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Book Review 231: The Great Black Dragon Fire

March 31, 2012 - Harry Eagar
I was not planning to review Salisbury's "Great Black Dragon Fire" at RtO. I review perhaps half the books I read, and this one is forgotten and out of print.

However, it has its relevance to the issue of allocation of resources that RtO has been following the last few days. Also, recent events cast new light on what Salisbury saw and expected in 1989-90. So here it is:

THE GREAT BLACK DRAGON FIRE: A Chinese Inferno, by Harrison Salisbury. 180 pages, illustrated. Little, Brown

Twenty-five years ago, a gigantic fire destroyed the larch forests either side of the Black Dragon River (usually known in English as the Amur) in Siberia and Manchuria. In later years, big fires in Southeast Asia got plenty of attention, with reports aided by easy-to-obtain satellite pictures.

Just 25 years ago, the world was much different. More than 90% of the Black Dragon fire was in the USSR, and despite glasnost, next to nothing was reported about it, and no reporters got in. China, though, provided a lot of coverage to its people, and later one western reporter with a lot of experience in China, Harrison Salisbury, was given wide opportunities to visit the fire region and talk to the people who lived there.

Salisbury grew up in Minnesota logging country and found that the story affected him emotionally more than any other he had covered. Also, that frontier logging towns in China and Minnesota are more alike than they are different.

He cited outside silviculturalists as rating the fire as “an act of violence akin to nuclear war.” That is way over the top; for one thing, only a few hundred people died. But despite his emotional involvement, Salisbury kept his reporter's hat on straight and produced not just a story about the fire, but a critique of the Chinese reporting of it.

For a country with no experience in news reporting, they did a pretty fair job of it, although not without some failings.

There are a number of lessons here. One is the difference between the Russian and the Chinese approaches. The Russians made no effort to fight the fire, on the theory that they wouldn't need to harvest that area for a hundred years, and by then the valuable lumber trees would be back.

Maybe. The North American experience has been different. A much smaller fire in Minnesota (only a million acres) 90 years ago has not seen the forest come back; the area, said Salisbury, is still scrub and weeds.

The Chinese were worried that the first succession species, aspen, would not be naturally succeeded by valuable larch.

In 1990, the Chinese government was making plans to assist the recovery of commercially valuable trees. Salisbury was pessimistic about their chances.

Had he been able to foretell the turn of China toward market-oriented policies, he probably would have been even more pessimistic.

Whether actual replanting and silviculture would have worked remains a question. What happened, though, was that for-profit scamsters torpedoed the replantings.

In the past year, a bearish analyst based in Canada, going by the name Muddy Waters, exposed the fact that millions of acres supposedly replanted in both northeast and southwest China (the only parts of the country with significant natural forests) were not planted at all.

Among the suckers caught in this plot were John Paulson, the famous bear who made a billion off the collapse of the American mortgage lending business.

It is unclear exactly what was going on, but just this last week, the so-called reforestation venture filed for bankruptcy, so it doesn't look good.


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