Clean | Green | Sustainable

Wuerthner Praises the Dead (trees)

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 16, 2009

The folks at FSEEE (Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics) have just put out their spring issue of Forest Magazine, which contains an excellent article from ecologist George Wuerthner titled Let us Praise-and Keep-the Dead. Give it a read and let us know what you think.

Wuerthner writes:

“a new perspective is slowly taking root among forest managers, based on growing evidence that forest ecosystems have no waste or harvestable surplus. Rather, it seems that forests reinvest their biological capital back into the ecosystem, and removal of wood – whether dead or alive – can lead to biological impoverishment. Large stand-replacement blazes and major insect outbreaks may be the ecological analogue to the forest ecosystem as the hundred-year flood is to a river. Such natural events are critical to shaping ecosystem function and processes. Scientists are discovering that dead trees and downed wood play an important role in ecosystems by providing wildlife habitat, cycling nutrients, aiding plant regeneration, decreasing erosion and influencing drainage, soil moisture and carbon storage.”

Having followed forest issues closely for the past fifteen years, it’s always struck me as sort of funny that some people believe that once a tree dies in a forest the best thing to do is cut it down and haul it away. Didn’t these forests evolve with dead and dying trees for thousands of years? How about the wildlife? Do they use dead trees? You betchta.

According to the article, Richard Hutto, professor and director of the University of Montana’s Avian Science Center, has found that nearly fifty percent of all North American native bird species rely on snags for at least a portion of their life cycle.

Jim Andrews, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont who studies amphibians and reptiles in northeastern forests, makes sure the article doesn’t just offer a western bent:

“Foresters tend to look at the forest from the floor up. I have occasionally gone on field trips with them, and they were rather proud of how they had managed their forests, but the forest has nothing in it. There’s no cover. No places to find live critters. Standing snags, once they get big enough so that they have hollow centers—what foresters call ‘overmature’…are the places where wildlife resides. To a biologist you don’t have overmature trees—you have wildlife habitat.”

Dr. Chad Hanson, a University of California-Davis researcher, put it quite nicely with this quote:

“We are trapped by an outdated cultural idea that a healthy forest is one with nothing but green trees. An ecologically healthy forest has dead trees, broken tops and downed logs. Pound for pound, ton for ton, there is probably no more important habitat element in western conifer forests than large snags and large downed logs.”

The take home message? There’s life in dead trees.


2 Responses to “Wuerthner Praises the Dead (trees)”

  1. pj finn said

    Good post. I can’t help but wonder if we humans will learn to connect the dots, begin to fathom the interconnectedness of life, and death, on this planet before it’s too late.

  2. Crow said

    This is obvious. Of course forest ecosystems suffer when we remove trees, dead or alive. I can’t believe this is some new radical notion (of course it’s for folks like you and Wuerthner and other true ecologists).

    The natural cycle of life is majorly disrupted when you take massive amounts of biota out of an ecosystem. All of the nutrients and energy stored in that “dead” tree are forever lost when you hack it off and drag it away.

    Humans have a misplaced perception of so-called “dead” forests. When I see a forest full of trees that have been killed by beetles, I see a forest that will soon–in terms of forest time–benefit from a HUGE influx of nutrients when that forest burns, or when those trees finally begin to topple over and rot. That slow, natural process will return massive amounts of nutrients to the soil for new, healthier vegetation and wildlife to thrive on. Sure, it may not happen in the next 5, 10 or even 20 years, but it will probabaly happen in my lifetime. By the time my grand kids are around to enjoy those forests, there will be scarce evidence that a beetle “epidemic” ever “devastated” the forest. More likely that same forest will be filled with healthy, beetle resistant trees and maybe even a few species of plants and life that had disappeared during all those years of “active forest management.”

    People are afraid of the forests. Always have been. They’re afraid of the big bad wolves and bears that live in them. They’re afraid of the vast, empty spaces free from telephone lines and Wal-Martian conveniences and safety. They’re afraid of the fires that may threaten their ill-placed homes and they’re afraid of the beetles that ruin their green viewsheds.

    Not until our society begins to see ourselves as part OF, not apart FROM, the natural world will we realize the value in a forest is its natural health, not our false assumptions about how we can make it healthier by disrupting its natural cycle.

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