by Jack Turner
My first view of wilderness was, ironically, from a road. I had just crossed Lolo Pass on Route 12 in northern Idaho, heading west, following the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. Before me stretched a seemingly endless array of green ridges, overlapping like the shingles of a roof. At the bottom was the Lochsa River, the most beautiful in the Rockies. Along the river was a dense, primeval forest ecosystem, fecund, chaotic and the home of zillions of wild critters.
It is easy to forget that Europe and North America were once covered by such forests. One of the roots of our word "wilderness" is wald, the German word for forest. Most of those forests are gone now, and what remains is subject to continuous exploitation as our need for wood products increases - a 300 percent increase in the past 25 years. It is a need that generates 400 billion dollars a year in business. Some say that unless we do something we will run out of wood pulp by 2010.
One drastic "solution" is being pushed hard by big corporations: plantations of genetically altered trees. The corporations are the ones you would expect - Alberta Pacific, Boise Cascade, Fort James, Georgia Pacific, International Paper, Nippon Paper, Potlatch, Westvaco and Weyerhaueser - in addition to unexpected ones like Shell and Toyota. Plus, of course, Monsanto, numerous universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy. They all believe that the only way to meet future demands for forest products is by planting forests of genetically altered, or transgenic, trees. Furthermore, some believe that plantations of cloned transgenic trees, genetically optimized to soak up CO2 from the atmosphere, will help reduce greenhouse gases and hence alleviate global warming.
A transgenic tree has had one or more sections of its DNA modified to cause a particular trait or traits. This is being done with both fruit trees and forest species, not only plum, cherry and grapefruit, but aspen, eucalyptus, cottonwood and various species of pine. The government agency in charge of approving the modifications, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), has already given the nod to over 130 outdoor tests. The first plantations could be only five years away.
The kinds of changes produced in genetically altered trees are similar to those produced by genetic engineering in agriculture and aquaculture: faster growth, herbicide tolerance, built-in pesticides and tolerance of harsh environments - all of which translate into profits. Some modifications, like decreased lignin content (to reduce the cost of pulp production), are specific to trees.