Food chains

We can’t always see important structures that underpin our society and economy. Taking jargon from basic ecology, producers and consumers, forestry would stake territory among the producers, where it’s not always pretty, but it’s essential.

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.

Stream 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.

It might be argued that our economy and lifestyle are structured in a similar way. 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 too often evoke inaccurate and unfair negative imagery.

According to Michigan State University Extension, a vibrant natural resource management base is a key “indicator species” of a healthy economy. The forest industry we enjoy in Michigan is more than valuable jobs and a solid tax base. It helps support a much larger economy that reaches beyond the borders of the USA. It is fortunate that our forests, waters, and lands can sustain this sort of responsibility, and even more fortunate that we can live here to be a part of it.

Many people might think most of Michigan’s wood-using industry is in the U.P. In fact, about three-quarters is located in the southern third of Michigan. That economy uses raw materials from around the globe, including outputs from northern Michigan. Similarly, wood from the U.P. helps feed larger economies both regionally and throughout the world. However in the end, Michigan has largely been 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 and politicians. Using domestic raw materials also has the advantage of production using the world’s best environmental protection. Critics of unnecessarily importing raw materials level charges of exporting “environmental degradation”, citing violation of social justice issues. It’s better to grow our own.

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, long-term, and business-intensive profession. Yet, loggers are often inaccurately 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. Forests are the backbone of our regional economy and our lifestyle. There is far more to a forest than something merely pretty to look at.

Since 1990, over 64,000 jobs across the USA have been lost in wood-using mills. About 500 mills have closed their doors, including about 30 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 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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