An indefatigable champion of forests, Richard St Barbe Baker has travelled worldwide persuading governments and people of the value of trees. He has battled on behalf of the Redwoods of California and planted trees in the Sahara in an attempt to halt the encroaching desert. Recently he visited Cornwall. Edward Goldsmith talks to him . . .
Published in The Ecologist Vol. 9 No. 7, October–November 1979.
Goldsmith: What made you start Men of the Trees?
Baker: I had news that an ecological survey was being undertaken in the Sahara, to the North of the Gold Coast, and I learnt that the local tribesmen had been forced by increased desertification to retreat to a small triangle of land, the last remaining patch of forest in the area. There was desert behind them for a thousand miles and desert to either side of them for a thousand miles; the chiefs had forbidden marriage and the women refused to bear children because the end of the forest was in sight.
At the time, I was Assistant Conservator of Forests in Kenya and I was determined that the Kenyans should never have to suffer such an appalling social and ecological disaster. The solution, as I saw it, lay in planting trees but the trouble was that the government had very little money to spend on re-afforestation. I realised that if the project was to have any chance of success, I had to enlist the co-operation of the local people, in particular the Morans, the young warriors. But how?
The answer was through a dance. In Kenya. everything starts with a dance, so I went to the local elders and I said, “You have a dance when the beans are planted, another when the corn is reaped, what about a dance of the trees for tree planting?” “Trees? That’s Sharia Mungo. That’s God’s business. They just grow”. “Yes”, I said, “but if you destroy all your parent trees, your mother trees, you don’t give Mungo a chance. We will have a dance in three weeks time. I will offer a prize of a fatted bullock for the best turned out warrior and a necklace of their favourite beads for the most beautiful damsel. I shall choose the winning dancer, assisted by a committee of twelve chiefs.”
They liked the idea, and three weeks later 3,000 people turned up for the first Dance of the Trees. That was the day that I called for volunteers who would promise before the High God to plant so many trees each year and to take care of trees everywhere. The movement gradually grew until tribes who were suspicious or hostile began to exchange hospitality because they were all Men of the Trees. The name started as a nickname really, because we were always planting trees
Do you agree that poverty in the Third World is not simply deprivation of material goods? People are poor not because they are short of electric toothbrushes, they are poor because there are more and more people living on land that looks increasingly like the surface of the moon, devastated through deforestation and soil erosion. Would you accept that?
Yes. You can gauge a country’s wealth, its real wealth, by its tree cover. In spite of our beautiful parks, Britain is only 6.5 percent wooded, whilst France is 26 percent wooded, Germany 28 percent and Sweden 57 percent. We are almost at the bottom of the list: there is only one country worse than ourselves and that is Ireland. A country’s very poor that doesn’t have trees. Look at the Sahara: the desert is spreading along a two thousand-mile front, in some cases to a depth of thirty miles in one year. It is becoming poverty stricken. People who have lived for generations on what the forest yields are now having cut down the forest to make way for cash crops, forced to retreat before the oncoming desert.
In Africa do you think it is possible to develop, in the Western sense of the term, without causing deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation?
Do you think people are going to face this fact?
It is difficult.
In this country, what percentage of the land area do you think should be re-afforested?
The minimum for safety is one third of the total land area. I think what is happening to the elms must be alerting the whole country to the necessity of trees, of the need for more trees. The elm has the largest leaf surface of any tree in Britain. If you defoliate a large elm and put the leaves together edge to edge, they would cover ten acres. So naturally, the first tree to suffer from air pollution was the elm and, of course, when an elm is suffering from fatigue it is subject to attack by disease: the elm bark beetle, the carrier of the elm fungus, comes along and the tree succumbs.
I look at it this way. If a person is living a normal life and not abusing themselves – not smoking too much, not eating too much, not drinking too much – but living normally and eating the right food – they will be fit and well. It is only when they start abusing themselves that they are prone to attack by disease. It is the same with trees.
The next tree to go (the next tree with the largest leaf surface after the elm) is probably the beech: after that the sycamore: and so on. Finally it will be Man’s turn. We forget that we owe our existence to the presence of trees and as far as forest cover goes, we have never been in such a vulnerable position as we are today. The only answer is to plant more trees – to plant for our lives.
If we were to grow trees on a third of the land in this Country, we would have to use up a good deal of agricultural land: don’t we need that land to feed our population?
If you want to double your supplies of food, then you should devote 22 percent of your farm to trees, to strategically planted shelter belts. We found in Alberta that if we devoted twenty-two percent of a quarter section, that’s 160 acres, to trees, we could double the crop output. Trees create micro-climates, reduce the speed of the wind, lift the water table and increase the population of worms. Darwin revealed all there was to be known about worms, but he didn’t tell us how to harness them. If the farmers only knew how to harness worms, they could double their crops. Trees provide the answer.
