Ongoing Projects — I'm not done yet

Recurrent Themes

Fixing Things

I’ve always admired people who try to find solutions to difficult problems. Two examples spring to mind: the vagabond tribes of tree planters who hope to mend the damage caused by disease, ravenous bugs, forest fires, and the logging industry; the second example is fisheries scientists who struggle to understand and who hope eventually to restore the world’s rivers and oceans to their former health and glory. For both groups the motivational question is: can we heal the self-inflicted wounds of the modern world? Some believe we can.

Johnny Appleseed

(CBC — The Journal — 1988)

On a drizzly day in September 1987, slogging through a sea of bleeding stumps on a clear-cut mountain slope in southern British Columbia, I met a tree planter named Dirk Brinkman. His backstory was that he graduated from a university in Ontario with a degree in philosophy and a desire to “do something positive.” Exactly what his mission in life would be was undefined at the start.

In the summer of 1970 Brinkman drifted west to British Columbia and decided that before buckling down to the serious business of life, he and a friend would build a sailboat from scratch and circumnavigate Vancouver Island. When they ran out of money, they bid on one of the province’s first contract tree-planting gigs thinking this might be a way to raise the cash they needed to finish the boat. Instead, the young philosopher Brinkman found his true calling.

In a documentary filmed for The Journal on CBC we dubbed him Canada’s Johnny Appleseed. It was 1988 and Brinkman crews were camped in clearcuts across Canada where they had tamped 37.5 million trees into the ground. Unlike unionized loggers who earned a healthy hourly wage, tree planters were paid only pennies per stem—a version of the Norma Rae story with spruce, pine and fir instead of sewing machines. At the time Canada had 20 million hectares of what the timber industry euphemistically referred to as “NSR”—land that had been logged or burned but “Not Sufficiently Restocked” with new trees.

Myopic governments at every level in both Canada and the United States had allowed things to slide for decades, had not compelled forest companies to replant the timber they cut on federal, state, or crown lands. Old guard company tycoons talked about “natural regeneration” but what they really meant was that since the land didn’t belong to them, it wasn’t their problem. If “the government” owned the land, it was the government’s problem to solve. Meaning it was our problem—all us taxpayers. Put another way: when it’s everybody’s job, it’s nobody’s job, the age-old tragedy of the commons.

After all those years of cut-and-run, the job of restoring the great north woods was gargantuan. The only thing government and industry seemed to agree about was that the necessary triage couldn’t be done with a conventional, unionized workforce. It was just too expensive. From a profit-and-loss point of view, it was all downside cost with no upside reward. Thus was born the modern tree-planting industry, roving bands of mostly young, very hard-working people who wanted to make a difference.

In March 1990 I followed Brinkman into the clearcuts again for an update, a story for Reader’s Digest entitled, “Crusade in the Woods.” By this time his company had eighteen crews (at peak season between 600 and a thousand women and men) working in four provinces. Many were university students hoping to earn enough in summer to pay tuition in the fall. Brinkman camps looked like a flashback to a movie about the Sixties, a replay of hippiedom’s greatest hits. With long-haired idealism, boundless energy, co-ed showers, and recognizable aromas floating on the breeze, these were the frontline troops in a campaign to replant North America’s ravaged wilderness.

There were plenty of problems for Dirk and his teams to solve. Such as learning what works and what doesn’t in the fine art of silviculture—the thinning, spacing, and weeding these vast new evergreen gardens they were planting. They discovered, for example, that some clearcuts were so huge the local climate had changed. In British Columbia in the 1980s loggers had been given a greenlight to slash hundreds of square miles of timber to stop a beetle infestation. Better to salvage at least some of the wood than to leave it as a vertical fuel supply for the next hellacious forest fire. Or so industry leaders and public officials thought at the time.

But when the loggers were done, the bare, stony ground was hotter and dryer than before. By the time the tree planters arrived, the conifer species that used to grow there could no longer survive a relentless sun. Without shade and the moisture retention of older trees to protect them, ninety percent of the newly planted seedlings perished. But when Dirk and others helped convince government foresters to switch species (from spruce to jack pine, if I recall), the survival rate flipped—from a 90 percent failure rate to 70 percent survival. A sterling example of muddy boot science in action.

