June 2015

A little perspective

By Dexter Gill

Ever heard the phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees”? That is pretty easy to do in this day of emotional environmentalism. Here is a little comparison to think about. The federally controlled lands in the U.S. amount to 623 million acres. How big is that? That is more than all of France, Spain, Germany, Poland, Italy, U.K., Austria, Switzerland, and Netherlands combined! Wow — that’s a lot of federal land!

Getting more “local,” the Whole Country of Germany is about 137,000 square miles, which is a little larger than the state of Colorado at 103,884 square miles, but smaller than the state of Montana. Colorado is larger than the U.K, Greece, and 11 more European countries. I find no record of Sweden controlling the lands and forests in Norway or the U.K.

Back in Colorado, I found that there are 24,452,476 acres of forested lands. Note that is just the forested or tree-covered land and does not include all the rocky knobs and open-range lands. Forested lands total 36 percent of the area of the state. In comparison, the country of Germany is 32 percent forested lands.

Let’s look at who owns and controls the forests. Federal ownership: In Colorado, 68 percent; in Germany, 4 percent. Private: Colorado, 30 percent; Germany, 48 percent. County (and equivalent) and cities and towns: Colorado, zero;, Germany, 48 percent . Other (i.e., Indian, state): Colorado 2 percent, Germany zero. In Germany, the federal entity controls the smallest forest base, and the counties and towns are equal to the private holdings. Here in Colorado the feds control the vast majority of the forests.

A little look into history shows that under the feudal lords of early Germany, the forests were controlled as a “king’s forest,” for the feudal lord’s hunting use only. The result was the forest was stagnating, dying, and the wildlife was declining due to lack of food and was eating what was left of the young tree growth. The collapse of the feudal system and later wars caused the need for mining timbers, which “saved” the forest by thinning it out. During the subsequent wars the forests were all but obliterated from bombing, tanks, etc.

Today, under local control and management, their forests have been restored to where the forest industry employs 1.3 million workers and they export forest products to…. the U.S.? Yes, the U.S. imports spruce and pine from Germany. Their forests also provide hunting, fishing, recreation. Remember, this is in a forest comparable in size to Colorado’s forest. Incidentally, the U.S. imports 57 percent of our forest products from such places and Canada, Chile, Germany, Austria, Brazil, New Zealand, Sweden, etc. We apparently prefer to burn ours instead of producing, using and exporting.

Interestingly, here, we started with a viable forest management activity that resulted in jobs, economic growth, forest resource improvements in all areas of endeavor. Slowly the forests have been closed to management and use, similar to the old feudal “king’s forest.” Today, Colorado’s forests have lost a full third of their acreage into non-productive stagnation. We seem to be falling into the old, destructive European feudal system.

We rarely learn from history, but can we? Germany is a country a little larger than the state of Colorado, with forests about the same size. There are certainly differences, but one thing they have done that has worked was to have the land and resources in local control. The state and counties of Colorado are every bit as capable of governing ourselves and our land and resources as any of the countries in Europe. The forest of Colorado can be restored to health, productivity and multiple use for improved jobs, economy and recreation. Local ingenuity and hard work can once again rebuild what our ancestors did right here in the Four Corners of Colorado. Let’s make them proud that we can build upon what they started.

Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo