Nancy Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares

Nancy Langston's 1995 Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West is just old enough that I'm left wondering what's happened since then, but she's such an exceptional researcher that I don't dare try it myself.

Langston's book is about forestry in the Blue Mountains, a collection of ranges and National Forests around the intersection of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. In the 19th century large sections of the Blues were dominated by huge ponderosa pines, ideal both for aesthetics and for timber, and the first scientific foresters in the Forest Service instituted woods practices that they expected would promote the expansion and strengthening of ponderosa ecosystems. Instead there are no ponderosa forests left in the area. All that's left are variously weak forests of species the Service didn't want, many of them suffering badly from insect infestations, most of them at risk of catastrophic fire so hot it might destroy the upper layers of soil and prevent trees from regenerating for quite some time.

(Why yes, in many ways it does indeed sound like what's happened in the BC interior. Thanks for pointing that out.)

What happened? Well, in a nutshell, we had lots of good science, and we applied it more or less properly. We just didn't realize that applying science would add an additional layer of complexity to the wildly complex reality of these dryland forests, making our science inadequate to the job. Early foresters weren't dumb or greedy or manipulated by The Man (though there's certainly some room to blame The Man here, as with most catastrophes). They were let down by their science.

It's a fascinating story, well told, but a painful one:
"when people talk about wildlife, they give a list of what was once present, and then they tell a tale of bewildering loss. There is never any resolution to these stories, never any explanation for the loss of nature--just greed, idiocy, progress, our distance from childhood, our distance from Eden and from wild nature" (pp.245-246).
Langston comes down in the end on the side of finding a way to exist within nature, suggesting that our two approaches to date--managing nature for maximum production, as larder or storehouse, and isolating nature as unpersonned wilderness--have both failed in the Blue Mountains to produce a form of nature we can live with. Of course it's possible to argue that there should be places we don't go, and lots of people do make that argument with real force, but our actions affect places we don't go: acid rain, aquifer depletion, downstream flooding, global warming.... Whether we're physically there or not, our shadows are busy.

If we're going to live in the world, and I for one hope we continue to do that, then we need to find a way to get along with those parts of the world that ain't us. Nancy Langston's Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares shows us some of the ways we might succeed in what's turning out to be a more difficult thing to imagine than we ever expected.


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