore humans in nature. IMO, in the old paradigm there is too much separation. We want to protect nature FROM humans. This follows naturally if you believe in the idea that we are merely trying to slow the inevitable loss. In the renewable and renewed world we live in today, I think it is important for people to understand their integration. I like the idea of community farms, not because I think locovores are more ecologically beneficial (I don't) but rather because it helps people understand where food comes from.

I also think we need to encourage a new generation of hunters. Hunting is dying out, as the older generation of hunters literally dies out. It would be a good thing if at least some of our calories came from wild game now expanding numbers into our neighborhoods. No matter what, the mind-sets and adaptions of the past fifty years will be increasingly out of date in the next.

Another addition - return of wolves to the Eastern forests.

December 05, 2012

Climate change challenges

My first encounter with climate change came when I was a kid in Wisconsin. We talked a lot about the Ice Ages and went on field trips to the nearby Kettle-Moraine State forest, where you could see the physical evidence of the ice age. The last Ice Age, in fact, is named the Wisconsin. It ended only 10,000 years ago. Until then, my native state was covered with glaciers. Then it got warmer and Wisconsin became the green and pleasant place it is, at least part of the year.

The Ice Age created most of our lakes and gentle hills. Glaciers did not cover Southwestern Wisconsin with its long hills and coolies. A coolie is a narrow valley formed by the scouring of melt water from the glaciers. Grand Coolie in Washington is a big example, formed when melt water broke through an ice dam, flushing everything before it from what is now Idaho all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Nothing like that happened in recorded human history.

Human history is a short time. We have just about 5000 years of history, i.e. when records were kept and there was no history in this sense in much of the world until much more recently. This means that our recorded human experience with climate change is very short and we recorded nothing as profoundly important as the rapid global warming at the end of the last Ice Age. But lots happened.

The Sumerian civilization, the people who first invented writing, were probably wiped out by a prolonged drought that lasted a couple hundred years. The Egyptians were driven into the Nile Valley by the encroaching Sahara desert. Mycenaean Greek & Hittite civilizations were destroyed at least partially by "climate refugees," who moved in from places suffering rapid changes. The Philistines of Bible fame were probably among them.

On the plus side, Roman civilization flourished during the first and second centuries because of a generally warmer climate that pushed the boundaries of Mediterranean style agriculture and lifestyle into Germany and what is now the UK. This happy time ended in the fourth century and the sixth century had lots of especially nasty cool weather that brought with it famine and sickness.

We enjoyed another warm period in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This was the period of the high Gothic, when European civilization flowered. It was significantly warmer in Europe, producing ample harvest and general prosperity. This ended with the onset of the little ice age. Frosts came earlier and lingered longer.People starved. The Black Death came around this time. While Black Death was not caused by climate change, the more desperate conditions caused by the cooling exacerbated it and hastened the spread.

None of these fluctuations in climate were evidently the result of human activity, but they had profound effects. I cannot point to a situation where climate was the only cause in the flowering or destruction of a civilization, but it was a big contributor to the rise and fall of Rome and the civilization of the high middle ages, mentioned above. There is an interesting speculation about the spread of the Indo-European language group found from India all the way to Ireland. Nobody has been able to find the original "homeland." The closest many scientist come is Anatolia near the Black Sea. Some have speculated that it is UNDER the Black Sea. In prehistoric times, the theory goes, the Black Sea was much smaller and a fresh water lake divided from the salt sea of the Mediterranean by a narrow land bridge in what is today Dardanelles and the Bosporus. This eroded through, quickly filling the basin with salt water and pushing people up and out in all directions. The relatively rapid desertification of North Africa and the Middle East pushed people into river valleys (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates) and in that respect contributed to the rise of the first civilizations. It is also important to recall that no climate change in recorded history has been as extreme as the end of the last ice age.

I don't know if history should be a comfort or a terror when confronting today's climate change. The earth has been much colder than it is today and much warmer than it will be in the next century with even the direst predictions. However, civilizations have risen and fallen on the backs of changes of smaller magnitude than we may soon experience. The difference is that changes in the past came as a surprise. People in the ancient Middle East may have noticed that game was becoming scarcer and the land drier, but given their short life spans and lack of good record keeping, it fell more into the realm of legend. We will be able to make increasingly accurate estimates of what is likely to happen. Nevertheless, we will be faced with the same choices our ancestors had. We can adapt in place or move.

