Why We Should Stop Clearcutting — Particularly Old Growth — and Embrace Forest Ecology

Most people hold the misconception that trees are a 100% renewable resource. What’s the problem with clearcutting them? They’ll just grow back, no? It’s like cutting grass…Mow it down and it comes back thicker and healthier. That simple. No. Not that simple. Not that at all.

This perspective is a gross and dangerous oversimplification. Forests are not just a collection of trees. This perspective does not consider or understand that: 

  1. Trees are not the same as forests.While loggers myopically see forests as a collection of trees to fell for timber, an ecologist/forester sees beyond the trees of a forest to a vibrant community and a functional ecosystem with complex processes and interactions that reach way beyond the forest. Studies have proven that forest plantations—particularly when planted as monoculture, without use of native tree species, and poorly managed—create less functional forests with lower biodiversity that are less valuable for indigenous flora and fauna as well as providing far less carbon storage. They are also more prone to disease.
  2. Trees take decades even centuries to grow backinto the contributing members of a functional forest. They also require a biodiverse support network to achieve optimum functionality. Second growth forests that grow from clear cut disturbance and poor forest management or planting are often less efficient at carbon sequestering or other ecological functions they normally perform; they are also more vulnerable to wildfire, disease, and drought—all exacerbated by climate change.   
  3. Functional forests play a pivotal role in maintaining global health and stabilitysuch as climate, and the water and nutrient cycles. Climate change may, in fact, be a more direct result of massive deforestation than scientists are admitting. At the very least, current deforestation is clearly exacerbating climate change. 
Old yellow birch roots covered with moss in Jackson Creek old growth forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Trees are Not the Same as Forests

“A tree is not a forest,” writes Peter Wohlleben, in The Hidden Life of Trees. “On its own a tree cannot establish a consistent climate. It is at the mercy of the wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity.” It is the overall effect, created by a collection of individuals, that creates an environment that promotes individual success. This includes so much more than the trees themselves. This includes the mosses, the fungi, the soil and litter, decaying organic matter, undergrowth, insects and other life that together contribute and maintain a functional ecosystem.

Forest carpet of devil’s club, ferns, and mosses help maintain moisture and habitat, Revelstoke National Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees,” argues Suzanne Simard, forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia. “They are complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees to allow them to communicate, and provide avenues for feedback and adaptation. This makes the forest resilient through many hub trees and overlapping networks.”

Friend Margaret looks up at Western red cedar in old growth forest at Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In her book The Global Forest, Diana Beresford Kroeger tells us that “a functioning forest is a complex form of life. It is interconnected by its own flora and driven by the mammals, the amphibians and insects in it. It is kept in place by fungi, algae, lichens, bacteria, viruses, and bacteriophages. The primogenitors of the forests are trees. They communicate by carbon-coded calls and mass-market themselves by infrasound. The atmosphere links forests into the heavens and the great oceans. The human family is both caught and held in that web of life.”

Ancient cedar in foreground along Giant Cedar Boardwalk of Mount Revelstoke National Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

UBC researcher Suzanne Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of research, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest. This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism in constant feedback, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root). These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia in a “cooperative system.” Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest. 

Ancient western red cedar in old growth forest, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Nursery log in old growth forest of Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Yale Environment writes: “Experts agree: reforestating our planet is one of the great ecological challenges of the 21stcentury. It is essential to meeting climate targets, the only route to heading off the extinction crisis, and almost certainly the best way of maintaining the planet’s rainfall. It could also boost the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of inhabitants of former forest lands.”

Old growth forest that has been clearcut (photo by Ancient Forest Alliance)

Forest Plantations Are NOT Functional Forest Ecosystems

The danger of oversimplifying a forest as a collection of trees is that the key role of biodiversity in maintaining a healthy forest is not considered. A fully functional forest relies on high biodiversity of types and ages of organisms to maintain its many functions.  This entails a diverse collection of different groups of species and genera, all interacting in a web of giving and taking.

Fully functional forest ecosystems with healthy corridors for forest life develops through natural succession in a continual cycle of creative-destruction. This cycle is something we cannot afford to tamper with through simplification. The complex web of interactions involved are beyond our current comprehension. We are only now beginning to appreciate the many ways the forest communicates with itself and other aspects of the planet, both animate and inanimate. Through frequency, chemicals, fungal networks, aerosols, water vapour and atmospheric rivers.

Mushrooms and moss growing on nursery log in old growth forest, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“The words ‘old growth’ suggest a Tolkienesque grove where every tree is a behemoth. But in reality, each stage of life is represented, from seedling to skyscraper. These forests are not simply original; they are complete,” writes Harley Rustad in The Walrus. A fallen cedar trunk can remain mostly intact for a century, slowly decomposing. Such a ‘nurse log’ provides extensive opportunities for seedlings to take root and a great complexity of life—invertebrates, fungi, birds, small mammals—to flourish.

moss, fungi and young cedars growing on fallen decaying cedar log, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Forest Ecosystems Contribute to Other Ecosystems

Katsuhiko Matsunaga, a marine chemist at the Hokkaido University, discovered that “leaves falling into streams and rivers leach acids into the ocean that stimulate the growth of plankton, the first and foremost building block in the food chain.” There are more fish because of the forest. Higher yields of fish and oysters resulted from increased leaf litter. Since the 1980s, stream ecologists have stressed the importance of allochthonous (from outside) input of fine and coarse particulate organic material in providing energy and nutrients to all life in the stream.

