There’s an old cliche that one can’t see the forest for the trees.It is used to describe people who are so focused on some detail that they fail to see the big picture.Nowhere is this failure to see the forest for the trees more evident than the presumed need to thin forests to reduce so-called dangers and/or damage from wildfire and beetle outbreaks.
Contrary to popular opinion, we probably do not have enough dead trees in our forest ecosystems.
And this deficit is a serious problem because dead trees are critical to the long term productivity of forests, and perhaps more important to forest ecosystems than live trees.
Dead trees are not a “wasted” resource. It is questionable whether we can we remove substantial quantities of live or dead wood from the forest without serious long-term biological impoverishment to forest ecosystems.
An abundance of dead trees — rather than a sign of forest sickness, as commonly portrayed — demonstrates that the forest ecosystem is functioning well.Wildfires and beetles are the major ecological processes that recruit dead wood that is the foundation for healthy forest ecosystems.
Recent research points out the multiple ways that dead trees and downed wood are critical to the forest as well as wildlife.Approximately 45 percent of all bird species and two-thirds of all wildlife (mammals, amphibians, etc.) depend on dead trees and downed wood at some point in their lives.
Dead trees are very important for functioning aquatic ecosystems as well. At least half of the aquatic habitat in small- to medium-size streams comes from dead wood. In general, the more wood you have in the stream, the more fish, insects and other aquatic life.
Once a tree falls to the ground and gradually molders back into the soil, it provides home to many small insects and invertebrates that are the lifeblood of the forest. For instance, hundreds of species of ground-nesting bees make their homes in downed trees.These bees are major pollinators of flowers and flowering shrubs in the forest.
And it’s not just wildlife that depends on dead trees. A recent review of 1,200 lichen species found that 10 percent were only found on dead trees and many others prefer dead trees as their prime habitat.
Lichens, among other things, are important converters of atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen, important for plant growth.
Contrary to the popular opinion that beetles “destroy the forest” and fires “sterilize” the soils or create biological deserts, several recent studies have concluded that both beetle-killed forests and the burned forests that remain after stand-replacement wildfires have among the highest biodiversity of any habitat type.
Logging, thinning, biomass removal and other forest management creates unhealthy forest ecosystems by removal of dead wood and thwarting the natural agents that recruit dead wood into the ecosystem.
Beyond impoverishing the forest ecosystem, logging also degrades forest ecosystems by spreading weeds, compacting soil, altering waterflow, disturbing wildlife, creating new ORV trails, and increasing sedimentation, among other impacts.
In short, current efforts to thwart and limit beetle outbreaks and wildfires create “unhealthy forests.”
In fact, nearly everything that foresters do — from thinning forests to suppressing fires — degrades and impoverishes the forest ecosystem. Forest “management” is so focused on trees and wood products that it represents a critical failure to see the forest for the trees.