Human civilization - ALL human civilization - flowered in the Holocene. This was an usually tranquil time in geological history. Some people have advocated that we call our most recent epoch the Anthropocene because it is so influenced by human activity. Certainly future centuries will merit that moniker. We have choices to make. We can look back on our history and earth history and see that it has been a series of upheavals and we have adapted to each of them. This tells us we can adapt to the next and we should do it sooner rather than later.

November 24, 2012

Planting Trees


I planted my first tree when I was ten years old, back in 1965.  I grew a bunch of horse chestnuts from the nuts we used to collect as kids.  When the trees came up, I put them on the hill in front of my house.  One is still there, now Foresterforty-seven years old.  I know because my old house is up for sale and the tree is the picture.  Today, with my forestry operations I plant trees on a semi-industrial scale, but I still like to touch the dirt with my own hands. 

The Huni Kui gave me an opportunity when we visited their village.  One of the nicer parts of the welcome was a tree planting.  I got to touch the dirt and put the tree in.  Mariza got to help, so she was also part. They said we should visit our tree for time to time. 

The picture up top shows Mariza and I planting a tree. Notice the guy taking a picture of us using his mobile phone. I thought it was very interesting when the people wearing native costumes would pull a mobile phone from their pockets. The picture on the left is the band's forester. He does not have formal training, but learned his business from tradition and experience. In front of him are the trees to be planted.

November 03, 2012

A walk in the park

Red flowering tree Brasilia

There are some colorful things around here.  Trees are flowering and there are colorful bugs.  I took a few pictures which I am posting here.  They are pictures of my world.  Above is Chrissy with what I think is a Royal Poinciana or flame tree (Poinciana regia). This tree is native to Madagascar, where it is locally uncommon.  However, it is planted all over the tropical and semi-tropical parts of the world, so it is in no danger of extinction.  Below is a sphinx moth caterpillar.  It is really big, maybe eight inches long.  It is a tricky bug.  The part on top that looks like its head is actually its tail and those things that look like feet are not.

red headed caterpillar 

Below are burrowing owls. They are all over the place in the park near the lake.  The top picture shows the close up  Below that is a family.  The downy ones I assume are the chicks, but they are as big as the adults. 

Burrowing owl 

burrowing owls  

Saving papers harms forest health

Paper productsSaving paper doesn’t save trees.  This is what I have on the bottom of my emails, “If you feel it necessary to print this message, recall that wood is 100% renewable resource & we grow most of the pulp wood for paper sustainably on American tree farms.”  Some people like it; some are offended; most probably don’t notice.  I put it on there against those silly ones that tell you to be careful not to print in order to save trees.

Saving paper does not save trees because most paper is made from pulp trees grown sustainably on tree farms. 

The trees cut for pulp are usually cut as part of thinning operations.  They CANNOT be saved.  If you do not thin your forests, growth slows; health declines and beetles start to attack all the trees.  You could thin the trees and then just leave them on the ground, but that leads to fire danger and insect infestations.  Thinning trees is good for the health of the forest.  It is also good for wildlife, since the thinning allows sunlight into the woods, encouraging the diverse food supplies wildlife needs.  Forest landowners don’t make much money from thinning operations.  Most of the money they make goes into forest improvement, BUT if there is no profitable market (i.e. paper) for thinned wood most forest landowners cannot afford to do it at all.

The bottom line is that the paper industry contributes to healthy forests.  Forests would be LESS robust w/o paper industry demand for pulpwood.  People should put what I have on the bottom of their emails.  If they want to measure environmental costs, they need to measure energy. Below are some of my sixteen year old loblolly.  They were thinned two year ago. We removed about half the trees. You can see that they have easily grown together.

Thinned trees 16 years old 

The environmental impact of paper on forest health is a net benefit. The place where paper could be a negative is energy cost.  It takes energy to cut trees, process paper and move it to your office.  This means that NOT using paper may be a good thing in some cases, if energy costs outweigh effects on forest health.

What rarely makes sense is recycling small amounts of paper.  Make the distinction. Recycling bulk paper makes sense.  Recycling small batches does not.  Think of the energy costs.  You have to collect paper using trucks and then put it through a similar process as making paper from wood.  The equation involves the energy needed to harvest timber versus the energy required to “harvest” recycling.  Collecting small amounts of paper, especially paper that is soiled, makes no sense.  Recycling that Starbucks cup almost certainly is worse for the environment than would be making paper with newly harvested trees.  The paper plants are probably closer to the forest than they are to the places where you are tossing those cups.  It will cost a lot to clean these things and paper is heavy. It takes a lot of energy to move.

