This is the third article in a series about deforestation: how it started, what it means, and what people can do about it. In this article, certified arborist Jeff Karwoski discusses how the Gold Rush paved the way for timber companies in California, and how man-made development is one of the largest drivers of deforestation around the world.
By Jeff Karwoski
Photo: In the late 1800s, timber took the place of gold as a way for people to make a living. Taken in 1937, this photo shows a truckful of logs on an Arizona Lumber & Timber Company sale. Source: USDA Forest Service, Coconino National Forest by R. King, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
On Jan. 24, 1848 near Coloma, Calif., a prize discovery was made at a sawmill along a river embankment: Gold. This discovery sparked a rush of an estimated 300,000 people to flock to the state of California to stake their claims and seek fortunes amid the Sierra Nevada mountains. Gold, however, was not the only treasure to be found in the area.
In the misty mountains, a vast forest network provided a seemingly unlimited supply of one of the most valued timber products ever known. This timber came from magnificent towering trees whose rot-resistant wood came to be sought after the world over: the redwoods.
With the discovery of gold waning after the initial rush, many people who were initially lured by the prospect of finding it turned to logging the area’s primeval forests as a way to make a living. It became, for some, a way to accumulate their riches.
By the late 1800s, logging companies owned by east coast investors acquired incredibly large tracts of land by buying it out from homesteaders who were unable to manipulate the land of giant trees with their primitive farming methods. With a supply of investment capital and growing technology, the timber companies were able to take vast forests that took over 2,000 years to grow and obliterate them in short order. By 1853, about 100 ships sailed in and out of Humboldt Bay carrying timber products; within 23 years, there were 1,100.
Across the Earth, this scenario has played out time and time again. Mahogany from South America, oak and beech from the forests of Europe, and a vast number of valuable species from the forests of Africa and Southeast Asia have been taken in the same fashion as the redwoods, by powerful logging companies fueled by international investors who care less for the land and the integrity of a forest and its inhabitants, and more for the profit they can make by cutting it down.
Fortunately, redwood trees have the unique capacity to sprout new trees from their stumps. These fast growing stump shoots are able to grow into new trees allowing for a cycle of more sustainable harvest. This feature, shared by many other species around the world, is a saving attribute that has prevented many of them from extinction by the hands of man.
The forest’s ability to regenerate is its blessing and its curse. Regeneration is the mechanism that allowed forests to become the predominant landscape of the planet. Because of it, they can return after devastating environmental events take place such as floods, wildfires, typhoons, and even volcanic eruptions. During their millions of years of existence, trees have withstood it all and have developed unique ways to survive. But they may have finally met their match.
In 1963 in New York’s Bronx Zoo, visitors were invited to view “The Most Dangerous Animal in the World.” People approached and tentatively peered through the bars of the exhibit only to see an image of themselves reflected back in a mirror. I do not like to think of myself in that fashion and I’m sure you don’t either, but the fact remains that you and I are both taking forests on a daily level that cannot be sustained. We justify taking forests down in favor of what we desire: roads to drive on, theaters to watch movies in, food we eat (one of the largest drivers of deforestation), and the places we live, work, and shop. What began as sustainable endeavors, such as narrow dirt roads through intact forests, have turned into a network of interstate highways spanning 46,876 miles.
Imagine cutting a swath of trees almost 47,000 miles long and paving the surface to prevent them from growing back: It’s an atrocity of an act against nature, but this is what the Interstate System in the U.S. is doing.
This statistic doesn’t include local roads, parking lots, driveways, building sites, and even such places as log cabin homes tucked away in forested settings. The forest has been taken for all of them. Sure, it’s great to travel 80 miles an hour down a smooth highway; to go to the grocery store to buy some food; to stop at the store to get the things you need or want. It’s important to be aware, though, that these things come at a cost. It’s important to take responsibility for our role in taking the natural world of forests away in favor of ice cream shops and record stores.
Man-made development is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation around the world. Being part of mankind puts us all in the same boat: a similar boat to the ones those ancient Phoenicians made; a boat made of marvelous invention and human ingenuity, but one in which the cost to ride in it is to participate in the decimation of another species. You are on that ride whether you like it or not: The logging companies have ensured it; the government and your home builder, too.
Do not despair, though: There is light at the end of the tunnel. In the next article, I’ll discuss finding this light.
Jeff Karwoski is a certified arborist and the Executive Director of Reforest Our Future, a newly founded nonprofit focused on connecting people and trees. He works in the Pittsburgh area designing native plant installations and is a founding partner of the Leyte Reforestation Project on Leyte Island in the Philippines. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.