Food chains

Natural resources provide all the material goods that we use. Forests provide wood, a renewable resource with minimal negative environment impacts when harvested in sustainable ways. Wood products use far less energy, emit far less carbon.

Bugs, creepy crawlies, and all sorts of sometimes yucky critters live at the bottom of food chains. While these species might not make good poster children, they do serve critical functions in the environment. Most people understand the concept of a food chain and a food web, even while being harassed by mosquitoes and black flies.

It might be argued that our economy and lifestyle are structured in a similar way. Michigan State University Extension notes that every material possession can be traced back down the “food chain” to somebody that cut, excavated, extracted, or grew natural resources. Using this analogy, the base of our economic food chain would include people like loggers, miners, and farmers. Unfortunately, these occupations and natural resource impacts too-often evoke inaccurate and unfair negative images.

River adventurers can often be “creeped-out” when they unexpectedly encounter stone fly larvae. The six legs, long antennae, and forked tail resemble an alien from a horror story. Hellgrammites are even worse. They look like the creature placed into Mr. Chekov’s ear in the Star Trek movie “The Wrath of Khan”. Yet, these insects are key indicators of a high quality aquatic system. They are also great trout bait.

A vibrant natural resource management base is a key “indicator species” of a healthy economy. The industry that we enjoy across the forested Lake States is more than valuable jobs and a tax base. It helps support a much larger economy that reaches beyond the borders of the United States. It is fortunate that our forests, waters, and lands can sustain this sort of responsibility, and even more fortunate that we can live in a place that’s the center of the action. However, management will be essential to maintain high quality natural resource systems.

Many people think most of Michigan’s wood-using industry is in the Upper Peninsula. In fact, about three-quarters are located “below the bridge”, concentrated in the southern third of Michigan. That economy uses raw materials from around the globe, including inputs from northern Michigan. Similarly, wood from the U.P. helps feed larger economies throughout the world. However in the end, Michigan is a net importer of wood.

It seems a society that produces most of its own raw materials would be a healthier society, certainly less dependent upon others. However, that is a question better posed to economists. However, using domestic raw materials has the advantage of using the world’s best environmental protection. It’s better to grow our own.

A 1999 study indicated that for every 20 hectares of forest “preserved” in North America and Europe, one hectare of primary forest (previously unlogged) in Asia, South America, Africa, or Russia is harvested. Most of these regions do not have particularly good environmental records. Critics of unnecessarily importing raw materials level charges of exporting “environmental degradation”, also citing violation of social justice issues.

We know a lot about forests and forest management in Michigan. Research and experience have been excellent teachers, along with a very resilient resource.

Oddly, there seems to be an assault on traditional natural resource manufacturing jobs. For example, logging is a high tech, generational, and business-intensive profession. Yet, loggers are often viewed as low paid, fly-by-night, and under-educated members of society. Foresters and biologists nurture the forest ecosystem with a long-range focus towards an even more promising future. Yet, they are sometimes portrayed as invasive predators in a Garden of Eden.

We ignore forests and forest management at our own peril. They shouldn’t be taken for granted. Most county planning documents commit only a few lines to the role of forests, if they recognize them at all. A low percentage of private forest owners have management plans for their woodlands. Forests are the backbone of our regional economy and our lifestyle.

Since 2005 over 320,000 jobs across the USA have been lost in wood-using mills, with Michigan losing between 5,000 and 10,000 jobs. About 1000 mills have closed their doors, including about 50 Michigan mills. Often this is due to competition, either national or international. Other times, public policy rooted in false environmental protection has helped displace thousands of workers, ironically with a net negative impact on the environment.

It’s probably inappropriate to expect society to always place a “white hat” on natural resource professions. Management is a learning process laced with pitfalls and moving targets. However, history demonstrates that our natural resource managers continue to develop some of the world’s most sustainable management systems. And like those stone flies and hellgrammites, natural resource management provides the base for the human web of life. It’s equally inappropriate to bite the hand that feeds us. 

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