Managing a forest in the dark

The battle over acceptable forest management practices in the Yukon — and more specifically in Haines Junction — is being fought between…

The battle over acceptable forest management practices in the Yukon — and more specifically in Haines Junction — is being fought between two camps: those who favour a “forest-industries” approach to forest use and those who favour a more “ecological-recreational” approach.

The one side is generally looked upon as being short-term, the other long-term; one unsustainable, the other sustainable; one harmonious, the other disruptive; one is old thinking, the other 21st century.

Beyond the many differences each side sees in the other, both sides seem to agree on this one point: this controversy has been brewing since the early 1980s.

If only this were true.

The real battle lines over the “proper” use of the forest were drawn many thousands of years ago.

And while on the surface economists and ecologists, and loggers and wilderness proponents, continue to spar over sustainable yield, job creation, wild land fire suppression and forest regeneration, the passion on both sides is fueled from a much deeper and more personal place.

It is this older controversy that makes today’s issues of economy and ecology so difficult to sort out.

About 2,000 years before Christ, someone (we do not know who) wrote a long and quite complex story touching on the relationship between forests and humans.

That story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is worth revisiting.

The epic’s hero goes into the dark woods to find the appointed guardian of the forest and kill him.

He does this in order to “strip the mountains of their cover.”

And we learn that his motivation for clearing the land is to “leave behind an enduring name.”

In reprisal for killing the guardian and destroying the forest, nature laid out a series of ecological disasters. From this story we learn that there is a price to pay for “mistreating” that of which we are a part.

Gilgamesh serves to remind us that our deep-seated pathological view of our relationship with the natural world is nothing new. Its tentacles reach way back and way down.

It is this long standing juxtaposition with nature that rears it ugly head and makes forest management planning a nerve-wracking, highly charged and confrontational exercise.

Much of the anger and distrust that boils to the surface between opponents is really the outward display of the deep personal confusion within each of us as to what is our “proper” relationship with wilderness.

While we have never been able to silence this old voice, we can, and must, find ways to channel it in order to begin finding acceptable ways to connect economy with ecology.

Literature — a truly human invention — can shed light on both human behaviour and the natural environment.

More importantly, we can turn to literature in ways we cannot turn to ecology and economics. For while both ecology and economics can provide us with great insight into problems of the human condition, neither tell us much about causes.

By turning to the Epic of Gilgamesh we first acknowledge the fact that the conflicts surrounding the use of our forests are individual.

And no one individual — whether coming to the table fully in support of the logging industry or fully in support of a hands-off policy toward wilderness — is without question as to how he or she arrived at the position.

Neither ecology nor economics can make us guilt free when it comes to taking a stand on forest management. Both disciplines require, to a certain degree, a “leap of faith.” Both are still works in progress.

The message in Gilgamesh is don’t kill the guardian of the forest, don’t “strip the mountains of their cover.”

This, of course, is not what the Yukon government and Champagne/Aishihik First Nations one-million-cubic-metre harvest agreement intends to do. It neither encourages nor facilitates clearcutting of the traditional territory.

With all its perceived flaws it is, to my mind, a plan developed by reasoned and reasonable citizens who are attempting to do the following: create shorter-term economic development of a forest-industry on a small enough scale that it will not hinder the development of a viable longer-term recreational industry.

This plan recognizes both the fragility and the muscle of the boreal forest and it moves forward on reducing the risk of catastrophic fire.

It is chocked full of fail-safes, follow-ups and evaluative measures that can prevent both overuse and misuse.

Both the forest management plan and the Epic of Gilgamesh come from the same source and they point to the same difficulties. As such, they both attempt to steer us through difficult times.

Neither is perfect.

But rather they should be seen as glimpses, beginnings perhaps, into how we can connect our evolving human mentality with our developing cultural and economic traditions.

They each arise from an ecological perspective in which human beings are seen as part of nature and suggest it is always reasonable and desirable to begin from a point of trust.

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