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Taming Trees: Capital, Science, and Nature in Pacific Slope Tree Improvement

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This article traces the emergence of industrial tree improvement along the Pacific Slope of western Oregon and Washington. Anxieties about timber famine in the United States prompted research on forest genetics and Douglas-fir provenance as far back as 1913, while diminishing supplies of old-growth timber resources in this region led to tree improvement—systematic tree breeding to enhance commercially attractive characteristics—on an industrial scale beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout, tree improvement has been characterized by a preponderance of co-operation among private, otherwise competitive capitalist firms, with considerable support from state agencies and from science in both research and applied settings. Pacific Slope tree improvement is explored as a case study of the social production of nature by capital and science, particularly the ways in which, in response to natural-resource constraints, the reproductive biology of forest trees has been increasingly targeted, appropriated, and subsumed as a source of industrial productivity. The general absence of exclusively private, proprietary approaches to tree improvement is discussed as a reflection of a set of particular biophysical challenges, including the “problem” of biological time. Thus, while biophysical nature is increasingly socially produced through tree improvement, the social organization of tree improvement bears the inscription of biophysical nature. The article closes with an examination of one of the main avenues by which biotechnology—including genetic engineering—is being incorporated into tree improvement. The new technological possibilities and opportunities for establishing exclusive property rights over plant varieties that biotechnology entails may lead to a more complete model of commodification in tree improvement. Some evidence of such change is already apparent. Though forestry biotechnology is subject to regulatory and wider social sanction, its advent reinforces a main theme in the article: that social and environmental change are interlocking, dialectical processes.

Keywords: Douglas fir region; industrial tree improvement; social production of nature

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: September 1, 2003


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