Debunking the Myths of Deforestation
When an average person today sees images of a recent timber harvest, it’s quite possible they may have a negative reaction to it. Fueled by stories of “greedy timber companies” destroying vast swaths of rain-forests, many people start to associate any tree cutting with ruining the environment. But there are some very big differences between deforestation and scientifically-based forest management. Given the decline of young forest stands in North America and the effect that it is having on many wildlife species, we hope to clear up some of those misconceptions below.
Examples of Deforestation
To start, what does true deforestation look like? Deforestation refers to the permanent removal of a forest stand (that’s why it’s called DE-forestation). This process usually involves clear-cutting and burning trees, bulldozing stumps to remove them, and then conversion of that area to another land use. Some common reasons for this conversion around the world include agriculture (e.g., livestock grazing, crop fields, etc.) or human development.
Much of eastern North America was deforested at one point or another, and it’s hard to find truly virgin, old-growth forests today. European settlers often cleared large chunks of forest to create agricultural lands, and used the high quality timber to build America’s first large cities. Many areas have since been restored to forests, while some remain converted for farming, residential/urban uses, or industrial areas. In the U.S. today, forests are still cleared for these uses, but most true deforestation occurs in tropical regions – often in low-income areas or countries without strict environmental enforcement in place. Most causes for deforestation in tropical regions (such as the Amazon rainforest) are for creating oil palm plantations, expanding cattle grazing operations, or growing soybeans for animal feed (Carvalho et al. 2019).
Working forests, on the other hand, refer to forests that are actively managed using the best available science, without permanent conversion to another land use. Often, these forests are put into a harvest rotation and allowed to regenerate until they are mature again (decades later). Educated and trained foresters use specific silvicultural management practices to create a healthy and diverse forest community. Common forest management prescriptions might include clear-cutting, selective cutting or thinning, which depend on the specific use of the timber present. For example, aspen and birch communities are best regenerated by clear-cutting to produce a vigorous, dense young stand. Meanwhile, large oaks harvested for saw logs or veneer might best be selectively harvested from a forest stand without harming other future crop trees.
Importantly, forest management practices in America are bound by many laws that minimize environmental impacts. By following best management practices (BMPs) – such as erosion control measures, seasonal harvesting timelines to reduce soil disturbance, etc. – foresters and loggers maintain the soil structure as much as possible. Other BMPs may also be developed on a case-by-case basis to address specific concerns about impacts to wildlife or recreational values.
Common Concerns Associated with Deforestation
There are several arguments used by those who are concerned about deforestation, although these are often unfairly applied to any timber harvest. Irresponsible logging practices can certainly have terrible and long-lasting effects on the environment. But scientifically-based management mitigates or removes these impacts. I reached out to Perry Seitzinger, Consulting Forester in Indiana, to discuss some of the common criticisms that foresters must address.
“Logging spreads/promotes invasive species”
Without BMPs, this can be true. But as an example from Seitzinger, Indiana state parks are off-limits to logging, and still have terrible invasive species problems. If we don’t manage for and remove invasive species, they can take over native forests and upset the values that most people are concerned about, including wildlife, aesthetics, etc.
“Logging threatens water quality”
Any activity that disturbs the soil near water sources could potentially affect water quality due to erosion, siltation, or nutrient runoff. That’s why responsible foresters use BMPs to limit erosion. Some common practices include not disturbing stream/waterbody banks, leaving buffers/filter strips around them, and revegetating skid trails and landings to stabilize soils.
“Logging endangers mature-forest wildlife”
It’s true that many species are dependent on older forests for habitat, and many others (like ruffed grouse) utilize mature forests at some point in the year. Logging does temporarily displace wildlife, but it can also provide immediate benefits (e.g., browse for deer, woody debris for reptiles and small mammals, brush piles for nesting and denning). Even if we were to leave mature forests alone, they would eventually become over-mature and cause a decline for these wildlife species. In the meantime, young forest-dependent wildlife species suffer when the landscape is focused on producing mature forests. The Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment is a long-term study looking at the effects of forest management to answer some of these important questions. Research so far may indicate that traditional “old forest species” such as owls, migratory warblers, and bats also utilize early successional habitats at some point.
“Logging is ugly and affects recreational users”
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While most people love the look of old park-like trees, those who love wildlife may also love the sight of young regenerating forests for its many benefits. Managing for a mix of forest ages and types should appeal to both parties.
“Logging worsens the effects of climate change”
This is an increasingly debated issue. It’s important to realize that a tree essentially binds (sequesters) carbon in its tissue, and this is only released when it is burnt or rots. It is not suddenly released to the atmosphere simply from being cut. However, harvesting does remove the trees that were there capturing carbon. Seitzinger mentioned that older forests are estimated to capture more total carbon, but young healthy forests store carbon faster. Having a range of age classes would theoretically capture the most carbon.
Diversity is the Solution
Letting nature take its course might seem like an appealing idea, but it usually doesn’t work in today’s world. Invasive species, diseases, and removal of natural disturbances (i.e., wildfires) have crippled the ability of many forest ecosystems to remain healthy without assistance. Classifying all timber harvests as “deforestation” only further spreads misinformation about this topic. Restricting forest management activities ensures that more forests will degrade over time and more wildlife species will decline (as we are currently seeing with ruffed grouse in Indiana, for example).
Diversification provides a measure of safety against the uncertainty of the future. Managing forests for a diverse range of age classes and structural elements helps us meet the needs for more wildlife species and people/user groups. But first, we need to educate the general public on what deforestation is and is not.