For Earth Day: The Merits of Tree-Hugging

Winter sunrise behind the floodplain forest

I admit I become a tad cranky when someone trying to score political points uses pejorative terms like tree-hugger, eco-nut, and granola-lover to describe those of us who care about the natural world. Some even try to redefine the term environmentalist to connote someone who is irrational about preserving the quality of our environment.  This is, of course, untrue.

In fact, many environmentalists are like me. We are trained in the sciences – in my case, both more concrete sciences like biology and chemistry, as well as social sciences, such as psychology and anthropology. We usually have deeper knowledge of certain fields – in my case, ecology, botany, and animal behavior.

Most of us either grew up immersed in the natural environment of our homeland, or we fell in love with the natural world as adults when we traveled to places where native beauty still sings more loudly than bulldozers and car horns.

Winter-bare Dawn Redwood tickles the cloudless sky

We are quite sane, those of us who love and worry about the blue-green planet we call home. But I understand why we are portrayed otherwise.

We humans – like other animals of this planet – possess an ancient, innate reflex that I call Them-or-Us. We tend to instantly categorize ideas and people into those two camps. Either something is like us, or it is not. If it is not, it is an enemy that should be eliminated so that more will remain for us.

Those who make a living by selling a particular point of view often use this reflex to manipulate folks into doing what they want. For example, those whose business it is to promote tapping oil, gas, and coal buried deep below do so with a well-used, successful two-pronged approach.

First, they assign an economic value to the asset they want to exploit, say, natural gas, thereby isolating it from its natural context. In other words, they assign a high dollar value to the gas, and strongly imply that everything else there – the hills, waters, forests, animals, etc., do not have value, or their value is so much less as to be inconsequential.

After they succeed in making it a “fact” that the natural gas is the only resource of value in a particular area, they then hit the Them-or-Us reflex by asserting that anyone who opposes them is against a strong national/state/county economy. Here in the United States, they usually strongly imply the Us contingent is unAmerican.

In my region of the southeastern United States, a commonly held “fact” is that so-called undeveloped land has no value compared to developed land. Such thinkers assign higher values to shopping malls and suburbs than to large tracts of contiguous forest.

Rows of holes made by Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers do no lasting harm to this Tulip Poplar.

In both examples, the comparison is rigged. Both are based on the assumption that monetary value is the only measuring stick that matters. When environmentalists try to play this game by assigning monetary value to clean air and water, and species diversity preserved within large interconnected forest tracts, they are at an immediate disadvantage. Although I agree that such calculations can be eye-opening, the other side will always argue that such numbers are “soft,” compared to the known real estate value they can assign to an office complex or the price of a barrel of oil.

When I was in graduate school, one of the students studying resource economics argued that the Grand Canyon National Park should be privatized, thereby relieving taxpayers of the burden of preserving this resource. I argued against this, pointing out that a private corporation would have no obligation to maintain the Grand Canyon in its current state. If such a company decided, for example, that more money could be made by damming the canyon to produce hydroelectric power, it could do so.

Natural resources are public resources; they belong to all of us. The only way to protect them is by preserving and managing them as public trusts in perpetuity. That goes for uniquely spectacular places like the Grand Canyon and for equally important, but perhaps less visually dramatic places that harbor, for example, increasingly rare species of animals and plants.

For the last several hundred years, folks living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina have been cutting down forests to use the land for farms, then factories, and now mostly urban development. Because our climate is lush and our native plants and animals were – until recently – quite resilient, the forest fellers could count on new forests springing up on abandoned farmland, even abandoned urban areas.

Towering River Birch shows off new spring leaves

But what grows back now is not what was growing here even 50 years ago. A healthy Piedmont forest needs 200 years to achieve maturity. That’s how long it takes for our climax forest trees – oaks, hickories, beeches, and maples – to achieve their full size. That’s how long it takes for all the understory layers – smaller trees, shrubs, flowers, and ferns — to settle into their niches and establish stable populations, making homes for the myriad animal species adapted to live in those niches.

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple

The Piedmont region of the southeastern United States – like the Mountain and Coastal Plain regions on either side – is dominated by trees. We are forest country. We are all about the trees.

Tulip Poplar flowers adorn this 75-foot canopy specimen.

So when someone spits out the term Tree-Hugger at me, as if the word tastes like poison, I find myself torn between anger and despair. The anger rises from the uneven battlefield built by these word bullies. My despair is fed by fear that the fight for my beloved forests is nearly lost already. But I will not let despair still my voice.

And the next time someone accuses me of being a Tree-Hugger, I shall reply:

Yes, I do love the native forests of our region. Why don’t you?

Top of 90-foot, double-boled Sweet Gum pushing out spring foliage.

Happy Earth Day to all.

  1. #1 by JP on May 3, 2012 - 7:45 pm

    Well stated! Man’s disconnection from the web of life may be our greatest failing as a species. Seems we live in a place where everything is for sale, we’ve gone from a free market economy to a free market society. Sure hasn’t seemed to make us very happy.

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