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Forestry the environment and man's needs

Frank Fraser Darling

Sir Frank Fraser Darling, one of the world's leading ecologists, delivered this address in September 1974 at Oxford to the Tenth Commonwealth Forestry Conference. It has been slightly shortened.

The forester is one of the prime guardians of our conditions for continued life on this planet, not merely for some poverty-stricken existence, but for the kind of environmental quality which civilization requires.

You have honoured someone who is not a forester to give the opening address to this conference which covers so much of the planet from Tropic to Arctic. What am I to say that you do not know much better already? Certainly not much about forestry, even if I had the temerity to hold forth. Yet, believe me, the forest as an idea and as a physical and pervasive presence has been with me all my conscious life. We may have come from the waters originally, but for many millions of years the ancestors of men have been concerned with the forest as our home, the environment which has been shelter, cover, a food-gathering place and a four dimensional world which we must have found satisfying for a long time. The forest had an element of wholeness which we have now lost, though we have gained a greater wholeness by our exploration of the environments to be found outside the forests. At this moment we do not find our relatives, the orang outang, the gorilla and the chimpanzee, to be unduly curious about the outside world, and those relatives farther back still, the femurs, are so identified with their forest homeland that they fail to survive if their habitat is interfered with even a little.

The emergence of man to be the species that can occupy almost all the environments the planet can offer is surely a part of this progress. He is weaned of the forest as it were, and yet my own feelings after much philosophical and physical delving is that the forest is still very much part of us, or more properly that we are still part of the forest. The coastal Eskimos may have no forest but are nomads of the ice and its leads, but do not forget that many Eskimos do have access to forest and use it. They may even gain something from it which cannot be framed by their pragmatic lives and language. It is not so long ago since the Greenland Eskimos had their birch forests and in the Brooks range of Alaska, where the Nunamiut live, I have seen groves of poplar 30 feet high. And that other nomad of central Asian plains, Ghengis Khan, his antecedents and his offspring who used the horse, that plains-loving animal-it is mere uninformed imagination which makes him a man of boundless plains. His world was one of relatively treeless, very wide, very shallow valleys with ranges of hills which were forested. From my reading of those amazing people and their horses, they loved their forests too. The forest was often a seasonal home.

Some men have seen the forest as an antagonist and almost an enemy. The Khmer civilization of Cambodia ultimately fell to the forest, and now, as you look at the Bayon with the strangling fig trees ripping open exquisite masonry, you feel some awe. And the same in Yucatan, yet in fact the forest is so tender to the onslaught of man. In Europe, the forested Germanic people sometimes felt so imprisoned by the forest that they suffered the "horror sylvanus" as a kind of neurosis. It is indeed one of the paradoxes with which we are so intimately concerned in this conference, especially with the large trees of tropical forests, and of some, a very few, in temperate zones. The forest is mighty and awe-inspiring and yet it is so tender and fragile that it may be asked if we can keep the really great forests going at all. Has man dealt his ultimate wound already, or can we nurse the forests back into a life against which the three or four score years of man's life are as nothing?

That tropical ecologist of impeccable scientific mind, Paul Richards, who wrote The tropical rain forest, a most learned work, sees the tropical forests disappearing within another generation. Some of us thought possibly a century or more, during which we would have learned how to conserve, but Richards, who knows so much better than most of us, thinks 20 to 30 years. The truth is that one of the great strengths of a forest is immensity, whereas we have seen the tropical forests fragmented. The edges of a forest, its skirt as I have called it elsewhere, is its protection, but so many agencies can tear that skirt, and when it is shredded by fire, by grazing, by progressive forest-edge cultivation which can become a human culture of itself, by roadmaking which becomes almost a human paranoic activity, she forest is cut about so that edges measured by length are relatively so great that the central superorganism of the forest is cut about to an extent that age-old regeneration is made impossible. You can see it so plainly on the Nyika plateau between Zambia and Malawi. The agent there has been fire going wild from the slopes below. The little patches of forest, still lovely, are as good as dead on their feet.

Mexican workers, to whom I shall refer again in a moment, point out that in modern methods of clear-felling in the tropics, secondary species which are of immense importance in regeneration can be lost completely. Native clearance by a small population for slash-and-burn cultivation may even help to keep the forest going, by providing conditions for growth of secondary species in the overall palimpsest of regeneration. My own observation on this matter is that geology is an important factor in certain kinds of terrain. I have seen slash-and burn patches on steep slopes of limestone in the Sierra Madre unable to regenerate because the rate of oxidization of new organic matter is so high that insufficient humus can form to allow the forest to come back. Great splashes of bared limestone rock appear in the landscape, whereas on neighbouring steep hills of noncalcareous shales, slow regeneration goes ahead.

What in Africa is called the base complex is a very poor rock for tree nutrition, but in flat riverine situations a rich tropical forest can grow, feeding itself as it were, and that not necessarily on a base of alluvium. The sun can be enemy as well as friend if the ground is cleared and the soil goes lateritic.

No one agency of influence can be considered alone. The tropical forest, as possibly the oldest biome on earth, is a complex of symbioses, of subtle processes of cooperation that we know lamentably little of, even if we do apprehend that such fields for discovery lie ahead of us. Such apprehension of knowledge which must precede comprehension is again awe-inspiring as is the physical view we already had before us. Yet technology and vastly increasing human population have made severe attack on the forest possible and we live in a world of commerce and political power which calls forth all that we can devise in technological power to put us in the position of having hard currency, the hardest taskmaster man has ever had. A tree which took over a week to fell 50 years ago can now fall in a day, and rails will be run up to its mighty trunk to get it shipped away sooner than we learned how it grew, or what intricacy of community depended on its presence in the forest. So long did it take to grow that its hardwood will soon be seasoned enough to become the floor of an air-conditioned government office where far-reaching decisions can be made.

No part of the world can afford to lose age-old resources and nature's methods of restoring them

We are here brought up against the hard fact that politics is a potent factor in forest ecology, especially in the face of an advancing technology becoming available in political situations little worried about the persistence of the forest, if it can yield ready cash now. A West Indian island, newly independent, may be offered a contract by a highly competitive exploiter to clear-fell the forest and utilize lop and top, leaving the surface bare - for what? Whether that island becomes a desert or a continuously moderately producing landscape is at the mercy of the newly elected government. I do earnestly suggest that the United Nations, through its innovation of an environmental department at Stockholm in 1972, should devise some scheme whereby young states should be able to gain interest-free loans for essential development, such as would obviate any apparent necessity to exploit the environment on cash principles and methods. No part of the world can afford to lose its age-old resources and nature's methods of restoring them.

One of the most enlightening concepts of the last half century has been the growing apprehension of the complexity of the forest biome.

The tropical forest still beats us. Many workers have been content to try to catalogue the species and we can be grateful for this industriousness because until taxonomy has been accurately determined, there can be comparatively little effective ecology. Malayan research has recorded 227 woody species over 4 inches (10 centimetres) in diameter on 2.5 acres (1 hectare). This figure is of trees alone, not of shrubs, epiphytes and such herbs as there are. This necessary cataloguing is only preliminary to any understanding of the organic whole, yet it has led some workers in the past to make the wildly anthropocentric suggestion that our need is to reduce the "weed" species and concentrate on getting a purer stand of those of economic value. Such thought seems able utterly to ignore the principle of ecological function as well as succession. This is not a matter of Swiss Family Robinson - that everything has a value - but a recognition that species evolved by making differences, be they ever so slight, in their demands on the total environment. We are a very long way from knowing the demands being made and the niches in conversion being filled by even a tenth of those 227 species.

And what about the fauna of the forest, both vertebrate and invertebrate? Our taxonomy has a long way to go yet and our ecology is fragmentary. Yet this is the great natural resource which is probably going to disappear in a generation or so. We shall never catch up in knowledge if we do not establish very large reserves which are not collections of edges, vulnerable edges. The great forests girdling the equator have been older than the ants which are now such important environmental factors in the forest and which we look upon as being among the oldest of land species extant. Some of the forests are still with us, but possibly most people here are concerned with them in exploitation and the few with the immense task of conservation. Yet I would hope that the two sides of forestry should keep close together and not let forest - ecology-even if it may have so many apparently unimportant facets - be looked upon as academic, the field of the university expedition or the independent scholar.