I can see that this could be so in Alberta, where the winds sweeping across the Prairies are obviously more destructive, but do you know of any research which shows the effects of tree cover on crops in Britain?
If it works in Alberta, it would probably work much better here.
What techniques are available today for replanting trees in the arid tropics?
I have had a good deal of experience of this over the last twenty years. The first thing is to get the voluntary co-operation of the local People. In Morocco, we were able to employ nearly 80,000 people, 40,000 of them planting trees and making roads through the new forests. In Algeria we used what has been called the “bulkhead system” for re-planting. We threw up little banks all along the mountain side and planted fruit trees – apricots and figs – on them, with cereals in between if the slope was gentle enough. If it wasn’t, then we stuck to trees, all Mediterranean species. The first planting party goes along and digs the holes, the next wave brings up the little trees, and the last wave puts them in the holes. Then the tankers come and spray the line.
What do they spray?
Oil mulch from the Esso petrol refineries. It stabilises the dunes and draws down the heat. This lifts the water from underneath the ground and the water comes up in steam, leaving the salt behind in the soil. It is like growing trees with underheat, as in a nursery. After one week you see a shoot of about one inch long: a week later it will be two inches or so; and in eighteen months will have grown to fifteen feet.
We have worked out that the economic rotation of a plantation of Eucalyptus is six years or six and a half at the most. But a single Eucalyptus tree, 45 feet high, will transpire 82 gallons of water a day onto the earth. In this way, a microclimate is created in which one can grow food.
The effect of the black mulch is to draw down the heat; that sends up a wall of heat which in turn drives the rain-bearing winds from the sea to a height where they come down as dew or rain at night.
If the optimum Commercial rotation for Eucalyptus trees is six and a half years, what would be the optimum rotation for an oak tree in Britain?
Well, for hedgerow oaks, which are grown very fast for special purposes, they would be ready after about 150 years or so. To get the best value out of an oak, however, you want height not girth. If you plant them in conjunction with beech, you can get a return of five pounds per acre on a 320 year rotation for oaks with three crops of beech.
This is actually being done on the Lichtenstein estate in Germany. Here the acorns are planted in lines six feet apart and after twenty years, swathes are cut at right angles to those lines, leaving one stem every six feet. Then the oaks are under-planted with beech. You have to give the oak twenty years start over the beech because the beech will soon suppress the oak: the beech is a shade bearer, the oak a light demander, so you have to crop the beech after a hundred years. This has to be quite a careful operation as the south-east stem of the oak mustn’t be exposed to the morning sun – when the oak sap freezes on a frosty night, a rapid thaw fractures the cells and you get a “frost shape” which ruins the timber.
Thinning is done by a supervisor, his assistant and a student. They watch the pattern of the shade on the forest floor and they are very careful not to let in too much light, otherwise grass would grow and take away from the wood increment. This is done year after year and if the supervisor dies, then his assistant takes over and a new student is taken on. Thus, there is absolute continuity of management. You get three crops of beech and after 320 years, the whole forest is felled. The land is used for agriculture the next time round, and the foresters move on to other land that needs building up.
I divide agricultural land into seven grades and forest land into seven grades, the last three agricultural grades overlapping with the first three of forestry. By planting the lower quality forest land you can raise its grade and transform it into agricultural land. The only category you can’t transform into farmland is that land which would be sand dunes if it were deforested.
If you treat land in this way, then theoretically it should last forever?
Yes, forestry is forever.
They talk about Grades One, Two, Three and Four of agricultural land in Britain. Grade One is land that grows wheat indefinitely and there is only 2.8 percent of our land in that category.
Talking about growing wheat indefinitely, there is a field at Rothamsted Research Station which has grown wheat continuously for a hundred years. But the secret is that the field is surrounded by trees. It has great oaks around it and the roots of the oak go down to a great depth, tapping many minerals. When the leaves have served their function (carbon assimilation and wood formation) they fall to earth with just the right proportion of trace elements needed for plant food, animal food and tree food. The worms come up and take the leaves down overnight.
What is the effect of planting pine trees generation after generation. Does this lead to soil deterioration?
Obviously. The hair-roots of the pine are furnished with a little sheath of acid, whose object is to enable the root to get a hold in a rock. If you have root competition between pines, the acid starts killing off the competitor’s roots and an acid pan is formed in the soil. If you are foolish enough to plant a second crop of pines on the same soil, the roots only go down about two-thirds of their normal depth because they fight shy of this acid pan. If you are crazy enough to have a third crop of pines, the roots will only go down five inches or so and the trees blow over in the first storm.
How about the litter produced by these conifers?
It is acid. Nothing else will grow and it is not good habitat for wildlife.
Do you think the big machines used in modern forestry affect the soil adversely?
