The Ecology and Management of Wood in World Rivers

Rivers and Wood: A Human Dimension

Geoff Petts and Robin Welcomme


Abstract.—Water and wood management are considered as the bases for early civilizations. Rivers were—and are—vital for civilizations, especially for irrigation but increasingly for urban and industrial water supplies, navigation, and power. Wood presents both benefits and hazards for human societies today as in the past. But the literature provides only sparse evidence to confirm human responses to wood in rivers. It is postulated that the removal of large wood from rivers dramatically affected fluvial systems and early societies; yet researchers of human anthropology and environmental change have generally overlooked these effects. From the Neolithic period onwards, the fear of dense, dark woodlands, the need for fuel, the hazards of flood and fire, and the need for rivers to be developed as routeways may explain the probable loss of wood from rivers. In Europe, this may have happened as early as 4,000 years ago. Today, except where a wilderness culture can be advanced, modern societies are still motivated by the same drive for a clean, tidy, and safe environment. Major institutions have shown little interest in the roles of wood in rivers, but opportunities for advancing a new understanding of these roles may arise through developing biodiversity protocols and restoration programs. If the issue of wood in streams and rivers is to expand from its present heartland in the northwestern United States, those responsible for resource programs in the various agencies need to be made more aware of the ecological significance in the management of their rivers and streams.