Sunday, April 22, 2007

Our forests

I've always been a lover of forests--well, at least since I can remember. I remember being taken up to Wisconsin when I was a kid, on vacations to escape the weird sprawl of Suburbia, Chicago. Of course, my parents had no real problems with suburbia: they had lived there forever, aside from a few short departures. So, when I say escape, I mean that leaving suburbia was to become an escape for me. I remember being awed at the forested landscape, at the smells of the pines, at the wild prairie flowers. What was an escape eventually became sustenance. I would learn to focus most of my vocational efforts on saving up enough money to take frequent trips into "natural" areas.

Now I live in Wisconsin, a heavily forested state, relatively. The first county I lived in here was Adams. It is one of the poorest counties in the state, sparsely populated and filled with lots of interesting forest lands. The county I live in now, Portage, has a university and several decent-sized towns. It is less forested than Adams, but it still has lots of natural beauty. Stevens Point is quite an amazing city from several different angles, but I'm gonna focus on the forests here.

Though Stevens Point is the largest city in Portage County, with about 25,000 people, you'd be hard pressed to find a more forested city of its size. And I'm talking about forest in the city proper. Not only do we have a wonderful nature preserve attached to the college and a sprawling Green Circle Trail, with 30 miles or so of beautiful trails that meander next to rivers and through pine stands, but we also have acres of private forestland hidden away in various corners of the city that are open to exploration (not sure if its legal, per se, but the lack of those "no trespassing" signs tells me I'm allowed). According to the WI Dept. of Natural Resources, urban areas in Portage County average about 35% tree canopy cover, whereas the state average for urban areas is 32%. Pretty impressive, in my opinion. I can't even tell you how much I love the Green Circle Trail; I use it to ride my bike to work--it accounts for about half my ride.

But there's a troubling trend in Portage County: We're literally losing our forests. Back in 1984, long before I got here, 34% of the county's land was forested. Same percentage in 1996. But, in 2004 only 30% of the land was forested. That's a loss of nearly 24,000 acres of forestland in only eight years. Numbers aren't available for 2007, but I can only imagine the downward trend continues. At the same time, though, most of the counties surrounding Portage have steady or increasing levels of forestland, and Wisconsin as a whole is showing an upward trend.

I'm not sure what the deal is here. I suspect that the recent influx of national chain stores has something to do with it. Where there was nothing but land just a few short years ago, there now exists Walmart, Best Buy, Lowe's, Kohl's, McDonalds, some buffet chain, a couple regional restaurants, Starbucks, US Cellular, MC Sports, Cousin's Subs, Petsmart, and Michael's craft store. Hmm... I'm probably forgetting a couple. But, damn, that's a lot of stores--and that's all in one area. Don't even get me started on the rest of the city.

Portage County is definitely growing, and businesses are pouring in. But it's the same old business model that is the product of a failed, unsustainable era of city and land planning. Most of these chains don't know what local means. So, as they set up shop on the outskirts of our city, take up our land and resources and suck up our money, most of the wealth is diverted to some corporate headquarters where it will no doubt be invested in another duplicate building somewhere else in some small city that is ripe for plundering.

I don't know. I see a lot of subdivisions and same-old neighborhoods going up around here, especially in the neighboring towns of Plover, Hull and Whiting. In fact, it seems to me that these towns are some kind of weirdo upcoming suburbs of Stevens Point. It's kind of a sick thought. As once-forested lots are bought up by developers, trees are just mowed down to make room for cookie-cutter houses. I just don't understand that model of development. I do, however, understand that population is growing and people need to put up houses. But can't we lessen our footprint? Haven't we learned something?

Whether one wants to admit it or not, all evidence points to the fact that the earth needs its forests. Truly healthy forests are places of biodiversity, places of sustenance and renewal. We rely on the life processes that are protected and nourished by our forests. Yet, when business comes along, we forget that. One only needs to look at the recent decline of the honey bee--just the latest in a line of collapsing life processes--to realize that when we harshly encroach on the natural order without any forethought, we risk causing serious problems with major repercussions. Ah, the "hidden" costs. When will we start factoring those into the equation?

Back in college, my environmental ethics professor, a Leopold scholar, had an elegant theory of wilderness usurpation. It went something like this:

Draw a square on a piece of paper; this square represents our wilderness. Now, shade half of it; this is the part of the land we agree to turn over for development. Now, shade a quarter of what's left; this is the part of the land we compromise on and turn over for more "needed" development. Now, shade an eigth of what's left; once again, compromise has brought us to give up our land for more "needed" development. And so on, until not much of the land is left to its own devices. Those who refuse to compromise what's left of the land (because they know better) are smeared politically and marginalized as radicals; though, in reality, they are the true conservatives when it comes to this issue.

While certain parts of the country may not be operating under this exact model (as is evidenced by the actual increase in forestland in Wisconsin), many places are struggling to hold on to what's left of their wilderness. And it's literally a struggle, because some people still can't see how the land is important on so many levels.

Fortunately, Wisconsin has a rich tradition of conservation and preservation. We fostered movement giants like Muir and Leopold. I have faith that Wisconsin will go in the right direction, even if my county falters a bit. And I know that other parts of the country have their inspiration as well.

Seeing as how I got my environmental ethics degree under the tutelage of the aforementioned Leopold scholar, I carry a lot of Leopold's Land Ethic with me. His thoughts just rang true with what I already knew. And if there's anything Leopold expressed that we need to remember today, it's this: humans are merely plain members of the land community. Our days of domination are effectively over, and the sooner we come to terms with this situation, the better we'll be in the long run.

We're a populous species, and we will likely require more space on this planet. But I think we can live in harmony with the land. For me, the forests are not supposed to be separate from us; I think, with commonsense development, we can safely take our places in the heart of the community, just as we have most of our history on this planet.