Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) often says the wrong thing at the wrong time and loses his temper — only to apologize later and try to put things right. However, this does not necessarily mean he is in the wrong when he explodes.
Ko blew up after the discovery last week of illegally logged cypress trees in an environmental protection zone in the Neihu District (內湖) and an illegal mountain road that had reportedly been built with city funds to transport the logs. District police allowed the logs to be shipped off the site after it was claimed that the logs were naturally occurring driftwood legally collected in Taitung County.
Ko said it was unbelievable that the lumber was “floating wood” (漂流木) that somehow “floated” from Taitung County to a Neihu mountainside.
Over the past week, the Neihu district administrator has been investigated and detained in connection with the scandal.
Ko’s way of handling these issues may be disputable, but he has highlighted the problems of illegal logging and floating wood. The illegal logging business is an issue that concerns everyone because it impacts the nation’s forests and natural environment.
How could it be that so many of the “wind-toppled trees” that end up as floating wood after being washed down mountains have no roots or branches? Why are the top and root ends of such trees so neat and even, and the trees just short enough to fit on a truck? Why is it that only precious cypress and camphor trees seem to end up being blown down or uprooted by wind and storms, and why is their bark almost completely intact despite their long and bumpy journeys down mountainsides and into rivers?
There is a lot of legitimate wind-toppled wood in forests because trees can be weakened by pests and internal rot. However, much of this wood naturally breaks up into smaller pieces.
Many hikers know that illegal loggers used to fell trees, cut them into pieces and then leave them lying in the forest until the bark disintegrated naturally before bringing the wood down the mountains. However, such practices were easily uncovered at mountain checkpoints, forcing the unscrupulous to devise new methods to disguise their trade.
“Floating wood” refers to wood felled naturally that floats outside of government-owned land. Collecting such wood from public forests or rivers is illegal, except in certain circumstances, such as after a typhoon — and even then residents have to wait one month to collect it. Otherwise Forestry Bureau personnel mark the wood for collection and sale by the government.
However, before Forestry Bureau staff have time to register the driftwood, illegal loggers grab it. A small amount of this so-called “driftwood” is intentionally left to be registered by the bureau, and according to the rules of the trade, it is bought by local loggers. Any additional costs are simply the fee for “legalizing” their illegal logging operations.
Illegal logging has a negative impact on forests. Mountainsides slowly erode as tree roots help keep soil in place. The loss of trees and soil means more water runs off and less is absorbed into the ground. Torrential rains erode the soil and cause landslides that silt up rivers.
Many will remember the photographs of piles of trees and branches that Typhoon Morakot washed off the mountains in Taitung County in 2009. The storm caused the largest amount of driftwood pile-ups ever seen in the Taitung area. While sales of the wood eventually enriched the government, the damage to the environment left the entire nation poorer.
It may begin with illegal loggers stealing trees, but such operations have a knock-on effect that harms the nation’s mountains, rivers, valleys and people. Anyone who understands the consequences of illegal logging is surely just as furious as Ko.
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