I have lingered on these profound phenomena of the growth and ultimate development because I look upon the tropical forests as probably having some function of guardianship for species without the tropics, including man. Two Indian workers, Jagannathan and Bhalme (1973), have linked the incidence of monsoon rains with the sunspot cycle. There is great variation, and though we cannot influence the sunspot cycle, we can realize that the tropical forest can act as a buffer in the behaviour of monsoon rains. This variation in the monsoons is a sure indicator that we should not dispense with the forest until we are surer of its planetary significance in the weather cycle. Tropical weather is not independent of what we enjoy or suffer elsewhere. Richards, in his recent paper in Scientific American, has emphasized runoff control of the tropical rain forest and the different temperatures and humidities maintained at different layers of the forest. Richards closes his paper with an earnest and eloquent plea for the safeguarding and conservation of sufficient areas of the tropical rain forest while we gain fuller insight into processes which are at the heart of evolution.

The very age of the tropical forests, over several millions of years, means that we know nothing of the anatomy or physiology of their establishment, their embryology one might say. We observe secondary succession in relatively small areas but we know little enough of its action over a region. The Mexican workers, Gomez-Pompa, Vasquez-Yanes and Guevara (1972), indicate that regeneration is an extremely complex system working at different times and in different directions, depending on the local situation and the plants involved. The growth of vines and epiphytes are also of significance in the behaviour and survival of seedlings of trees which may ultimately replace the existing forest.

The forest is mighty and awe-inspiring and yet is so tender and fragile that it may be asked if we can keep the really great forests going at all

Some years ago FAO's Regional Forestry Officer in Latin America used this set of photographs to demonstrate, to ministers and other government officials involved in land-use questions, what happens when forests are allowed to remain unmanaged where the conditions include population pressure, fire and erosion.

Photo 1 shows a natural and unmanaged with its receding edge.

Photo 2 is a broader view of the same forest demonstrating the way in which erosion spreads down steep slopes.

Photo 3 is the same place five years later.

Photo 4 is an adjacent area with similar soil; a predictable view of the desertification which is on the way.

I could go on talking about the problems of the environment of the tropical forest, but what we are particularly interested in at this conference is forest environment in which man is bringing about a change, and the place of the forest in the global environment now and in the future. Perhaps you feel as I do, that before it is too late we should, as a species hoping for survival, engage our minds diligently with that physiology of community we call ecology. There may be some planting of exotics to replace the rain forest, such as the Jari scheme of the Amazon estuary, in which the Caribbean pine and a Himalayan tree of the verbena family are being used, a forest so designed that every tree will be utilized by an efficient industrial technology. What wisdom is still locked in the old rain forest is neglected.

It is a fact some of us know already that old undisturbed forests represent an energy image of the sunlight, temperatures, and water that has been shed on the environment, and that the primary geology is now somewhat of lesser consequence. The vast apparent wealth of organic material can disappear "like snow upon the desert's dusty face" and then there is desert in truth. There is real comparison to be made with forests of temperate climes where activity may be almost equal in relation to the sun and water available, but there is much less variety in the temperate zones. If we are experimentalists we like to set out our investigations in the simplest possible form so that our conclusions should have greater cogency. So, coming to the temperate zone, I would like particularly to mention the work which has been going on for nearly 40 years in Wytham Wood, so near this very city of Oxford. Doubtless you will be going to see this old English woodland of deciduous trees where, by the inspiration and intense application of Charles Elton, originally, a wholeness of ecological survey and research has been going on with a group of colleagues of different disciplines. Some of you, accustomed to the tropical forest, may think this a simple environment, yet it is worth mentioning that probably 5000 species of animals live within 3 or 4 square miles (8 or 10 square kilometres) or so and that the wood is not uniform but presents many habitats in what is to some people just woodland. The very fact of variability of habitats in the close scientific sense means that there are many interfaces where "edge effects" are to be found. In these 40 years in which Elton's presence has been vouchsafed, many generations of undergraduates, postgraduates and scientific staff, together with a change in leadership, have played their part in an elucidation which is even now only partial. Famous ornithologists, entomologists, soil and freshwater biologists and botanists have all contributed. The technology of scientific instrumentation is now giving formerly unbelievable help in accurate recording of micro-situations.

