Posted by: chrismaser | October 28, 2009


The land surrounding a community’s urban-growth boundary gives the community its contextual setting, its ambiance, if you will. The wise acquisition of open spaces in the various components of the surrounding landscape, whether Nature’s ecosystem or culture’s, protects, to some extent at least, the uniqueness of a community’s setting and hence the uniqueness of the community itself. And the value added in the quality of community life, both spiritual and economic, will accrue as the years pass.


If a community is in a forest setting, the forest more likely than not is a major contributor to the community’s image of itself, in addition to which it may comprise an important water catchment. Furthermore, if the community is, or has been, a “timber town,” then most of the forest may well have been converted to economic tree farms; therefore, maintaining an area of native forest may be of even greater value. And if some old trees are included in the area, its spiritual value would most likely be heightened and its value as habitat for some plants and animals greatly enhanced.1 But what happens when a community loses its native forest? The forested areas around Puget Sound in western Washington State are illustrative.

The forests have been thinned so dramatically in decades past that “this land of towering evergreens is now relatively treeless.” Using satellite imagery, researchers from American Forests, one of the nation’s oldest conservation organizations, based in Washington, D.C., found that nearly one-third of the most heavily forested land around Puget Sound has disappeared since the early 1970s.

Satellite photographs from 1972, 1986, and 1996 and computer-mapping software were used to study a 700-square-mile area that stretched across King, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston, and Kitsap counties. Overall, the heavily forested areas, those where trees covered more than half of the land, fell from 49 percent of the region to 31 percent, a loss of about 600,000 acres. According to the study, places where trees covered 20% of the landscape or less grew simultaneously from 25 percent of the study area to 57 percent, an increase of more than one million deforested acres. Why? Because subdivisions, driven by growth in the human population around Seattle and other suburban cities, have gobbled up the available open-space, forested land.

“If people want to know why we are having so many more landslides, if people want to know why it seems to be getting hotter and why rainstorms are more intense, well, this [deforestation] is part of the answer,” according to Clement Hamilton, director of the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington in Seattle. But how do fewer trees make it rain harder?

Trees provide shade, which lowers the temperature of the air. As areas are deforested, they create a phenomenon called “heat islands,” where temperatures can increase 5 to 10 degrees or more. Then, because warm air holds more moisture, heavier rains are triggered when the warm, moisture-laden air rises and cools in the atmosphere, which increases precipitation in the form of storm water.

Forested areas typically slow water from storms and allow it to infiltrate deep into the soil instead of flowing overland or gushing into gutters, storm drains, and water treatment plants. According to the study, it would cost about $2.4 billion to build a storm-water system that would be equivalent to the one provided free by the trees lost from 1972 to 1996. In addition, those trees would have annually absorbed 35 million pounds of pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide. With loss of the trees, however, those pollutants, circulating freely in the air, translated into approximately $95 million in health-care costs and other social impacts.2

On the other hand, if what surrounds a community is no longer forest but rather an economic tree farm, a purchased area could be allowed to evolve once again toward a forest. As such, its aesthetic and spiritual values will increase, as will its potential educational value. Much can be learned by comparing a relatively sterile tree farm with a real forest One will find, for instance, that a forest harbors a far greater diversity of species of both plants and animals than does a tree farm, even one near the age of cutting.

I have used the forest as an example only because I grew up in one, but the same concepts can be applied ecosystems other than forests.


According to C.J. De Loach, “. . . the objective of agriculture is to encourage the growth of a foreign organism, a crop, at a high density and to suppress . . . organisms that might compete with it . . . .”3 Yet, it was not always so cut and dried, as noted by David Pimentel: “When man dug holes here and there and planted a few seeds for his food, ample diversity of species remained, but this resulted in small crop yields both because of competition from other plants [weeds] and because insects, birds, and mammals all took their share of the crop.”4

In modern agricultural practice in North America, however, large fields are often planted with a single species. This specialization has resulted from an ever-expanding centralized corporate power base, aided by technology in an increasingly mechanized society.

In the process of centralizing corporate power, a greatly simplified, and therefore increasingly fragile and labor/energy intensive, environment has been created through the following changes in the land:

1. Increased specialization of farms (growing fewer crops in larger fields) caused amalgamation of small, individual fields.

2. Increased size of individual farms due to specialized corporate farms replacing small, diversified family farms.

3. Increased use of modern machinery that is more easily and more economically operated in large single-species fields.

4. Increased clearing of fencerows to gain more land for agriculture, where one mile of fencerow may occupy one half acre.5

5. Increased use of large sprinkler irrigation systems that eliminate uncultivated irrigation ditches and their banks.

6. Replacement of many uncultivated earthen banks of irrigation ditches with concrete.

7. Constant human control of crops with fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, and rodenticides, or all four, if the desired production is to be forthcoming.