Heavy machines tend to form a hard pan in the soil. This has already happened in the Californian Redwood forests, where these huge machines are used to do the felling. The ticking-over of the engine causes the ground to vibrate and a pan is formed about ten inches below the surface. I doubt whether the roots of the young Redwoods will be able to penetrate this pan, so they are likely to have a very short life span – twenty to forty years as opposed to two thousand years.
Isn’t it usual in modern forestry to clear the site completely after felling the trees – to remove the understory as well. Is this also a harmful practice?
In my opinion, there should be no clear-cutting at all. Felling should be by selection of the best stems, the mature trees, or by a group section method where a cluster of trees is removed to enable the surrounding trees to regenerate the land. Planting should be a last resort. Good forestry, good silvicuture allows for natural regeneration and planting should only be done in the case of emergency, or on fresh land.
Why do you think the British Forestry Commission continue to make use of such obviously unsound practices?
Forestry departments all over the world are now being run according to the dictates of economics, and Britain’s Forestry Commission is no exception. Silviculture is being prostituted for short-term economic gain: it has increasingly become a question of money, machines and manpower in that order. The Forestry Commission has to satisfy the Treasury and its policy of planting quick-growing conifers for pulp is designed for that purpose. But if the Forestry commission cannot take a long term view, how can you expect private landlords to do so?
You played a considerable role in the fight to save the Redwoods in California, didn’t you?
Yes, I first saw them in 1930. In those days, they were talking about preserving individual trees in memory of some great American or cause. I was thinking in terms of retaining a micro-climate in which these trees could survive and I felt we needed at least 9,000 acres in one block to achieve this.
These Redwoods play a vital ecological role, filtering out the coast mists through what is called “horizontal precipitation”. A big Redwood will ordinarily transpire about 500 gallons a day into the air through its leaves: when the sea mists come drifting over the forest, they hit this wall of transpired moisture – and down comes rain. If there are no Redwoods, the coast mists simply peter out over the desert.
I set to work to conserve 12,000 acres in one block. It took me nine years to create sufficient interest to raise the money to buy the forest back from the concessionaires but in 1939, people at last began to sit up and take notice. For every dollar we raised, the State of California put up a dollar, and eventually Men of the Trees was able to hand over 12,000 acres to be preserved as a State Park.
You were in California battling on behalf of the Redwoods quite recently, weren’t you?
Yes, last year. I was called over to do an independent report on the National Redwood Park which had been taken over by Ladybird Johnson with much speechifying. You would have thought from the television interviews and radio broadcasts that they were never going to cut down another Redwood. How wrong you would have been! They have been felling on the edge of the National Park and on private land adjoining it, so much so that it had become questionable whether the National Park was still viable.
I managed to get my report out in time for an enquiry into the state of the Redwoods at the Sierra Club. I did some research in the library next door in case I was needed and about halfway through the Attorney General came out and said, “Are you Dr Baker? Are you responsible for this report?” I said that I was and he replied, “Thank you, sir. Now we can act.”
He didn’t say what he was going to do but when I got to Washington I learnt that he had declared a moratorium on all felling until the whole issue came before Congress. Later I gave evidence at the congressional hearings.
Can you tell us a little more about the Sierra Club hearings? They were rather hectic, weren’t they?
Two hundred truckers and loggers drove down to San Francisco to demand that felling should be permitted in the National Park. They had placards with the slogan “No More Parks” and they had made effigies, cruel effigies, of Ladybird Johnson. They crowded into the hearing, filling up the court and shouting in unison “No More Parks!”
I was slipped in through a side door in the press gallery. There was only one seat left. Quite early on, the Chairman of the Inquiry, a congressman, called on a Professor of Forestry to testify. During cross-examination, he asked:
“Professor, what did you say was the economic rotation of the coast Redwood?”
“Twenty to forty years, sir.”
“Am I hearing you correctly? Would you repeat that Professor?”
“Twenty to forty years, sir.”
Afterwards the Professor came over to me, very apologetically. He knew I would not have approved of his testimony: those trees have a natural lifespan of 1,500 to 2,000 years, during which they are fulfilling vital ecological functions. But I knew what would have happened if he had spoken otherwise, if he had taken on the big lumber kings and the lumber industry. He would have lost his job overnight.
What country is making the greatest effort to re-afforest its land?
China. I have been told by a geographer who recently returned from China, that 32 million people are permanently employed by the government for re-afforestation. Even white collar workers put on their oldest clothes over the weekend and help the peasant farmers to plant trees. At school, the children vie with each other to see who can plant the most trees. All in all, they have increased tree cover from 7 percent to 28 percent. I am very proud that Men of the Trees sent seed out to China forty-seven years ago. I like to think that millions of the trees that have been planted were raised from the seeds we supplied.
One final question, do you think that people are more receptive than they used to be to the message you have been preaching for the last 70 years?
Yes indeed. Young people today are deeply concerned about trees and the future of Mankind. They feel these things intensely and that inspires me with great hope.
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