Re. Paper from poplars?

Subject: Re. Paper from poplars?
From: Geoff Hart <geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Fri, 26 May 1995 14:54:16 LCL

I won't do battle with the estimable John Renish on his opinions of
forestry (we've sparred lightly in private e-mail), but I did want to
correct two minor but significant factual errors in his recent posting
re. paper from poplars (a short rant follows):

1. Poplars in general produce short cellulose fibers that are good
enough to use in "fine papers" (e.g., photocopy, some offset printing
papers) but not in newsprint or packaging material, which requires
long fibers with high tearing strength. Genetically improved poplars
are better than natural poplar, but still not as good, and the
plantations are prone to devastating epidemics that require nasty
chemicals to control. You can't do away with natural coniferous
(evergreen) forests just yet.

2. Poplar plantations aren't any gentler on the soil than natural
forest stands. Logging them _may_ be, because you usually put your
plantations near cities or paper mills and on flat ground, thus
avoiding logging on slopes (as occurs, with often bad results in
John's native Pacific Northwest). However, poplar plantations grow and
suck the nutrients (both minerals and water) out of the soil faster
than natural forests. Lowering the water table is generally bad news,
as farmers and anyone in the American midwest can tell you. There are
_no_ long-term studies on whether or not removing the trees to make
paper eventually impoverishes the soil; short-term studies and the
experience elsewhere in the world with "short rotation, intensive
culture" agroforestry (particularly in South America) indicate that it
does impoverish the soil, and should be monitored carefully.

It's fashionable to bash the forest industry these days, but do so in
the right perspective. In defence of forestry, I'd note that the
biggest and nastiest clearcuts in existence, and those with the most
serious environmental consequences, can be found surrounding any large
or midsized city and anywhere we commit agriculture. No one complains
about cotton bluejeans grown in fields with no natural vegetation
present within 100 miles, fed with artificial fertilizers and kept
healthy with nasty pesticides, both of which end up in our drinking
water; neither do we complain about our tomato fields that have wiped
out southern and western forests, and that have the same disadvantages
as cotton fields; neither do we complain about hundreds of miles of
wheat fields that have eliminated the natural tall grass and
shortgrass prairie in all of central North America, and that also
share the problems of cotton. We also don't complain about the
destruction of fisheries habitat through overfishing and industrial
pollution, which do a much more effective job than siltation that
results from careless harvesting of forests. I won't even go into the
acres of asphalt that surround us and that many city dwellers consider
the natural equivalent of grass.

You'd be hard pressed to find any environmentally friendly mass
industry, but note that forestry _can_ come closer than most... what
we cut grows back. With recent legislation, even the harvesting isn't
as damaging as it used to be. You can't say that about the prairies
and the fish, which get worse annually. There's much to criticize in
any endeavor, but it helps to understand what you're criticizing and
what's being done to improve the situation.

--Geoff Hart #8^{)}
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

Disclaimer: These comments are my own and don't represent the opinions
of the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada.

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