By clear-felling in the tropics secondary species of great value for regeneration can be completely lost

The studies of adult forest, savanna and waste-like places have strengthened our understanding of the British environments as a whole, which in turn can so far help us to manage them, repairing where they are damaged, recreating where they are lost and maybe fashioning anew and in variety. If we learn more quickly it is because our complexity is not as great as that in tropical forests where, as I say, we have an extended environment which is significant in the planetary sense. No forest, even some of our simple monocultural plantations, can quite be considered as collections of sticks of timber, either in the mind or on the ground. The forests must not become that kind of an arboreal creature.

It is the nature of woodland to be the home of many animals, all of which in one way or another influence environments outside. As the Swedish forest ecologist Romell has pointed out, the ing system of farming in southern Sweden depends on the careful distribution of woodland and ploughed ground for its success. The woodland provides shelter and leaf fall, and forest creatures benefit from the presence of stretches of grassland, like those that medieval monarchs called "lawns" in their hunting forests. Derrick Ovington, once with the Forestry Commission, later with the Nature Conservancy and now Professor of Forestry at Canberra, has for many years been improving methods of studying the effects of leaf fall and litter catchment and its associated phenomena, such as the rain of faeces from arboreal insects in their larval forms; in fact, of all that falls like manna to the forest floor and its surroundings. And in the course of the Wytham Wood investigations, H.N. Southern studied that woodland predator the tawny owl in exhaustive and exhausting detail: such work provides the framework in which one can study the greater complexity but the same principles as apply in tropical kinds of forest.

The last decade has been one of considerable individual and national awakening to environmental values in the lives of human beings. As one who has become a peripheral observer rather than an active worker in this field, I would remark on the great differences in degrees of impact of environmental concern. The ethos of care for the environment, as distinct from a primitive harmony of man with his surroundings governed by natural law, is an intellectual phenomenon which has become articulate with the decline of the wilderness and the spoliation of the immediate surroundings of the urbanizing population. It is no general response to deterioration, for so many seem indifferent and there are even pockets of people who like their world of treeless streets. But the intellectual vision nevertheless received wide response from folk who had an eye for their own immediate home place, but not for a larger world: the globular rather than the lineal view of life.

The cult is no longer one of the elite or intellectual, but of the common folk. They quickly grow to appreciate that nature unspoiled and places of natural beauty have value as a whole for everybody. Yet as I said a few moments ago, the impact of environmental concern can be quite different in quality. I am sorry to feel that some large organizations with able brains see the writing on the wall so early that they realize this is a shift in public opinion they must not neglect, especially if they are to overcome it and see their profits grow. Such cells of people pay lip service and even contribute to efforts of conservation, but back of it all are the intentions of balking any checks to commercial expansion or ultimate pollution under the sacred name of development. Then there are the extremely ardent intellectual and sentimental groups which form societies and write letters to the press, but are usually short of money. They do have impact for care and conservation, but they often look rather silly unless they are extremely knowledgeably advised.

Lastly, I am sorry to see some politicians looking upon conservation of the environment as an elitist activity.

The forest speaks the language of ecological complexes

If this is so, I hope I can become as good an elitist as the eighteenth century farm labourer poets, John Clare and Robert Burns. They knew the beauty of simple things.

The National Trusts have prospered, are well managed and increasingly well patronized. Indeed, one of their main problems, for places and parks, woodlands and seashore, is that of overpopularity. Finally, in my time, I have seen the Government take action on buying nature reserves, exercising planning control and last in our consideration but not least, in Britain, establishing the Forestry Commission. I remember the moment in 1919, but as a youth I merely thought "well that's a good thing," for every schoolboy realized how naval supremacy and industrial expansion meant disappearance of the forests, and as I said at the beginning I loved forest - but rather uncritically.

