The Hidden Forest, originally published in 1999, shows that everything we thought we knew about forests – how they grow, how they could be best managed for wood, how they work, etc. – is wrong. Although much of what is discussed here has become common knowledge since 1999, none of it would have become common knowledge without the Andrews Forest Long-Term Ecological Research Station in the Andrews Forest, OR. Beginning as a small venture with a brief flash of opportunistic funding from the International Biological Program, the research station has grown to produce numerous studies that shook forestry to its very basis.
It was a literal case of being unable to see the forest for the trees. The trees that produce our wood – yes, we see them and harvest them. The forest – that is, the web of life at the roots and canopies of the trees – happens at timescales that some ecologists call “the invisible present” – that is, within our lifespans, but long enough that the changes can only be shown by collecting data carefully for decades. The other end of the scale is the brief lives of the almost-invisible mites that live on the needles and in the roots.
These long-term processes require long term research. How does the warming planet affect budding of plants in the spring? How does that interact with the lifecycles of over-wintering insects and migratory birds? To answer these questions – even to propose them in an answerable form – you need decades of observation. This goes against the grain of the short-term focus of most research, the three to five year grant cycles (if that long), and the demand for publishable results.
And yet, even in the relatively short time the Andrews research base has existed, it’s completely changed the way forestry is practiced. Not just the maintenance of national lands, but the corporate-owned lands as well.
The story here is not just the patient research: the political struggles, particularly around the spotted owl, have their share of cliffhangers, false hopes, and final resolutions. And if the “once in a lifetime” storm shows up on your watch, then by gum you get out in it.
The story here is also the evolution of techniques, using canopy cranes to explore the canopy (and discover the importance of Lobaria oregana, a nitrogen-fixing moss that lives in the canopies. And the development of remote sensing techniques using LIDAR (laser interferometry) and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to gather data about otherwise nearly-inaccessible locations without having to build roads.
And the story is also one of the great, continuing stories of science, whatever branch or method it follows: The stories of people being intensely curious about something, and trying to learn as much about is as they possibly can – as excited by their ignorance as what they know, because the ignorance gives them opportunities to learn more.
All in all, this was a great book to read. I’d like to see a follow up. How did the Andrews research base survive the Bush years? How is it doing today? What new has it learned? This kind of long-term research is needed not only for commercial forestry, but for restoration and conservation as well.
Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.