Friday, September 20, 2013

The Loathsome Pine: Forest management

One of the more peculiar pieces of research that has emanated from the university in Palma over the years was one that was published over three years ago which looked at just how much the pine tree was disliked by Mallorcans. The reasons for this "hate" were: pines can be harmful to health; they can prevent other flora growing; they house the processionary caterpillar; they are dirty in that their needles clog up drains when it rains and demand an enormous amount of sweeping-up and that their pollen turns everywhere a shade of yellowy-green in spring. There were two other reasons for the dislike. One was irrational. The pine is "foreign", which is something of a moot point but if it is true then palm trees should also be hated. The other was rational. The great abundance of pines help to spread forest fires.

The university's researchers discovered that, far from there being wholesale support for the pine tree, many a Mallorcan would be only too happy if the pine were to be sent packing, which would be a pretty difficult feat of forest destruction as at least 80% of mountainous forest is pine.

Gabriel Company, the Balearics environment minister, might do worse than to drag this research out. He has said that the notion that the pine tree is "untouchable" has to change. He was speaking as part of a hearing by a parliamentary commission into the devastating fire that affected the Tramuntana mountains in July. His point was that there needs to be greater control of pine-tree growth, which means cutting trees down as a way of improving forest management and so reducing the risks of fires spreading. The research would suggest that it wouldn't necessarily be that difficult to change the "untouchable" notion.

Sadness accompanied the July fire. It was sadness at the scenes of desolation, ones that are all too familiar if not anything like on the same scale. It was sadness at the loss of pine forests and at the realisation that it could take up to eighty years for the landscapes to be restored. But much though people pined for the loss of the pines, there were those who could have predicted the devastation. Hating the pines for their very density and so their potential to spread fires rapidly does not mean their elimination, or anything like it, but it does mean that there should be better management. And some would say that any management would be better than what has existed. Very little.

Critics of Company will argue that his call for there to be greater control is all a bit late and that it is a call which ignores other issues, such as cutbacks to forestry workers. And there is some justification for criticising the lack of proactive management of the forests. A spokesperson for the PSOE opposition has accused Company of only becoming interested in the Tramuntana and its maintenance since the fire occurred and has wondered whatever happened to a forestry plan that was announced by President Bauzá in 2011 and which was meant to have been approved last year. Friends of the Earth had asked the same question a year before the Andratx fire, and I, in an article written in the aftermath of the fire ("The Impotence Of Fire"), repeated the question.

There needs to be a comprehensive plan for forest management. It is remarkable that there has never been one for the Balearics, and the absence of one reflects badly on politicians who have been happy to bask in the glories of the mountain woodland patrimony of Mallorca and the Balearics while at the same time doing very little to preserve it adequately.

It needs to include - a point made to the parliamentary hearing by a spokesperson for the Més grouping - a strategy for biomass. I have suggested that it is unlikely that this would be used in any meaningful fashion as a renewable energy source in the Balearics, but it used elsewhere as it is gathered for export. Removal of biomass can be productive and it can also help, as with better management of trees, with reducing the spread of fire, but it also serves a function in soil regeneration, so it needs its own specific management.

If anything good has come as a result of the fire, it will be that a comprehensive plan will be put in place. But it can't just kept on being put back. It is long, long overdue.

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