As I grew up I saw the Forestry Commission doing some odd things in the way of planting; ringing birch trees; felling whole woods of birch and oak; and of being a rather remote and "keep-out" sort of landlord. But by the time I had reached man's estate with some growing knowledge of land use, I found a new kind of Forestry Commission emerging which had got the length of establishing National Forest Parks long before any so-called National Parks had been created. Hesitantly at first, rightly rather quietly in the post-second-war period, and then, suddenly all of us were aware that the Forestry Commission had a dual function and was rapidly becoming an organization of social service in a country that badly needed exactly what it had schooled itself to give. What it gives in this day is a capacity to provide relaxation, restful and beautiful environment for a people which has had its share of being knocked about. Moreover, it is an environment of growing things and associated wildlife. The forests of Britain are no longer remote preserves cared for by nervous men, but places where the public are invited to share an environment which I truly believe worked its magic on those who planted and tended through half a century of learning. The forests educate people all the time and the Commission is commendably active in education.

It grieves me to hear so much criticism of the Commission by bodies such as that governing the ramblers who are not roses. Rambling by human beings is to be encouraged but why must so much of it be expected to take place in bare hills? Britain was a country with less forest than any other in Europe because the forests were so mercilessly felled. How do you get forest back on long-felled countryside? Nobody knew in 1919 and the Commission was not appointed specifically to find out. The notion was to grow timber for the country's needs. Growing crops of conifers in the German style with quite a lot of silvicultural knowledge was about the limit of ambition then. But those sort of plantations are not necessarily forest. That was when the anti-forestry group got going, but now, when the better understood idea of forest is being worked upon, I repeat: how do you get a forest? The Sitka spruce, and the Cuthbertson plough are a godsend whether you like them or not. They enable us to get cover going in which later we can develop true forest. It is the work of a century at least and this span should be accepted by ramblers and similar-minded folk, that the eyesores of which they complain now are the unpleasant stage we have to go through in the re-creation of an ultimate diverse forest which we hope will give pleasure to the eyes of our grandchildren.

Secondary succession is observed in small areas, but we know little about it over a region

The Forestry Commission has become one of the most knowledgeable and active environmental bodies in the country and is exercising influence far beyond our shores. There are aspects of tree planting which nowadays the private owner cannot cover and I would like to take two examples of this kind of immediately unprofitable but absolutely necessary forestry for a civilized country to undertake.

The Culbin Sands on the south shore of the Moray Firth were undoubtedly an example of wrong medieval - and later - land use, cultivating and grazing too near a windy, sandy coastline. So, culminating in 1695, came the big blows - which buried farms and rendered several thousand acres a landscape of changing dunes. Perhaps the desert was beautiful but it was also dangerous. How was it to be tamed? The history of the creation of the Culbin forest of Corsican, Scots, Lodgepole and Ponderosa pine is a fine story. The very ground was laboriously anchored with wire and brushwood and the conifers were planted. The coastal edge itself was given levees and buttresses of poles cut from other forests. When you see this achievement of moderate growth with birch, rowan and willow growing in naturally for diversity and leaf fall, the half century it has taken of time and men's devotion, the result arouses thankfulness. Wildlife has come in and the lichens are so remarkable that a lichenological society's visit has been arranged as a special event. The Commission cannot let the Culbin forest and its fringing sands be a national playground, but it is generous in allowing visitation by permission. It can go no farther in such a tender habitat.

The second example is what is going on in Glamorgan, south Wales. Here is another ill-used landscape of the thoughtless coal mining era. Vistas of tips, choked drainages and derelict country are being tackled as a cooperative project with local authorities and the Coal Board. This kind of cooperation is characteristic of the Commission in our day; it has grown with the success of tree planting.

Some 70000 acres (28000 hectares) of the Forestry Commission's plantations in Wales lie on the plateaus between the steep-sided valleys of the old south Wales coalfield, now increasingly residential or used for light industry, as heavy industry moves nearer the coast. Purchase of the land in the first place was facilitated by the rundown condition of farming due to the low land being used for mining and housing, coupled with the large population. These circumstances, together with free-ranging sheep and other stock, have made forestry difficult, particularly as the vegetation and the customary spring drought have also led to the highest fire danger for any part of Britain. Nevertheless, the plantations have become substantial forests, now producing some 40000 tons of timber per year.