The big problem if you don’t recycle paper is the space it takes in landfills.  This is also not a clear choice.  Wood sequesters carbon until it is burned or decays.  If the paper made from wood sits in landfills, it holds onto that carbon for a long time.  Somebody should do the math on this.

So the common denominator of all this is energy.  Does it take more energy to recycle or make new paper?  Add in the variable that the demand for paper is beneficial to forest health.  Paper making may use trees but it saves forests by increasing forest health.  Speaking of energy, the widespread replacement of paper with electronic files is not ecologically free. 

Data is stored and processed at large computer service farms. Computers in server farms run 24/7, and consume prodigious amounts of electricity, both for the computers and the air conditioning needed to keep them cool.  But this is another story.

The bottom line is that saving paper does not save trees and may actually have negative impacts on forest health.  It MAY save energy and certainly saves money for you or your firm.  We need to balance the needs to have printed materials with ecological and cost concerns.  Just do the right thing for the right reasons.

This brings me to what made me think about this.  In the Atlanta airport I saw the machine pictured above.  This is plain stupid.  It purports to be environmentally benign but it making at least three big mistakes.  It saves paper, which is not needed.  To do that it USES energy. Beyond that, it puts in each bathroom a piece of complicated electronics that inevitably requires maintenance.  Whoever bought this made a mistake from the environmental point of view, although probably not from the PR perspective.   Many people see something like this and feel much better about wiping their hands.  Many of these people will probably put some “save the trees” message on their emails.

October 28, 2012

Knowing you’re doing the right thing in your forest

CP forest on road 

We are talking about third party certification.  This means that all aspects of the forestry operation are evaluated by an objective third party, i.e. not forest owners or those interested in buying the timber.  It works like an audit of a business’ accounts and activities. It is done by a trustworthy independent firm or individual who is trained to know what he/she is looking for. The certifiers make judgments based on specific criteria.  In the case of a business they are assessing financial health.  Are the practices of management honest and effective?  Will the business have a reasonable chance of surviving and thriving?   Passing the audit doesn’t automatically prove that everything is great, but it gives everyone a reasonable basis on which to judge and make decisions.  An audit does indeed help to catch people who are cheating, but its better purpose is to give owners and managers the information and tools they need to improve performance.  Forest certification has many of the same purposes.

Me and my pinesResponsible forest owners want to make a profit but only in ways that sustain and improve the health of their land and the environment around it.  That is why they embrace better methods and search for sustainable solutions.  But in this ever changing world, how can know you are doing things right?   How do you know you are doing the right things in the bigger picture?  And if you are, how will others know? Certification helps with all these things.

The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) was the world's first third party certification scheme and it has been helping forest landowners practice and perfect good forestry for more than seventy years. Tree Farm is now sponsored by the American Forest Foundation. A lot changed in all that time. ATFS’s commitment to sustainability endured but more people became interested in forest sustainability.Other certification schemes came on the scene in the 1990s. Major certifiers active in the U.S. today are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).In addition, a worldwide organization that essentially certifies the certifiers is Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC). PEFC endorsed SFI in 2005.

All certification schemes have the similar goal of sustainable forestry and protecting ecosystems.  There are some differences in the ways they go about making that happen.  Among the certification schemes, ATFS is best suited to individual forest owners because it is inexpensive to get and stay certified (Tree Farm inspections are free to the landowner and usually can be completed in a day) and because it promotes goals without dictating specific actions to achieve those goals.  In other words, Tree Farm provides the flexibility that smaller, non-professional owners need.           

Ensuring wood and wood product come from sources that we know to be practicing sustainable forestry, while protecting wildlife, soil and water resources is becoming increasingly important to consumers of wood product.   It has always been important to responsible landowners.  It is probably a good thing to have a diversity of certification plans to provide choices for a variety of needs.  For me, and I think for most small operators like me, ATFS is the best way to go.  Others with different needs might make other choices.  All of us share the same goal of good forestry.  There are many good paths to this destination. 

 My picture show my first forest from SR 623. I have taken the picture from the same spot many time before. The lower picture shows me with my trees.  A few years ago, I was taller than all of them. Notice the two trees right behind me. The one on my right is older. It was a volunteer and bigger. The one on my left is planted and genetically superior.  It is now bigger and better form. 

