It’s OK if you’re not good at everything: A critical analysis

27 Dec

library image via Wikipedia

One of the things I want to do often on this blog is write about what I’ve learned from various forestry books that I’ve read. To kick this endeavor off, I wanted to start at the beginning. So, I found the oldest book on the subject that I could: Edward T. Allen’s Practical Forestry in the Pacific Northwest, apparently published for the first time in 1911.

Reading it was a disjointed experience, not only due to the writing style but also in terms of the massive gap between still-relevant information and material that seems much less worthwhile. Specifically, this book is fabulous for technical information and less-than-fully relevant for social/political argumentation. It’s part of the point, as the dual aims of Allen’s text are to to explain how to manage timber for eventual public profit, and also to drum up popular and government support for sustained-use forestry; however the only “failing” is that I am reading it more than a hundred years after its intended audience.

Now, I’m not aware of having read a lot of primary argumentative writing from the early 1900s. Maybe this book is a good example of it. However, as classical Western argumentation traces roots back to ancient Greece, I’m not really inclined to cut this well-educated man any slack. The lack of explanation and support for many ideas in this book is fairly surprising. (And even funny. My favorite unexplained statement, from p. 64: “The best way to prevent fire is to prevent it.”)

This is where things begin to come off the rails a bit. I started to question whether I’m simply seeing this 100 year-old text through a hyper-critical modern lens, or whether his status as a publishing professional is enough to hold him to a higher standard than this for the sake of hypothetical analysis. I decided that he is not likely to roll over in his grave, and that failing to explain complex ideas and neglecting to attribute facts is a great way to open yourself up to serious skepticism.

As an example of what I mean, at one point Allen makes the dubious claim that other countries have “stopped the forest fire evil” (p. 4), which strikes me like saying that another nation had put an end to wind. Maybe it’s a modern interpretation informed by modern understanding of fire cycles, but it doesn’t seem likely, given that the author also discusses fire as a management tool in the technical section of the book.  While I haven’t exactly performed a full primary-source literature search, I didn’t find any information elsewhere to support that this was happening at the time of writing.

wildfire image via Wikipedia

I think it’s great that Allen advocates timber use for the public good, and he makes some strong relevant points, too — mainly about the need for tax reform to encourage reforestation (something that was apparently not solved until the 50s, I later discovered). But in other passages, the reasoning seems muddled. Heresy, I’m sure. Examples, then: At one point, Allen says that for every acre of forested land destroyed by fire or left unplanted, taxpaying citizens bear 80% of the financial loss. He never explains what he means by this, and I’m not sure how hypothetical loss can be traced through something as complex and opaque as bureaucracy with enough accuracy to come up with such a figure. Is he trying to translate possible future profits into actual loss in terms of the benefits that extra revenue would provide back to taxpayers? This seems questionable regardless of time period, but I’d love to see the information.

Overall, I find that there is a profound sense of disconnection between cause and effect, and logical components in a single line of reasoning. I suppose this is the sort of thing science and observation seek to correct over time. A lot of ideas seemed similraly unfinished. Another example would be when he holds up Germany as a template for public timber use in the U.S. (p. 17). They devote a similar percentage of land to timber production, he says, despite having 1/7th of our domestic demand for wood products. Yet there seems to be a blank at the end of that statement, because there is no question of how Germany compares to the U.S. in other land-based endeavors like agriculture. Since land space is concrete and limited, is it realistic to take from one to give to the other? Is it better? He seems to ignore the connection he had drawn between timber and agriculture a few pages prior.

In another passage (p. 6), he says that lowered tax revenue from the timber sector would place a greater tax burden on the agricultural sector, which makes sense — until he goes on to insist that one day the farmer may have to “pay all the taxes.” All of them? Where’d he get that? I found myself wishing for citations fairly often. Still, I don’t think that has anything to do with contradiction, such as saying in one place that fire prevention is not as simple as setting up a fire patrol, and then later announcing that supporting a fire patrol removes the risk of fire as a barrier to private reforestation (p. 12). He also says while making his political argument that “forest fires are almost always unnecessary” (p. 8), yet later discusses fire as a management tool. Too bad he’s not around to ask for clarification!

I don’t mean to imply that this is an irrelevant work; it has clearly provoked some thought on the issues he highlighted. And the technical information is methodical yet concise, which I appreciate as a student with far to go in developing knowledge of forestry. I enjoyed reading his account of the life history of redwoods, his explanation of how even and uneven aged stands form in nature, and comparisons of various seeding methods to reproduce forest.

There’s a load of useful information on things like which valuable conifer species tolerate burns, which need shade or sun, which have growth habits that lend themselves easily to pure stands, and so on. I had no idea that sugar pine was such a pain to grow for harvest, though I suppose it makes sense given that I’ve never heard of a sugar pine forest. But it does make me excited for my upcoming silviculture course.

Ponderosa Pine, Columbia Breaks Fire Interpret...

Ponderosa pine image via Wikipedia

Additionally, I learned a ton about silviculture related to Ponderosa pine, which is something I don’t hear much about at school due to our program’s emphasis on west side practices. Allen takes his time explaining the steep drop-off in pace of growth as the tree ages, and how to tell from bark patterns when a growing tree has hit this point. Tricks of the trade!

If I were a private landowner or timber harvester, I’d also appreciate that he talks about the reliability of good returns among different species, how farmers might put timber to work, and ways to make thinning operations profitable. He includes a very detailed, six page discussion of return on investment broken down by species and in cost per mbf, complete with consideration of land taxes and compound interest; at some point, I will try to take a look at whether or not this could still be helpful in a modern context; I would not be surprised either way, really. It’s exhaustive information considering how short the book is, and Allen always includes a good comparison of long- and short-term benefits and risks for everything. I can see how someone so thorough and knowledgeable about trees would end up becoming the regional ranger in charge of Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

I can also see why he didn’t make his career in lobbying.

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5 Responses to “It’s OK if you’re not good at everything: A critical analysis”

  1. James D. December 27, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    Nicely done analysis. It’s interesting to see how an author can be so thoroughly and exact in one area, while falling into arbitrary declarations in another. Good work, Jennings!

    • xylem_up December 27, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

      Thanks. It’s weird to think about criticizing someone in this way. If it were a different author, I might actually stand a chance of meeting this person. But I suppose we’re all big boys and girls and I keep things professional. I imagine that’s just the reality of being an active publisher?

  2. Dori December 28, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    I doubt it completely prevents fires, but I have seen the very thorough cleaning out of small trees and underbrush which is done in Germany I’m sure that helps a great deal, but I am not sure whether it “stopped the forest fire evil” totally! Funny!

    • xylem_up December 29, 2011 at 1:20 am #

      From what I understand, Germany does have really great forestry practices. I’m not sure what their fire regimes are like over there, but in the West, it happens naturally no matter what, Even getting things down to historical “class I” intensity levels doesn’t stop it.

      Maybe that’s what he meant, in which case he could have explained! I used to tell my students all the time that it is the writer’s job to make sure the argument is understood, and you will not make a good case without explaining what you mean.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “Practical Forestry in the Pacific Northwest”: Questions « Xylem Up - January 17, 2012

    […] So here are the things touched off by reviewing Edward T. Allen’s book: […]

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