by Jack Turner
Spring 2001

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.

If you don't like allergy-producing GE corn and grotesque 550 pound Chinook salmon, you really won't like transgenic trees. All the problems with the former are accentuated in the latter. Transgenic trees will grow for decades or longer, not just a season. Scientists find themselves wrestling with the horns of a serious biological and ethical dilemma: either to create sterile trees or genetically engineered pollen producers. Pollen isn't just a threat to the next field: pine pollen, for instance, can travel 400 miles and jeopardize wild ancestor trees in national forests, wilderness areas and national parks. But if the trees are engineered to be sterile, what will happen to all the creatures in the food chain that depend on pollen and seeds? Would thousands or millions of acres of sterile trees push insect populations into nearby wilderness and parks? No one knows. But neither option works for wilderness. Transgenic trees are entirely new species, and their role and interactions within a forest are unknown. This makes them a threat to the zillions of wild beings, the microbes, fungi, insects, beetles, butterflies, moths, birds, other trees, grasses - the list is long - and their infinitely complex interconnections with the rest of the forest ecosystem. What would be the long-term effects on soils, bird migration and aerial plankton? No one has a clue.

The party line is that somehow we will overcome all these obstacles, sort of like we overcame all the problems with nuclear energy.

Other equally disturbing factors haunt this issue. One concern is the broad distribution of transgenic trees - they exist also in Europe, Chile, New Zealand, Indonesia, Israel and China. These countries' regulatory institutions may be even less stringent than those in the U.S., or practically nonexistent.

A second concern is the secrecy surrounding transgenic trees. A recent article in the Washington Post discussed the APHIS application form to obtain U.S. Government approval of genetically modified organisms. According to the article, the description of the gene being transferred and its source species can be answered with the acronym "CBI": classified business information. This lack of disclosure eliminates public scrutiny of the process. Like nuclear energy, we are told to place our trust in experts.

Third, the outfit that is going to regulate international trade in transgenic trees and is the final arbiter on the issue is the World Trade Organization. Though not a democratically elected body, the WTO already has a chokehold on international environmental ethics. Surely the WTO will exercise the same nefarious skill in the management of the transgenic tree trade that it has used to mandate the exploitation and economic dependence of developing countries the world over.

The future of the world's forests is too important to be left in the hands of so-called experts intent on corporate profit. And the possibility, however remote, that we would lose the self-willed complexity of wild forest ecosystems is unacceptable. On this issue all lovers of forests, wildness, wilderness and national parks must draw a hard, clear line: no frankenforests.

About the Author

Jack Turner taught philosophy at the University of Illinois before making the upward career move to mountain guide. Jack is currently guiding for the Exum School of Mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park. He is the author of a collection of essays, The Abstract Wild, and a memoir, Teewinot: A Year in the Teton Range.