Research by scientists has revealed an intriguing and important relationship among the bears, rivers, trees, microbes and salmon: the bears depend on the salmon as a source of food, on the river to deliver the salmon, and the trees to provide cover; the salmon rely on the river to transport them to where they need to spawn, on a good tree canopy to keep the river cool for healthy egg production, and a predator (the bear) to cull the weaker fish to ensure a healthy future stock; the trees—and their associated microbes—benefit from the bears and the salmon for delivering the fertilizer for their healthy growth and, in turn, provide a supportive environment for the bear, the river and the salmon. Unsurprisingly, tree sugars ebbed and owed with the salmon run.  

Moss-covered western red cedar, old growth forest in Revelstoke National Forest, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Healthy Forests, Healthy Planet

“Not only are [old-growth] forests more efficient at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere than smaller second-growth trees, they also present one of the few environments in the world where large carnivores (wolves, mountain lions, and bears) and ungulates (deer and elk) exist alongside some of the biggest trees. The Douglas firs in particular play a key role, transferring nutrients from their great heights to smaller saplings below through mycorrhizal fungi that link together the roots of various species in an underground network,” writes Rustad.

To fulfill these crucial roles in ecosystem integrity and ultimately planetary integrity, forests need to remain intact. Intact portions of the forest also need to remain connected. Corridors for wildlife and other biological processes need to exist to retain functionality and resilience.

Forest ecologists know this. Even practicing foresters and forest managers know this. So, why aren’t they practicing it?

Man standing on cut ancient red cedar tree in new clearcut, BC (photo by T.J. Watt, Ancient Forest Alliance)

Simard and others demonstrated that hub or mother trees act as nodes to nurture hundreds of their young saplings and send their excess carbon through the mycorrhizal network to the understory seedlings. This strongly suggests the need for an intact forest with hub trees to maintain forest integrity.

Many forest ecologists are already telling us about the behaviour of the forest and how forests need to be managed for their longevity; governments and forest companies just need to listen and act.

Forest companies—and the government forest ministries along with them—have for decades pursued a strictly cultivate-harvest mentality—with little regard for or understanding of ecological functionality—and resilience—of the forest–despite knowledge shared with them by forest ecologists in academia. Forest companies from pioneer days to the present, have treated the forest as “renewable stands of timber” without recognizing that a forest is a community of various living and non-living things that grow, die and regenerate—as a community.

Recent clearcut in Schmidt Creek, BC (photo by Mark Worthing, Ancient Forest Alliance)

Living things don’t just “renew” automatically. A “renewable resource” must be understood in its functional context.

This is something forest companies appear not to understand or care about. The apparent view is that a renewable resource—such as trees—will just grow back. This simply isn’t so. Once disturbed, trees—and their supportive community—won’t simply grow back; nor will they be as resilient to disease and fire. This is exactly what is happening now in Canada’s boreal and sub-boreal forests. And, while climate change has certainly exacerbated the situation, it is due to our mismanagement.

In 2014, the World Resources Institute reported that Canada in the past decade has had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country worldwide. Not Brazil! “It’s 3.6 percent per year—four times the rate that is sustainable,” said Simard in her a recent TED talk. She warned that massive disturbance at this scale can affect hydrological cycles, degrade wildlife habitat, and emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—creating more disturbance and more tree diebacks.

Woman stands on recently cut western red cedar in Nahmint Valley, BC (photo by Ancient Forest Alliance)

Alluding to current short-sighted forestry management, Simard warns that the planting of one or two commercial species at the expense of the aspens and birches decreases needed complexity in the forest; such practice makes the forest vulnerable to infections and bugs. And wildfires. As climate warms, “this is creating a perfect storm,” says Simard.

The massive mountain pine beetle outbreak that swept across North America and the wildfires currently devastating Alberta and British Columbia are good examples of the consequence of human disturbance (e.g., myopic harvest-based management).

The Trees for the Forest:

The giant ancient cedars, Douglas firs and spruces may grow back; but what takes five minutes to bring down with a chainsaw takes hundreds of years to grow into what it provides for the overall forest. A tree isn’t just a tree; it is part of a forest network.

When we reduce the complexities of Nature into single “manageable” components—trees, water, wetlands—we guarantee mismanagement and destruction. It is like reducing the Mona Lisa into her pigments and strokes without appreciating the synergy of love and context to appreciate the beauty.

We can’t afford to think of the forest as simply a group of trees to provide a short-term utilitarian need such as timber, pulp, etc. They do so much more: such as helping circulate water globally and helping to cool and stabilize climate. But they need to be a forest to do them. A functional forest. What we ultimately require is a responsible government to implement protection for entire old growth forest ecosystems with adequate buffers—not just the protection of this or that giant tree.

The author stands in front of a cherished giant red cedar tree whose worn bark shows much love (photo by Anne Voute)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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