Trump: seeing the wood for the trees

One can learn a lot from President Trump, if one ignores the knee-jerk ridicule that he braves from the Twitterati. Thanks to his recent remarks, I’m now aware of the value of forest raking in its three main varieties:

* manual subsistence raking;
* mechanised underbrush raking;
* the raking out of fire-breaks in forest fire emergencies.

Nothing to do with dinky little garden-rakes from the DIY store, which is what the leftists have been mistakenly howling about.

The paper “Effects of simulated historical tree litter raking on the understorey vegetation in a central European forest” (2015) has concise details on this ancient forest conservation and management practice…

Litter raking is a form of land use whereby large quantities of dead leaf biomass are collected from the forest ground using rakes, resulting in the removal of large quantities of nutrients from the forest and a mechanical disturbance of the top soil (Glatzel 1991; Gimmi et al. 2013). Subsistence litter raking was once a widespread activity in the woodlands of central Europe (Ebermayer 1876; Burgi 1999). […] litter raking persists in a few areas of southeast Europe, but is gradually disappearing (Carni et al. 2007; Silc et al. 2008).

According to the 2017 paper “A review of thinning effects on Scots pine stands” in the journal Forest Systems, it also still appears to be a common practice among commercial pine plantations in central Europe…

many Scots pine sites in Central Europe have been enhanced considerably through deposition, regeneration of soil after depletion and litter raking.

In parts of northern Europe, such as Poland, traditional forest raking continued into “the late 1960s and early 1970s”, with the rakings used as a free substitute for straw. Finland was the subject of pioneering studies of reviving forest raking, led by Lindohm in the 1980s though the practice is now frowned on for reducing nutrient levels in the soil. More recent studies such as “Litter-Raking Forests in SE Slovenia and in Croatia” (2008) have additional details of how the practice worked…

Farmers used to cut bracken and heather, and also raked leaves of trees at the site. Occasionally they also cut some trees. Litter was not always transported to the farm, farmers put it on a heap with a single tree as a support, and the tree often died back after litter was removed.

What is being raked out was “litter”, which in the UK means human trash such as candy wrappers — but of course here means the annual leaf, twig, fern, bark and needle debris that accumulates on the forest floor, and which if left unraked can seed itself up into a thick impenetrable tangle. A tangle that that would obscure valuable peasant forest-crops such as mushrooms, berries, roots and herbs, as well as inhibiting the hunting of animals. No berries, no bears.

Litter raking and underbrush removal of the traditional type must inevitably make forests less flammable. Otherwise you get a forest that then needs to be tackled with the sort of mechanised underbrush thinning that is detailed in “Resource and time analysis of forest undergrowth removal on the example of Finnish forests” (2016). There are reported to be around 500 such undergrowth removing machines at work, raking out the extensive Finnish forests, in any given week. These are in addition to the great many thinning harvesters that work to extract bio-fuel wood…

Source: World Bank.

So, while traditional raking may have been abandoned due to lack of labourers, the diesel-driven mechanical equivalent is clearly ongoing (whatever the axe-grinding anti-Trump politicians might say). It’s true that the relatively damp boreal climate of Finland means that this extraction is not a primary fire suppression tool, but it does happen… and as such it may help diminish the severity of the major forest fires in summer.

What Mr. Trump actually said was, off the cuff at one of his press conferences with highly hostile journalists…

You’ve got to take care of the floors. You know the floors of the forest, very important. I was with the president of Finland and he said, ‘We have a much different… we’re a forest nation.’ He called it a forest nation, and they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things” [to prevent fire]”

But “raking” here obviously refers to the mechanically raking out of the underbrush, with things like excavator rakes and brush pullers, a mechanised activity which has necessarily replaced human subsistence raking of the forest floor. Both forms of raking are real things, both more or less effective against future fire. One form of raking used to happen in Finland, and another mechanised form still happens. It may now go by names such as “precommercial thinning”, but it appears to have much the same effect.

A third form of raking also happens during forest fires, when firemen “rake out” the undergrowth, something which Mr. Trump saw and described…

… they were raking areas where the fire was, right over there. And they’re raking [out] trees, little trees like this that are not trees, little bushes, that you could see are totally dry. And they’re raking them [out], they’re on fire. That should have been all raked out.

And President Trump is of course broadly right, as he usually is. Taking care of the forest floor is important, specifically preventing the build up of vast amounts of dry flammable underbrush in dry climates. In California, he is right that this underbrush has not been regularly raked out or been allowed to burn out in small fires, due to pressure from eco-worriers who wouldn’t know one end of a rake from the other, and this neglect has sustained the devastating fires there

Trump correctly points to decades of mistakes by state and federal forest agencies that caused the woodlands to become overly dense and blanketed with highly flammable dead wood and underbrush.

The possibility that old-school traditional raking would help inhibit forest fire is now a moot point, anyway. America’s forests are now so huge and dense, compared to the 1920s, that the manpower needed for such hard year-round manual work no longer exists on a regular and affordable basis. It’s highly unlikely that a vast new New Deal programme will supply such workers. Robo hover-drones equipped with seedling-zapping lasers might be a modern equivalent, flitting through the forest, but don’t hold your breath on that.

On the other hand, it seems to me that manual annual ‘litter raking’ may have its place in future patchwork forests, such as those anticipated by advocates of rewilding on the urban margins. And rewilding is likely to be in that format: large-scale mash-ups of a patchwork of landscape types managed for ecosystem coherence, rather than dense dark blanket forest which we just ‘fence and forget’. In which case you’d get places where there are a couple of acres of privately owned trees, here and there, and in these mechanised underbrush thinning every five years may be undesirable either due to cost and/or wildlife disturbance. But it might be viable if established as an autonomous annual community-led tradition of ‘raking the wood’. Such raking out could even help balance out the ‘carbon fertilisation effect‘, by removing nutrients from the soil — such fertilization is not much of a problem in northern boreal forests, but may possibly become a problem in lower latitudes over time.

As the African population grows and requires work, forest raking may also be a practice to consider experimenting with in the drier forest regions of Africa, along with regular prescribed burning for wildlife and bio-regional coherence of the larger ecosystem.