October 07, 2012

Food plots

New Forest food plot 

Wildlife needs edge communities, places where different biomes meet, where resources are varied.  There are several natural places to put food plots. One is under any transmission wires that cross your property. You cannot use this land for much of anything anyway, so it provides a good, long narrow wildlife area. Other natural areas for food plots are landing zones.

Freeman food plot 

Landing zones are where loggers set up equipment to stack and process harvested timber.  There is not much sense in planting them in trees, since subsequent harvests will squash them.  But you don't want to just neglect them. Because of the soil compression of the heavy machines, plants will not easily regenerate on them naturally. You need to break up the hard surfaces and plant in some wildlife plots.

The additional advantage is that the landing zones are spread out in the forest. They provide little islands of food and variety within the forest. 

CP food plot 

Food plots play out over time. You have to replant them every 3-5 years. I am lucky in that the guys at the hunt club do that on my land. They study this.  I get the magazine that has different studies and possibilities. But each site is special.  It is an art and not a science.  The hunt clubs and I have common interests. They like to make the food plots to improve wildlife. I agree. They also seem just like the joy of doing it and I am happy to have them "play" with my land.  One of the guys helped his granddaughter plan a food plot on our CP land. She won some kind of 4H project.

My pictures show the food plots ready to be planted or in growth. The top shows the plot on our new property. I have not yet though up a name for this place, so I am just calling it new forest. The trees are twenty-eight years old. Below that is the plot under the wires on the Freeman place. That food plot was planted last spring. The trees in the background are sixteen years old. The bottom is CP, our "original" land. Those trees are nine years old. All the stands look pretty good.

Our forests in Virginia, mine included, are not very intensive. Notice all the stuff growing under and among the trees, weeds. But the weeds are what the animals eat. They are better for the environment. I have seen much "better" managed forests, where the trees are planted closer and there is much more production per acre.  I am happy to leave some space on my land for the diversity of nature. The only thing I worry about is that our business model will not be competitive. People more clever than us will figure out ways to make things more efficient.  It would take away much of the joy of forestry for me. I like the easy management, less control.

That is one reason I think we have to maintain other values. One of the most important is hunting. W/o the hunt clubs, I could not mange the way I do. The hunters are really the stewards of the rural environment. I am glad they are there and that I got to know them. 

October 06, 2012


Me and trees on New ForestsThere seem to be lots of spiders around here.  Maybe it’s just spider season. I don’t know. They throw their webs across the trails at about face height. You usually don’t see them, but you walk into them and get the threads in your mouth. It is not pleasant, although I suppose ruining all that work impacts the spider more than the walker.

We are down here to look at the farms and especially to look at the new one. Everything is looking good. The trees look healthy and have put on good growth this year. Usually it is not so long between visits, so I am seeing a little more growth than usual.

There is an interesting change in the streams on the CP place. As the trees get bigger, they suck up more of the water that falls on the land, so it doesn’t run off so quickly. Some of my formerly full stream beds are now just wet, even with the extensive rain we had here in the last couple of months. There is still water pooled up in some places, so it is not a general dryness.  I like one particular place where I sit under some really big beech trees. This place now has a spring, where it used to have a surface stream.  The water evidently follows the stream bed underground and then if forced to the surface by some really big rock formations.  It flows down the rocks.  Very nice.

New forest trees 

The new farm is 137 acres just north of Hwy 58.  It is good land with around 100 acres of twenty-eight year old loblolly, another maybe twenty acres in five year old and the rest in mixed hardwood SMZ. There is relatively little SMZ, so a more generally useable land.   We could harvest the pines at any time, but we would ideally do this in about five years. I want to be around to watch the harvest and the replanting, so maybe after I retire would be a good time. That is not that long away now.

Me and the CP pine trees 

I probably have to modify my planning to account for retirement and mortality.  My forestry planning goes out to times when I will probably be dead.  The thing that is fun about forestry is the long term perspective, but you cannot manage events past your lifetime.  The other problem is just getting around. Yesterday I was climbing around over rocks and streams. I was getting tired. I take good physical condition for granted.  How much longer can I do this?

I talked to Larry Walker who runs the hunt club and works in local forestry.  He told me that the market for pulp and timber has improved a lot recently, especially over the last month.  I don’t know if this is a leading economic indicator, but it is local good news. 

Another piece of good news is that Dominion Power will begin using wood chip biomass to replace coal in its power stations in Altavista, Hopewell, and Southampton coal-fired power stations. Wood chips are a completely renewable resource & carbon neutral, i.e. they soak up as much CO2 as they produce when burned. This move will also provide a market for slash and other forestry byproducts and steady the market prices for pulp wood.  It makes sense to burn biomass in a place that produces so much of it.  This is the fundamental principle of energy. You should use what works best in the local conditions.   There is no single solution.

Sycamores on CP 

The two top pictures show our new land.  I am standing near the trees to give perspective. Below that is my usual corner on the CP property. The bottom picture are my sycamores along the road. I have been thinning them into a kind of colonnade.  I am vaguely allergic to sycamore. If I do a lot of work cutting branches etc, I cough and sneeze.  So I can do it only a little while before I need to take a breathing break.  Sycamores have a distinctive smell, which I suppose it the same thing that causes me trouble.

September 01, 2012

We Did it Again (Take that you pessimists)

Wood is an excellent building material. It is easy to manipulate, a good insulator and wood is completely renewable as well as biodegradable. It is more environmentally benign than competing materials like concrete or steel in its full lifecycle and wood is always at least carbon neutral & actually removes CO2 from the air. But wood has suffered from a big weakness; it was not strong enough to build tall structures. Until now.   

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) can transform the way in which wood is used. CLT can be used to replace pre-fabricated concrete panels or even steel in building. The Australians are currently building a ten story wood apartment building in Melbourne using CLT and experts believe that building as high as fifteen stories should be possible in the near future. This makes wood a suitable building material in all but the tallest buildings and goes a long way toward a sustainable future. But there is more.

A really exciting new development is nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC). You may not have heard of this before because technologies needed to understand it, like electron scanning microscopes, were unavailable until recently. Experts quoted in the link above think that NCC will replace metal and plastic in many applications and could make nonorganic plastics obsolete in the not-too-distant future and the U.S. National Science Foundation predicts will become a $600 billion industry by 2020.

NCC has mechanical properties comparable to stainless steel or Kevlar and has a strength to weight ratio eight times better than steel. "It is the natural, renewable version of a carbon nanotube at a fraction of the price," according to Jeff Youngblood of Purdue University's NanoForestry Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana.

So the future for wood is bright, which has wonderful consequences for the environment and for America. The U.S. can produce all the wood fiber it needs in completely sustainable and often environmentally positive ways.

The world develops in unexpected ways. We often fear the future because it is unknown. We project our current problems forward and they seem unsolvable. They usually ARE unsolvable given the current state of technolgoy and development. The variables we too often leave out of the equation are human innovation, imagination and intelligence. Our resources are not fixed. They grow larger based on our abilities to use them. I wrote not long ago about the boom in shale oil that has vaulted the U.S. into world leadership in reduction of CO2.

This was predicted by nobody even five or ten years ago. In fact, had you mentioned such a possibility back in 2002 you would have been called all sorts of names, none of them synonyms for honest or intelligence. We are looking at a better than expected future. A related development is the shift of the energy center of gravity from those unstable regions of the Middle East to the Americas and maybe the Atlantic parts of Africa.

Those pessimists who project our problems forward and fear we will never solve them are right. Generally speaking, history shows that we almost never SOLVE problems; we transcend them.

As we replace non-renewable or environmentally unfriendly materials with those sourced in something as abundant and renewable as wood, we are fulfilling the impossible dreams of a previous generation of environmentalists and we are doing while increasing our country's wealth and prosperity. I am fond of the future since I plan to live there for the rest of my life. It looks like it will be much better than the places I used to live.

August 05, 2012

Better Cows = More Meat with Less Environmental Impact

Cows in field in Acre 

As it turns out, much deforestation is unnecessary and not even profitable in the long run. Just letting your cows wander around with the inferior forage is not the best strategy. Years ago in Acre, there was only one head of cattle for every three hectares of pasture and it took three years to raise a cow for slaughter.  Today there are about two cows for every hectare and cows become steaks and hamburgers after only around eighteen months. If you do the math, you figure out that today ranchers could raise around 12 times the number of cows on the same acreage because of better techniques and better genetic stock. Beyond that, the better genetics of today’s cows means that they are bigger and better than their predecessors.   