Keeping crews healthy and happy was an ongoing challenge for Brinkman and his team leaders. They had to organize transportation and supplies for hundreds of tree planters in dozens of constantly moving wilderness encampments; they invented water filtration systems to prevent the energy-sapping scourge of “beaver fever” (giardiasis); they had to train and motivate rookies (known as “greeners”); they were continually reinventing and improving backpacks, shovels and other tree-planting tools; they mediated disputes with government inspectors who had to approve the quality of planting before the workers got paid. I knew there would be more chapters of this story in the days ahead and I just loved what Dirk and his tribe were doing. It was a wonderful thing to witness.

Phantom of the Ocean

(CBC — February 1997)

A decade after my first encounter with tree planters, I came across another story of people trying to fix something that was badly broken. It began as another mystery for muddy-boot scientists: what had caused the West Coast salmon fisheries to crash? And then—assuming research could pinpoint the cause—was there anything to do about it? David Welch and Dick Beamish were members of a science team at Canada’s federal fisheries laboratory on Vancouver Island trying to figure out whether climate change—a warming ocean—might be at least partly to blame.

Early data suggested salmon were intolerant of warmer water and that the North Pacific pasture they occupied was indeed heating up. But skeptics, several of them with PhDs in climate science, had by then sewn enough doubt in Ottawa, Washington, and elsewhere that dithering or wilfully blind politicians had something they could latch onto. If the jury is still out, they could rationalize doing nothing. Climate-change skeptics and deniers argued that even if the atmosphere was getting warmer, it wouldn’t be the disaster everyone feared. Thus nothing was done and the dithering continues.

One fact never in dispute, however, was that the fishery—the entire saltwater food chain—was already in deep trouble. Like cod in the Atlantic, salmon in the Pacific had suffered a series of massive population crashes. The die-off or disappearance of millions of salmon year after year was seen as a clear and present crisis—not some dark omen of the future. But after decades of study, the smartest scientists in the room still hadn’t figured out precisely why it was happening.

Was it global warming, overfishing, or hydroelectric dams? How much of the death toll could be blamed on habitat destruction, or on pollution? What about viral infections or fish farms? Perhaps all the above were to blame.

The most important question in my mind was: can anything be done to reverse the damage? The crux of the challenge was that fisheries are extremely difficult things to study; marine biology is a cold, wet science where reliable data is slippery and hard to grasp. In terms of research the level of difficulty and expense rises sharply when you move from studying freshwater lakes, streams and rivers to measuring temperatures, salinity and currents and the counting of fish and microscopic plankton in a vast and stormy ocean. The Pacific, like all of the world’s oceans, is a chilly black box of complexity with mysteries every bit as hard to unravel as earthquake geology, atmospheric chemistry, or the mind of a jihadi terrorist.

The good news is that researchers have crossed several important milestones recently and what they’ve discovered may lead to improvements in fishery survival rates. Welch, Beamish, and a host of others remain in hot pursuit of those phantoms of the ocean, the mysterious “unknown factors” that kill millions of migrating salmon one year and then—quite unexpectedly—allow a stunning bounty of fish to swim home only twelve months later. Any time Nature seems to be playing tricks, there are bound to be important clues hiding somewhere in the data.

Was the spectacular salmon return of 2010 a one-time event, or part of a new pattern? Was it triggered by the eruption of a volcano in Alaska in 2008? Or was there some other, completely unseen factor? Tiny embedded tracking devices have now followed young salmon on their downstream migrations to the sea with surprising and controversial results. It seems that more salmon die in salt water than in fresh. If that’s true, then we may have wasted a lot of money and effort trying to pump the ocean full of hatchery fish to compensate.

Meantime, out on the fringe of mainstream science, there are a determined few who believe the damage done to the ocean can be reversed—or at least mitigated. They think it’s possible to mimic the unintended side-effect of that Alaska volcano to fertilize the ocean and make it bloom so that all kinds of marine life (the plankton, the krill, the salmon and the cod) could make a sustained comeback. Which is why I’ve consider this an ongoing story. Mark it to be continued.