Co-authored with Dr. Dominick DellaSala
What makes a forest a forest? This simple question becomes much more complicated, depending on who you ask. Thankfully, Dr. Dominick DellaSala, President and Chief Scientist of the Geos Institute, helps us explore this question and settle the debate in a chapter on “Fake” vs “Real” forests that will be published in The World’s Biomes, scheduled to be released in 2020. Topics that will be explored include:
- If a tree grows in a forest, does that make it a forest?
- Does planting trees compensate for cutting down a forest?
- Can we truly see a forest for more than just the trees?
Industry classifies forests as “an area at minimum 120 ft wide, 1 acre minimum wide, with at least 10% forest cover.” Does that sound like a forest to you?
The US Forest Service is an arm of the USDA. The department of agriculture’s focus is growing crops. Stated plainly, that means the Forest Service sees trees as crops. This typically means tree plantations are planted in dense rows like corn to be thinned, sprayed with chemicals, and fertilized for the fastest growing cycle for logging and the highest “return on investment.”
To an ecologist, a forest is a place where the sum of the ecosystem parts is greater than the whole. In contrast to industry, the “goal” of a forest to an ecologist is to support and sustain life.
Natural forests have many species of trees, plants and herbs, insects, animals, fungi and microbes that rely on each other to survive. They provide the benefits we as humans rely on: fresh water, clean air, food, climate regulation, and habitat. They are our place to rest, experience the wonder of the natural world, and a place for recreation. Scientists refer to this as “ecological integrity.” And it’s simple – real forests have the highest integrity, whereas fake ones have none. Unfortunately, real forests are declining globally as fake forests replace them via an unmitigated, massive eco-engineering of the planet’s ecosystems, and this holds true in the United States.
Memories are not made in plantations. They are made by bird watching, hunting, playing a game of “tag” in real forests.
In the second half of the 20th century, the United States paid landowners to plant pine instead of allowing natural forests to regrow. We’ve lost 33 million acres of natural forest and increased pine plantations by 40 million acres in the US South. Now, we have more plantations and less true natural forests than ever before.
To Dr. DellaSala, real forests are superior to their fake counterparts in every aspect. They are complex structurally from the penthouse (forest canopy) to the basement (soils). Natural forests are connected by an Avatar-like sub-highway of root masses and fungal mats that transfer vital soil nutrients and moisture to the roots of trees. Their food-webs have interlocking strands that join squirrel to pine cone and squirrel to owl, deer to grass and deer to mountain lion, and slugs to rotten logs, and so on.
Real forests also are nature’s climate solutions, serving as enormous air filters and giant cooling towers, increasingly vital in a rapidly warming and drying world and for flood protection in a wetter one. They are the best “green infrastructure” we have. Given the climate crisis, we know that we need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere immediately and additionally sequester more carbon dioxide from the air. Where can we turn? Real, natural forests.
If we stop deforestation, protect and restore degraded forests, and expand natural forests, we could reduce annual emissions by 75% in the next 50 years.
If we also phase out fossil fuels, we can meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change. One thing is certain: we cannot solve the climate crisis without placing a premium on protection of natural forests while restoring and sustainably managing other forests. Forests are one of the best ways we have to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, especially older, complex forests, because each year they absorb carbon and store it in their roots, leaves, and wood.
Logging real forests and converting them to fake ones contributes more carbon dioxide pollution than any other source of emissions from forests. When we look closely at the data, logging accounts for 85% of emissions from US forests, more than 5x the emissions from fire, wind, insects, and tree mortality combined. Even more, planting trees or entombing wood in buildings does not compensate for carbon held by real forests for centuries.
Plantation forests, aka “fake” forests, are prone to intense forest fires, are climate polluters, and are biologically impoverished ecosystems.
At the end of the day, forests are more than wood. If we continue to grow plantations instead of forests, we will lose out on all that natural forests provide. Standing forests are our best defense against climate change. Forests support us in ways that we cannot live without. But currently, our economic and political system favors forest destruction over forest protection. Together, we can make a change.