The favorite type of cattle in Acre is the  The Nelore or Zebu. This is an off white animal with a hump and a big waddle, with most of its genetic stock originally from India. They generally do not eat them in India; in Brazil they do.  his provided incentives to the Brazilian breeders that don’t exist in India. In fact the Nelore in Brazil is almost a different variety of cow from its Indian forebears. It grows faster and produces better meat faster.  This is a good thing if your goal is to produce meat for sale and it is also easier on the environment, because there is less need for land and other inputs per pound of beef. The Nelore are well adapted to the tropics. They do well in converting poor quality food into good quality beef and require little care. Currently, of the roughly 160 million cows in Brazil, 100 million are Nelore.  Their major vulnerability is that they are almost completely unadapted to cold temperatures. When it gets down around freezing, they literally drop dead where they are standing. I recall seeing that on television in Mato Grosso do Sul when they had a rare cold snap.

When I was in Brazil a quarter century ago the Nelore cattle (which were almost always call Zebu) were just becoming widespread.  People I knew in Rio Grande do Sul said that they were not very good and didn’t produce good meat. (BTW - they still cannot raise them in RGS because of the cold.) Maybe they weren’t and didn’t back then, but they do today. Churrascaria now regularly feature a fatty but tasty cut of meat that comes from that hump. I have to assume that if they are selling the hump at least some of the picante and contra-fillet they are serving also is from the Nelore animals and it at least what I have been eating is good.

August 04, 2012

Silent Witness

Road on the way to Esperance in Acre 

The areas nearest the roads are the most deforested, not surprisingly.  The bucolic pasture landscape is actually fairly attractive but a few lonely trees stand as silent witness to the forest that was lost.  You can see in the pictures what I mean.  The trees are beautiful against the sky, but they are doomed. 

Spaced trees along the road in Acre 

You can tell that they grew in thick forests by their lack of lower branches. They grew in an environment where they had to race to the light way overhead.  This is not where they live today. These are impressive specimens. The trees are around 150 feet high with massive trunks.  Most of them are Brazil nut trees.  You recognize that that Christmas-time favorite that is nearly impossible to crack w/o crushing the nut inside too. There is a law against cutting them, so they remain after everything around them flattened.  The owners of the land are not allowed to cut them even when they are dead and cannot use the wood even if the tree falls down on its own. It is not a very useful law.

The trees often do not survive long without the sheltering forest and they stop producing seeds, since they require a specific type of pollinating bee. It gets to be a complex story.  The bee depends on a type of orchid Coryanthes vasquezii. The orchids produce a scent that attracts small male long-tongued orchid bees. The male bees need that scent to attract females. Without the orchid, the bees do not mate. So no forest means no orchids, which means no bees, which means no seeds, which means no new trees.  It is an example of the complex ecological web.  But the simple ides is that these are not seed trees that could be expected to spawn a future forest. Beyond that, by making these trees economically not valuable, you shut down any economically motivated endeavors to grow and preserve them.

Big old tree in Acre 

It gets even more complex.  Even if there were seeds, there might not be reproduction. The Brazil nuts are housed in a very thick and heavy shell. It would hurt a lot to get hit with one falling from that distance at the top. The shell does not break easily, but rather requires a type of squirrel to bit it open.  These relationships have been building a long time.  It is co-evolution.  Pull out one thing and they others don't work anymore. But let me add even one more permutation.  The baby trees do not grow well in full sunlight. They germinate in the shade and then wait years for an opening, all the while establishing roots systems. A seedling in full sunlight will die.

As I said, the pastures are attractive and if you didn’t know the story, you would think someone had produced a grassy park with some really big and beautiful trees to provide contrast and shade.  It made me sad. We drove out two hours and never passed through an intact forest.  I know the road is not the place to look for these things and I sometimes saw trees in the distance that I think were part of intact forests, but there are lots of former forests within shooting distance of any asphalt.

June 10, 2012

Who Wants to Live Forever?

I was figuring out the rotation on 107 acres of twenty-eight year-old loblolly pine we just got. We will clear cut in five years, let it idle for a year or two, maybe put a few goats on it, and then apply biosolids and replant. You have to plan ahead. As I was thinking about it, however, I realized that my chances of seeing this cycle through are small and if I am still around, I probably will be unable to take part in the operation. I will be compost before this next generation of trees matures on that tract.

