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An imaginary conversation:

I've been looking at the Galloway Forest District Strategic Plan, and they do seem to be pretty committed to Sitka Spruce in short rotations. What with the growth in environmentaI consciousness, I would have thought that longer term thinking would be a bit more evident by now.

So, why not plant Sitka Spruce? I understand it grows really fast in this part of the world. Doesn't it come from a very similar climate on the West Coast of North America?

It does grow fast, so fast there are often quality problems, and there are so many better things we might plant, including our own native trees and other hardwoods. These would help to preserve and extend local biodiversity and rebuild soil fertility.

But would these plantations produce as much usable timber as sitka, and as quickly? How long would it take to get a return on the investment?

Well, if we started now to double the forest cover, which would bring us in line with the European average, and using 50% broadleaf as target, we could continue to produce just as much as at present from the conifer proportion, and by, say 25 years, we could already be getting considerable firewood, charcoal and greenwood materials from the management of continuous cover woodlands, but it would take at least 75 to 100 years before we could be getting good sized sawlogs. We would probably be able to arrive at a balance where we were mostly taking trees at about 150 years old, perhaps as much as 200. We would want to give every tree the opportunity to achieve its full potential. It's in our interest.

In whose interest? Some silly buggers 200 years from now? My grandchildren will be long dead by then, and who knows whether they'll have any use for trees by then anyway? I want to do something that'll give me a return. I have a mortgage to pay off.

I understand, but as a culture, or as a species, and particularily in our so-called 'western' culture, we have gotten fat using up the fertility laid down by the forests over thousands of years since the last glaciation, and we've used up the timber as well. We have that to repay - the whole culture has a mortgage, you might say....

We needed the cleared ground for crops; you can't eat trees, and besides, we can use fertiliser to keep the fertility up.

Only so long as we have the fossil sources to manufacture the chemical fertilisers. While they're rebuilding natural fertility, mixed forests also produce all sorts of non-timber outputs, including edibles; berries, nuts, fungi and game for example. There's also the spiritual value of woodland...

None of that is going to be anything like an acceptable return on the cost of creating all these longterm dream forests of yours. How are you going to pay for establishing them?

Government grants could be very useful, and perhaps other forms of social funding, such as the much mooted carbon taxes or emission trading credits. It's Nature which has a right to expect a return on her investment, after all. There are those who reckon she may be well advised to cut the losses and write this venture off. The important thing to remember is that we've already had the 'return'. We've borrowed against our birthright, and spent the proceeds. It's time to start repayments.

But if that's so, couldn't we be pay it off more quickly by growing sitka? It grows so fast it can remove CO2 more quickly to help with climate change and fertility.

Not really; a large part of the material is removed from the land, which doesn't replenish fertility, never mind the soil disturbance and erosion occasioned by mechanisation. Also, the carbon captured in spruce trees ends up being largely released again in harvesting, milling and as the wood decays - it's not very durable, you know, not suited to long-lived uses.

You can preserve it.

Aye, with copper chrome and arsenic; poison it, you mean.

But at least that ties up the carbon a bit longer.

You may be right, but how much of the spruce ends up as paper, particularily toilet paper? Straight into landfill and decay - or incineration.

It might be desirable to tie the carbon up in longer rotations, but commercial planters as well as the public sector are wary of this, because with every year the risk of windthrow increases, and clearing that up often costs more than you can get for the wood.

If so, it might be worth considering just leaving it to regenerate naturally. We might also get better structural quality timber. One of the problems is the way we grow sitka. Planted out too widely, it grows too quickly and produces too much soft, "juvenile core" material which is why so much of it has no structural value. Natural regeneration is likely to be much denser; then form and core are less of a problem as the trees are all pushing straight up for the light. They blow over less easily as well.

But, again, the same folk are skeptical of natural regeneration - too difficult to control. And the old logs lying around would make mechanical harvesting more difficult, if not impossible, as would the uneven spacing.

Aye, there's the rub, control - and machines. And I suppose the council is expected to provide upgraded roads for heavier lorries, at least that's what the Scottish Forestry Strategy seems to think. Perhaps we could use people a bit more.

But Sitka Spruce is the only species which can provide a financial return in our climate, particularily for private investors, and it creates jobs.

Aye, as machine operators, but in the interest of competitiveness, such jobs must be kept to a minimum by using the maximum size of machinery. This is the most forested area of the country, and one third of the land area provides only one fiftieth of the employment.

Howie's are expanding their sawmill and making profits. So are the paper mills. Spruce is obviously profitable in some circumstances.

But only within the present subsidy system, where every tree is grant aided from seed to harvest. Do we feel so deep a need to keep toilet paper cheap that we need to support it with taxpayer's money? We haven't even considered that the sawmills and paper companies probably enjoy lots of capital equipment grants, tax writeoffs and employment subsidies (where they can't replace folk with machines). The public purse is also expected to provide 'infrastructure' - roads to carry the biggest machinery (fewest operators) available? Is that how we want to spend our taxes? Is it 'efficient'?

Another pint?

Aye; Mine's a seventy, thanks...

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