8.Addicting the soil to petrochemical fertilizers.

9. Federal aid to farmers through the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service for various types of land “reclamation.”

As these factors reduced the habitat for many species of wild plants and animals, they also increased the tendency for these same plants and animals, which now surrounded the croplands, to be perceived as exerting a constant, negative influence on production of the desired crop. When wild species, especially animals, use agricultural crops as habitat, they are normally termed “pests.” However, whether or not a species is a pest is a matter of perception based on some level of competitive tolerance, which wanes rapidly when money is concerned.

Small, diversified family farms were excellent habitat for wildlife. They provided increased structural diversity and therefore increased habitat diversity through a good mix of food, cover, water, and mini open spaces within surrounding, increasingly homogeneous, croplands.

The many small, irregular fields with a variety of crops created an abundance of structurally diverse edges, and tillage offered a variety of soil textures for burrowing animals. Uncultivated fencerows and ditch banks provided strips that not only acted as primary habitat for species, such as insectivorous songbirds and nectar corridors for pollinators but also provided travel lanes between fields for other species.

Replacement of small family farms by large ones, dependent on mechanization and specialized monocultures, caused a drastic decline in wildlife habitats within and adjacent to croplands. Because of the decreased crop stability—increased crop vulnerability—resulting from the greatly simplified “agricultural ecosystem,” farmers are more and more inclined to view wild or nonagricultural plants and animals as actual or potential “pests” to their crops.

In addition to stripping habitats from fencerows surrounding fields to maximize tillable soil and get rid of unwanted plants and animals, modern agriculture is killing the soil and poisoning the water with chemicals, which clearly is neither biologically nor culturally sustainable. How can such destructive agriculture be redeemed?

Meeting with the local farmers and discussing the kinds of produce that could be grown to make the community as self-sufficient as possible can redeem it. The economic viability of the remaining small, family farmers can be ensured by loyally purchasing their produce. Organically grown produce may cost a little more, but it is healthier, and organic farming heals the soil and does not add polluting chemicals to the water.

A community could purchase open space in the form of fencerows along which to allow fencerow habitat to recreate itself. Then, in addition to mini habitats in and of themselves, the few uncultivated yards could once again act as longitudinal corridors for the passage of wildlife from one area to another and nectar corridors for those insects that pollinate the crops. Living fencerows would also make the landscape more interesting, more appealing to the human eye, and add once again the songs of birds and the colors of flowers and leaves to the passing seasons.

The point is to find out what worked sustainably in the past, begin to recreate it in the present, and where problems arise, work together to resolve them. The only way to create, maintain, and pass forward the sense of community is by working together, because the friendliness of a community is founded on the quality of its interpersonal relationships, of which small, family farmers are an integral part.6

Related Posts:

• Why Be Concerned With The Building Blocks Of Sustainable Planning

• The Negotiability Of Constraints

• Feedback Loops

• Of Human Relationships And Social-Environmental Sustainability

• Grieving For Our Environmental/Social Losses

• Transportation—Efficiency Or Effectiveness, A Choice Of Focus

• Is Space A Resource?

• Open Space—A Biophysical And Cultural Necessity

• An Urgent Plea For Open Space

• Riparian Areas And Floodplains

• Restoration Of A Specific Condition Is Not Possible


  1. (1) Chris Maser. Sustainable Forestry: Philosophy, Science, And Economics. St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach, FL. (1994) 371 pp and (2) Chris Maser. Our Forest Legacy:  Today’s Decisions, Tomorrow’s Consequences. Maisonneuve Press, Washington, D.C. (2005) 255 pp.
  2. The preceding discussion of forests in the area of Puget Sound, Washington, is based on:  J. Martin Mcomber. Study shows Puget Sound forests are slowly thinning. The Associated Press. In: Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, Oregon. July 15, 1998.
  3. David Pimentel. Population control in crop systems:  Monocultures and plant spatial patterns. Proceedings Tall Timber Conference on Ecological Animal Control by Habitat Management. 2 (1971):209-220.
  4. N.W. Moore, M.D. Hooper, and B.N.K. Davis. Hedges I. Introduction and reconnaissance studies. Journal of Applied Ecology, 4 (1967):201-220.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The preceding discussion of modern agriculture and small, family farms is based on: (1) Chris Maser. Sustainable Community Development:  Principles and Concepts. St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach, FL. (1997) 257 pp. and (2) Chris Maser. Earth In Our Care:  Ecology, Economy, and Sustainability. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. (2009) 304 pp.

© Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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