The funny thing is that older guys plant the most trees. Of course that might just be because only older guys can buy or inherit forest land. I got the land from a guy in his eighties. He planted (actually directed they be planted) the trees when he was about my age. He gave me a good deal on the land and it seems to me that one reason is that he wanted to give the land to someone who would take care of it. His kids evidently are not much interested in forestry. Sometimes people ask why I plant trees when I am reasonably certain that I will not see them mature. I am not sure. It is just what I do, a kind of habit. Some people say that you plant trees for the next generation. I don't know if it's all that true. The little trees are a joy for today too. How does the song go? "A promise for the future and a blessing for today."

Forestry can be a good investment, provided you have the time. In the long run, reasonably managed pine forestry produces bigger returns than the average stock portfolio. But you have to love it too.  I imagine that land management could be an unpleasant chore for some people.

One of the things I like best about forestry is the "diplomacy." I get to work with local farmers, hunters, foresters, loggers and paper and pulp firms. I find that a lot of people want to use my land and many are willing to help. Local hunters have been very helpful in establishing quail habitat and native warm season grasses. Our interests coincide. They want a healthy wildlife habitat to produce animals they can hunt. I am happy to have my land kept in a healthy state. A guy from a local paper mill helped me get locally grown longleaf pine and bald cypress. We have established an area of "Virginia heritage forest." Of course this is another forest I will never see mature, but I can picture it in my mind.

Forestry is a good example of cooperation between individuals, government, business and NGOs. The State of Virginia sent a wildlife biologist who gave us advice on which types of vegetation to establish to encourage wildlife and protect soil and water resources. The state gives us training in things like fire management and we  get advice on forest health from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

Virginia Tech holds all sorts of seminars on things like timber management and biosolids. We get advice from the Tree Farm System, America’s oldest sustainable forestry NGO. Dominion Power paid us to manage our land that lies under their power lines. We keep the land in grass and forbs. Wildlife loves it and it doesn't bother their transmission lines. A local paper mill helped me write a management plan for one of my tracts. We are thinning to different densities. They want to show clients how different management regimes produce different results. The Boy Scouts came down to cut trails and build bridges.  The local hunt club maintains the roads and shoots the local varmints. Their presence discourages vandalism and dumping. It is a pretty good system, an integrated social web.

I try to take the kids along when I go to visit the farms. They comment about how happy and friendly everybody seems. That has also been my experience. I don't really know why that is, but I have a theory, actually it is two-fold. I think forestry generally attracts people with a long term perspective and forestry teaches a long term perspective. It has a calming effect that brings joy in many things. You know your place and can be both active and passive. Forestry is subject to natural laws that cannot be rushed, but if you think ahead, understand the limits and work with the natural systems you can have remarkable achievements. Trying to rush the process produces no good and often a lot of bad, but a little leverage properly informed and a lot of time can make produce big results.

You just won't live to see most of them. In the long run we are all dead. Once you understand that, you are free to be happy with the life you have.


June 07, 2012

U.S. New World Leader in Reducing CO2 Emissions

The U.S. has been criticized for not ratifying the Kyoto Treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Yet according to the latest International Energy Agency (IEA) report CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 Mt, or 1.7% … US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.

One of the biggest reasons for the relative the drop is the widespread substitution of cleaner natural gas for coal and oil. I have written before about the vast reserves of American natural gas made available by new technologies, which is the biggest single positive energy development in my lifetime. The mild winter helped this year, but previous winters were cold. The economic downturn meant less consumption, but the downturn hit our European friends harder, and their emissions increased, evidently w/o regard for their signing of the protocols.

Actually the facts are a little worse than that and demonstrate the unexpected results of rules aimed at making things greener. Some of our European friends are resisting the use of natural gas widely available on the old continent because of the same fracking techniques that are revolutionizing energy in the Americas. With gas unavailable at the very low prices we are currently enjoying in America, when harder economic times come, people turn to coal, which is still cheaper.

Germany is also trying to phase out nuclear energy and shuttered eight of its 17 reactors after the Japanese disaster in 2011. These plants had total 12.3 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. Coal will step into this breach too. How much? To put this in perspective, the increased average annual emissions are the equivalent of 2.8 million U.S. cars. German use of coal will rise 13.5% in 2012 . Ironically, carbon "caps" have served as a floor rather than a ceiling. As the recession slowed energy demand, German industries and utilities were free to increase their use of dirtier fuels essentially to compensate for the decline.