In addition to the productive forests the Commission has also been heavily involved in "environmental" planting for many years, either within the forests or as agents for local authorities, for industry, and, more recently, under the derelict land programme of the Welsh Office. The types of planting may be summed up as follows:

-Coal industry sites: Planting on tips in situ; on spread tips; on restored opencast sites.

-Industrial and urban waste: Areas degraded by airborne heavy metals; spoil heaps; domestic refuse; furnace ash and rubble.

-Screening and baffling: Industrial areas: derelict areas; dangerous rock faces; motorway and trunk roads.

Now, in this passage of my address I have seemed to blow a trumpet for the Forestry Commission. I honestly believe it has been a constructive environmental force in this country, although I do grieve at some of the things that have been done, such as felling areas of scrub oak in central Wales and felling some of the old trees of the New Forest. Wildlife can be seriously curtailed by fragmentation, especially perhaps of some insects and rare flowers, and certainly of birds. Wildlife needs big enough sanctuaries.

Forestry knowledge requires very large reserves...not collections of vulnerable edges

At the same time I would take issue with those carping critics of the conifers. Are they talking common sense or being so pure and impractical that they would have the wilderness everywhere? Personally, I should love to see a Britain in its state of wilderness and would hate to see any tree felled when it might in life and death provide woodpeckers' holes and when fallen be a haven for Collembola which are great processors and soil makers. Every dead tree on the ground starts a new life. But our country holds 55 million people and by the end of the century there will be 5 million more. I have been antipopulation increase for over 40 years, but the increase has taken place and I can't do much about it. This is the world we live in and the one with which we have to cope. So it is my firm opinion that both the Forestry Commission and private forestry in Britain are doing a good job for the environment of this country.

Many in this audience come from countries which still have natural forests of great beauty; I ask you to consider them anew as an asset worth more than timber. Just as Kenya has found her wildlife a major economic asset in tourism, other nations of the Commonwealth can get hard currency from their forests in more ways than sawn logs.

In this respect I would ask that the landscape architect be treated as an active member of any economic or planning team. Britain still enjoys the fruits of her eighteenth-century landscape architects, who, in turn, learned from the far past. The wooded garden or larger landscape owes so much to the clever arrangement of trees. The Chinese had often very small gardens, but by their planting skill they could lead you through quiet walks and glades within an acre or two, till it was time to taste a dish of tea. Beauty can be the bonus of so much economic planting.

Lastly, to you as foresters I would ask you never to forget the planetary importance of photosynthesis with which you have so much to do, and of which you are among the arbiters. A crop of barley is also photosynthetic, but it is gone in so short a time and does not store carbon as does the forest. The forester is one of the prime guardians of our conditions for continued life on this planet, not merely for some poverty-stricken existence, but for that environmental pleasance which is the handmaiden of civilized life. The recent emergence of man in numbers, with his mobility and weightlifting powers, has not really consulted the forest. Either the forest is too silent or man has not learned its language, the language of ecological complexes. There is some environmental control by the forest and now there is almost invincible control over the forest which, arrogantly practiced, may lose us control over so much else. We need to acknowledge and share planetary control with the forest, whether in the tropics or the subarctic belt. Then there is the special recreational service of forest to urban man, and there is the trend everywhere to urban living. Forest and even old hedgerow help to civilize man and ease his burden of being human. In the foregoing I have not been so presuming as to offer solutions. I haven't got any; all I hope to ask for is awareness of the natural wealth which is still with us and the concomitant desire that we should not fall to political expedience.

Yours, gentlemen, is one of the most honourable professions. Carry it with the pride of the tree which cannot speak for itself.


RICHARDS, PAUL, W. 1952, The tropical rain forest. London, Cambridge University Press.

GOMEZ-POMPA, A., VASQUEZ YANES, C. & GUEVARA, S. 1972, The tropical rain forest: a non-renewable resource. Science, 177:762-765.

GOMEZ-POMPA, A., VASQUEZ YANES, C. & GUEVARA, S. 1973, Letter in Science, 7 September: 895.

JAGANNATHAN, P. & BHALME, H.N. 1973, Monthly Weather Review (India), 101:691 (Abstract in London Times, 8 March 1974).

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