When the Oregon State University College of Forestry needs money, it can go to one of its forests, clear-cut a patch, and sell the logs — just as you and I, if we are fortunate, can go to our bank and withdraw cash. This is apparently what happened when OSU cut a grove of ancient trees in the McDonald-Dunn Forest, including one that may have been 420 years old. The interim dean of the college has said that this was a “mistake,” and it surely was a doozy. But the real mistake is the failure to understand that a forest is fundamentally different from a cash account, and that it makes different moral claims on us.
One difference between a dollar and a forest is that a dollar isn’t worth anything in itself. Its value is in what it can be traded for. But an ancient forest is worthy in itself. Not just a commodity, it is an interweaving of lives striving for ongoing life — feathers and ferns, seeds and eggs, birds’ songs and childrens’ wonder. It is a place of mutual thriving over immensities of time. Once it is destroyed, it will never return.
When OSU clear-cut the ancient forest, our children lost the gathering of generations that invited them to feel part of the flow of time. They lost the complexity of a forest that welcomed them into the Earth's vast cycles. They lost wonder and beauty, and connection to the wild. Worse, they lost a good reason to hope that grownups, even specially-trained grownups, will ever learn to live on the land without wrecking it.
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In what moral universe is it defensible to trade what is priceless and timeless for cash? Maybe in last century’s free-for-all of reckless extractive capitalism, when the whole planet was taken to be a storehouse of resources to be pillaged and sold in great going-out-of-business sales. But we ought to know better by now. In the accelerating climate and mass extinction crises, we live in a new world, a suddenly fragile world, a world of real-life consequences, of flood and firestorms, a finite world where humanity is humbled by nature’s violent response to reckless, thoughtless exploitation.
We now face a terrible last chance to unite in single, joined purpose, to save what can be saved of the planet’s great breathing forests, and by their full functioning, to help save what can be saved of our futures. You don’t do this by chain-sawing trees that were sequestering carbon long before OSU researchers even knew what that was. You don’t do it by wholesale logging — the source of 35% of Oregon’s carbon emissions. You don’t manage a forest by destroying it. You manage forests with foresight and restraint and science, renouncing destruction and aligning with the creative, restorative, and healing force of the trees.
In this century, Dean Anthony Davis’ vision for education that is truly “transformative” will require dramatic changes. After all, the manager who decided to cut the ancient grove is a proud product of the College of Forestry. Somehow he passed his exams without being able to see the true worth of an ancient forest.
A forest manager should never graduate without passing F101: Valuing Forests — How to value trees in units other than board-feet and toilet paper rolls; F102: Respecting Neighbors — How to create constructive collaborations with neighbors, instead of bullying and alienating every last one; F103: Honoring Moral Responsibilities — How to serve the long-term future of the lovely, reeling planet, instead of trading it away for cash. And a capstone seminar on the Ethic of the Common Good.
Kathleen Dean Moore is a writer, philosopher and environmental activist. She is retired from Oregon State University, where she was a distinguished professor of philosophy. Her books include "Piano Tide" and "Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril."