Man holding large bunch of foliage.Deforestation and the need for sustainable forest management techniques take their roots in earliest human development. Dainis Dauksta presents a brief history from axe and lightning to high-tech solutions bred in Silicon Valley.

Observation of natural traumatic events such as lightning strikes causing forest fires taught early hominids[1] to use fire as their principal landscape management tool. Fire created nutrient-rich openings growing fresh grasses, attracting grazing animals for hunting. Thunder Gods in many cultures are linked to fertility and many hold a lightning rod. The Christian God stole the thunder from earlier Thunder Gods such as Baal of Palmyra, Zeus, Perkons, Taranis, Jupiter. Thunder Gods such as Baal of Palmyra are often depicted carrying an axe[2].

Fire and axe – early tools of forest management

The handaxe is the oldest tool known to man and was in continuous use for 1 million years. It was used to fell trees (in a similar manner to beavers) and to shape wood[3]. Anthropogenic[4] use of fire to create openings in forests or large open savannas has been practised for up to 1.5 million years according to some authors[5].

Historic causes of deforestation

Humans are programmed to manipulate and use forest landscapes. Societal and cultural development across the globe is directly linked to deforestation. Historical production of ceramics, glass, bronze, and iron all needed huge quantities of timber. Humans still burn nearly 2 billion m3 of wood every year, half of the annual harvest.

Construction of Ancient Rome caused deforestation through the Middle East, down to Northern Africa and west to Spain. Some academics argue that timber shortages caused early collapse of civilisations[6]. The growth of Venice is directly linked to deforestation of the Terrafirma[7].

The ‘Norman yoke’ and the emergence of forest law

The Normans’ delineation and reforestation of royal hunting zones in Britain contributed to the notion of the Norman yoke. Some of the first forest laws written to prevent assarting[8] of forests can be interpreted as the oppression of Anglo Saxon masses by Norman occupiers. Some authors argue that the folk memory of the Norman yoke bleeds into present British perceptions of bounded forests owned by contemporary elites e.g. Forestry Commission and landed gentry.

The ‘Czarist yoke’ and the need for charcoal

Charcoal-smelted iron was still imported to Britain from Sweden and the Russian Urals after the Derby family’s coke-smelting method had been widely taken up across Shropshire and parts of Wales. Thus deforestation and serf ironworkers in Russia aided development of industrial Britain and reinforced the Czarist yoke. It is argued that the surviving coppice oak forests of Wales were informally protected as industrial resources driven by a lingering need for charcoal[9].

European settlers and the making of the USA

European settlers deforested northern America to create agricultural land and build early settlements. San Francisco and Chicago were first built in timber from natural forests. Whilst redwood forests were amongst the principal resources for the development of industrial USA, the remaining redwood groves are now regarded as sacrosanct. The same is true of the remaining old growth Douglas fir forests of Washington and Oregon. John Muir made his reputation by creating the concept of ‘’national parks’’ where selected species became national treasures; native Americans were excluded from national parks. Historical/political views of forests are widely explored in S. Schama’s Landscape & Memory.

The British love of tea and deforestation across India

The importation and mass consumption of Indian-grown tea in Britain before the widespread adoption of steam propulsion depended on fast merchant ships called clippers which were built of teak. Unlike oak (celebrated in the Royal Navy anthem Heart of Oak), teak is unaffected by contact with iron. Very efficient fast smooth hulls could be built using teak planking fixed onto a light iron frame. However, unhindered British laissez-faire exploitation of Indian and Burmese teak forests led to major shortages of this strategic shipbuilding material.

Historic roots of sustainable forest management

The political reaction to teak deforestation led to botanist Dietrich Brandis being appointed in 1864 as first Inspector General of Forests in India. His scientific protocols for regular mensuration of teak plantation forests became the basis for modern sustainable forest management techniques.

Tea shipment from Indian tea plantations drove teak deforestation which then drove reforestation with managed teak plantations. Brandis’s teachings were taken up by the first head of the US Forest Service Gifford Pinchot who called him ‘’the chief figure of the forest movement in the world’’. British colonial management of deforestation in India and Burma became what is now called sustainable forest management (SFM)[10].

Modern sustainable forest management, science and regulation

Enforcement of forest regulations depends on political stability and the logging of teak in Myanmar continues to be a political concern.

Scientific SFM has been transformed by technology. Palo Alto means tall stick and is the name given to the city founded by entrepreneur Leland Stanford in the area now called Silicon Valley. The referenced tall stick is a coastal redwood tree which still grows by the railroad track. This species is of special interest for rainy temperate zones because it is the most efficient temperate tree species for sequestrating and storing carbon in its biomass and the soil on which it grows[11].

Two photos of the same tall spindly tree next to a railway track. One showing thick black smoke from a steam train.
Decades of smoke pollution caused the the crown of the coastal redwood, that Pala Alto takes its name from, to start dying back so the locals installed a sprinkler system onto the tree and it has recovered. Resilience.

State of the art plant breeding techniques using CRISPR gene editing[12] could transform this ancient resilient redwood species into a modern industrial plantation species. Many people have an affinity with redwood stands which are often called groves. This semantic association with the sacred grove can be used to promote new redwood plantation forests.

Silicon Valley – the breeding ground for future forestry?

Silicon Valley innovations are now being used to transform sustainable forest management globally. From valve through transistor to IC, PC and IT, Palo Alto innovation is at the heart of SFM techniques which encompass global positioning (GPS), light imaging detection and ranging (LIDAR), and photogrammetry.

Technologies embedded in consumer products such digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras and mobile phones can now record enough data to be used in constructing digital 3D models of individual trees or forest stands. With the high resolution satellite imagery available now it is possible to track legal and illegal forest interventions in real time. Mobile phones are used to capture images and location of pests and pathogens to inform forest services. This allows fast responses to potential biohazards or epidemics. Free mobile phone apps are now available for tree and sample plot mensuration[13]. Sunnyvale based Trimble Inc. have integrated various Silicon Valley technologies and many forest-owning bodies use their products[14].

Integration of these technologies enables foresters to build precise virtual models of forests and output specific data such as growth rates or yield class (YC). This data can then be used for carbon accounting in forest biomass. Forest plans and interventions can be managed, tracked and digitally certificated from forests to processors.

A brave new world awaits.


[2] O.A. Zolotnikova The Storm-God with a Battle-Axe on the Early 1st Millennium BC Reliefs from Eastern Anatolia/ Northern Syria.




[6] R. Meiggs Trees and Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean World

[7] K. R. Appuhn A Forest on the Sea


[9] William Linnard Welsh Woods and Forests

[10] Raymond L. Bryant; The Politics of Forest Management in Colonial Burma





A very brief history of deforestation and forest management