FORESTRY – pride and prejudice

I’m a Chartered Forester, and very proud to be so.  I believe passionately that forestry and professional foresters have a more important role in society today, than at anytime in modern history.  As a forester I recognise that my profession encompasses so many and diverse social, environmental and economic dimensions.  Foresters think long-term as perhaps few other professionals do, or need to, given that they care for trees that will be flourishing for our children’s children.  Forestry exemplifies sustainability.

Not everyone agrees with my sentiments of course.  Two years ago I stood up publicly for forestry when The Guardian newspaper published a story about a woodland that was felled while it was being featured in a series of paintings, unfortunately work in progress, by artist David Hockney.  Both the original article and some of the online comments that followed the publication of my response letter in the paper, illustrated perfectly the degree of misunderstanding and sometimes prejudice in the public about forestry and the role of the forester:- they make for an interesting read.

A common response when I’m asked of my profession is “Oh, you cut down trees then!”  I don’t think I’ve ever been asked instead about how many trees I’ve planted, how many landscapes I’ve enhanced or water and air purified, how much habitat I’ve provided for wildlife or carbon I’ve locked-up, or timber produced for someone’s front door, roof joists or kitchen cupboards.

“… forestry” is often seen by the public, environmentalists, media and purist academics as synonymous with dirty boots, deforestation, clear-felling, rape of the earth, displacement of indigenous humans and loss of other species.”

“The forest law [historical] was very harsh and was enforced by a hated body of men called ‘foresters’, whose activities were called ‘forestry’.  They were the villains of popular literature …”

Burley (1997)

The quote  above comes from a fascinating article1 by the former president of IUFRO – the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations.  Professor Burley proposed a change in the ‘F’ within IUFRO from Forestry to Forest.  Burley was concerned about falling membership numbers and wondered whether this was in part because so many research scientists (e.g. those engaged in anthropology, climatology, ecology, entomology, geography, hydrology, pathology and soil science) did not necessarily feel part of traditional ‘forestry’.

So it seems that forestry is a term not only misunderstood by the public but also by leading scientists.  IUFRO changed their ‘F’ to Forest in 2000 but winning the hearts and minds of the public is surely a harder battle.  While deforestation continues in the less-developed world, despite the sustainable nature of modern forestry in much of the developed world, perhaps forestry will continue to have a poor reputation in the public conscience.

Gabriel Hemery


Reference

Burley, J. (1997).  What’s in a word?  IUFRO News,  26, 2. pp.1-3.  International Union of Forestry Research Organizations.  ISSN 02256-5145

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4 thoughts on “FORESTRY – pride and prejudice

  1. It is not entirely clear to me that defending “clearfelling” of woodland is the same as defending the “profession” in the context of the “Hockney” wood!
    I am also a member of the Institute of Chartered Foresters, we have both served on its Council?
    But I take a very different view on the general acceptability of “clearfelling” whole woods!
    And so does a significant proportion of our profession, who are also proud members of the Continuous Cover Forestry Group, its Chair is a Fellow of our Institute.
    I do not know the details of the site but it is depicted here:
    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/04/artists-forest-disappears.php

    Those professional foresters who advocate “close to nature silviculture” might ask why all the trees had to be felled, could none be left?
    Why not thin the wood out, or merely remove any dead or dangerous trees leaving the rest?
    Was there no understorey which could have been left?
    No chance for some opening where natural regeneration could have started?

    It could be suggested that the Forestry Commission were wrong to issue a licence for such a felling, or that the forestry policy they implemented was flawed. I see the acceptability of clearfelling as an essentially political question, about what people want, rather than a professional one which people need to be persuaded to “understand”.

    1. You make many good points Alec. I was not intending to defend per se clearfelling. Rather I was seeking an example, from my personal experience, about the public concern regarding forest management activities in general.

      I don’t wish to get too drawn into the rights and wrongs of the particular woodland featured in the David Hockney example. I do believe however that it was a relatively narrow strip of trees acting mostly as a windbreak, that was completely even-aged. It may or may not have been a poor candidate for conversion to an uneven-aged silvicultural system. The felling licence approved by the Forestry Commission was granted on condition that the woodland was replanted. I am a great fan of continuous cover forestry but I think it wrong rule out clearfell when in many circumstances it is the only practical or affordable approach.

      As to forest management being a political question, I struggle with that one. If a private individual has invested personally in a woodland and for a variety of reasons makes a management decision, guided or constrained by the regulatory framework, at what point does this become political? When do the local community have a say and how much sway? What about the rights of the woodland owners, and the practical financial, silvicultural and environmental constraints to management? This could be a long running debate … I much appreciate your comments that I am sure will spark a few more posts to tackle the points you raise.

  2. Gabriel – its hardly surprising we get into so much difficulty when timber producers insist on referring to what they do as ‘commercial forestry’ – especially as if you scracth the surface in England most of them are actually engaged in multi-purpose land management promoting the sustainable, low carbon economy, biodiversity and public access (actually another pretty awful term for enjoying woodland on foot, with a dog, on a bike or on horseback).

    I was quite shocked in cameroon when it was brought home to me that we’d exported the hated forestry you refer to – as Forest Reserves were reserved against the local people for the economic exploitation of the colonial power.

    1. Thanks Rod – I am not sure it is the timber producers but rather the policy makers who refer to ‘commercial forestry’ and ‘commercial plantations’. I think most foresters see themselves as custodians of not just accumulating woody biomass but also a landscape, habitat and place of enjoyment for people.

      Looking overseas, your perspective from Cameroon is interesting as I was not really thinking about public perception by native people but more that of foreign consumers’ views about deforestation in developed countries, and about how this taints the word ‘forestry’.

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