The Future of the Northern Forest
By: Christopher McGrory Klyza and Stephen C. Trombulak
1994. University Press of New England. Hanover, NH. $19.95. 258 pp.
The Future of the Northern Forest
By: David Dobbs and Richard Ober
1995. Chelsea Green Publishing Company. White River Junction, VT. $23. 356 pp.
There is a parable, often told by environmental educators, of five visually-impaired people trying to describe an elephant. Each person has a different part of the elephant - one the trunk, one the tail, one an ear - and the picture that each draws of an elephant is quite different. This story is told to illustrate the complexity of the elephant, and to suggest that to properly comprehend a subject we must back off a bit and at least see it from several sides.
Complex environmental issues are like elephants, and the issues of the Northern Forest are an excellent example. The forest stretches along the Canadian border, from the coast of Maine across northern New England to the Adirondacks near Lake Ontario, south as far as Glens Falls, NY. It is a vast area of near-wilderness, totaling 26 million acres, that contains an amazing array of wildlife, including a number of threatened and endangered species. It is especially unique for a wild area because so much of its history over the last 350 years, continuing to the present day, is inextricably tied to the people who live there. Where western forests are often known for their solitude, sparse populations, and lack of human influence, the Northern Forest is and has been largely a "working forest," which has been shaped, and in some ways protected, by human use. It is also a forest that is privately owned for the most part, by paper companies to the north, and smaller landowners to the south. This pattern of private ownership, and the tradition as an industrial forest, has in the past decade been challenged by threats to traditional land uses. The threat that these lands would be sold in large scale to private development, taking them out of logging production and threatening to change the ecological character of the forest, first prompted widespread regional, and in some cases national, concern. It is the complexity of these issues that make the story of the Northern Forest especially relevant to issues we face in many parts of the country today.
Two books published in the last year attempt to provide one part of the picture of the Northern Forest. While they take widely differing approaches, each contributes a valuable piece to our understanding of the issues. In The Northern Forest, authors David Dobbs and Richard Ober set out to gain an understanding of the Forest and its issues by closely examining the lives of the people there. It is a narrative, seemingly un-academic approach, but numerous facts and historical accounts are woven into their portraits of four groups of people in the region. The stories are of hunters in Maine worrying about maintaining access to their favorite hunting grounds, and making sure there will always be ducks to hunt; loggers in New Hampshire considering different methods of commercial logging and their long-term effects on the land; a family in Vermont trying to maintain their land and lives, making ends meet by sugaring, Christmas tree farming, small scale logging, and whatever else will pay the bills and keep the land; and local governments in New York dealing with differing opinions on the impact on private property owners of attempts to preserve the Adirondacks. These accounts are well researched and compassionately written; the reader feels the respect for the land that so many of the people there have. The controversial issues of logging, clearcutting, species conservation, public land access, impacts of regulations on private owners, are all presented through the eyes and lives of the people who live there. Many readers who may have previously thought of these issues in black and white will likely see their opinions taking on shades of gray, as they read of loggers, farmers, and hunters whose need for the land is matched by their respect for it.
While the accounts written by Dobbs and Ober are compelling, and insightful, a book written from an argument-by-anecdote perspective begs for further documentation. It is this void that The Future of the Northern Forest, a contributed volume edited by Middlebury College professors Chris Klyza and Stephen Trombulak, attempts to fill. Where Dobbs and Ober are compelling in their storytelling, this volume takes a more scientific, academic approach. Chapters cover many aspects of the Forest, including natural history, the history of the Native Americans in the region, the present timber industry, and the current political context. Where Dobbs and Ober told of the sale of land for vacation home building through the eyes of the affected local people, Middlebury College economist Thomas Carr presents statistics showing the number of vacation homes being built in the region, and uses census numbers to compare employment in the traditional resource sectors compared to the newer tourism-based economy. A variety of viewpoints are represented by a variety of authors, from environmental activists to professional foresters, with heavy input from the academic community. This is a book which appears to cover all the issues before trying to be readable, but editors Klyza and Trombulak have done a commendable job of making the chapters work together as a volume, and the book is ultimately a good read as well as an invaluable reference.
The two books take the reader down two different paths, but ultimately to a similar conclusion. The multiple perspectives in The Future of the Northern Forest, each well researched and argued, and the accounts in The Northern Forest, showing people trying their best to maintain the land and their way of life, ensure that a reader will be challenged to find a simple solution to the complex issues of the Northern Forest.
John Watson is currently working as a technical advisor for the Ann Arbor Community Development Corporation. He is pursuing a joint degree with the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Business School.
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