Meanwhile rising energy costs are biting German consumers. These are all self-inflicted wounds and there are fears that electricity could become a luxury in Germany. But I digress.

The bottom line is that detailed rules never can anticipate all the circumstances that could make them obsolete and even counterproductive. I doubt anybody thought that measures meant to decrease carbon use could end up encouraging its use while driving up energy prices. Meanwhile who would have suspected that the U.S. would be the country that most reduced its CO2 emissions despite (because of?) its failure to sign onto Kyoto?

May 28, 2012

Fires: Wild and Planned

Savanna burned in summer 

Fire is an important part of ecology of savanna and grassland biomes. I described my visit to the Texas arboretum.  That is the kind of place I would like to visit over and over, since I am sure lots of things are happening, seasonally and in terms of management.  Fire management is a big part and I was interested in looking at the results of different fire regimes. The three pictures show different fire management. The top picture was burned in the summer. The middle picture shows a winter burn and the bottom was burned in the fall. They should also have an unburned section for comparison.

Texas savanna winter burned 

I don't know how long ago they were burned. The sign did not say and it is harder to tell than you might think. This sort of Savanna vegetation grows back very fast when the fire is not too hot. I would contrast that with a big burn I saw along Hwy 71. There were acres of dead trees and devastated land. I looked it up on the Internet and learned that there was a big fire here in 2010 that destroyed 600 homes and 30,000 acres. It was a hot and destructive fire.  It obviously jumped a big highway, so a fire break would not have worked.

Texas savanna fall burn 

I am certified by the State of Virginia as a fire manager. I would not trust my skills on the ground w/o lots of help, but I did take the certification course.  I wrote about fire here, here, here, herehere, & here, among others.  I just love the subject of ecosystem management. Below is a Virginia forest that had big understory burn.  The ferns you see in the picture are "fire ferns".  They often come after the burn. This is two years after the fire. This was not a planned fire. It scorched the needles and some people thought the trees were dead. They were not.

Fire ferns in Virginia

May 27, 2012

Soul Restoration

Texas savanna with cactus 

I really do need to get out.  I just feel much better and can think more clearly when I have had my daily dosage of nature. I would go so far as to say that it restores the health of the soul. I got a good portion of this soul-saving medicine today at the Texas Arboretum and Lady Bird Johnson wildflower garden.

Wildflower savanna in Texas 

The park represents the Texas biomes, especially the hill country. It is an extraordinarily pleasant landscape, a kind of oak savanna. The signature combination is the grove of oak, often live-oak, among the wild flowers, as you see on several of these pictures.  Savanna is not a final landscape, i.e. it requires a couple things to keep it in place. The two most important factors are fire and grazing. Before cattle, BTW, it was bison that did the grazing. The African savanna has the many large ungulates.  The grazing was important both because of what it took and what it left behind. The grazing animals ate the grass but ate other plants differentially, creating more diversity. They also fertilized with their manure.  It was important that the herds moved. The savannas recovered in between grazing. Fire needed to be frequent enough to keep the trees from filling in entirely, but not so frequent or hot to kill all the trees.  In the absence of grazing and fires as described, the savanna will transform either into a closed woodland or a grassland w/o trees.  South American grasslands, like those around Brasilia, were  little different in their natural states, since they lacked those large grazing animals. Of course, fire is still a factor.

Path and tree in Texas 

Both these factors are declining today in the U.S. We still have plenty of cows, but they are increasingly fed in lots or at least raised more intensively.  Fire is often excluded to the extent that people can do it.  In time, this will change the ecology. The arboretum folks are well aware of this and are figuring that into their management.  I will write a little more about fire in another post.

Oak wilt in Texas 

The dead oaks above are the victims of oak wilt. This has been a big problem for live-oaks in Texas.  It also affects red oaks to a lesser extent, white oaks not so much.  The malady is spread by insects and root grafts. It can be managed by separating oaks. This might involve digging trenches so that roots do not graft. We also need to be very careful about pruning (never prune oaks January to June) and moving wood (do not move firewood that may contain the fungus).  Even with good management, it is a devastating disease.  It won't be as bad as chestnut blight or Dutch elm, but it is altering the ecology over large swaths of our woodlands.

Dangerous snakes sign 

I am not sure how dangerous the snakes are.  I know that there are indeed rattlesnakes in this sort of environment, but maybe the sign is more meant to encourage people to stay on the paths than the really warn about the rattlers.