Thinking like a Forest

I recently went on a Forest Service tour with a collaborative which demonstrated how ignorance and industrial forestry paradigms dominate most forest management activities, including the mindset of so-called environmental representatives on these collaboratives.
Among the things we discussed was what to do about mistletoe. Mistletoe is a tree parasite that is common in forests throughout the West. Mistletoe forms big clumps in tree branches that looks something like a large bird nest. Trees with mistletoe can have many clumps scattered throughout their branches.
The seeds for mistletoe are scattered when they ripen and explode sending spores into the surrounding trees.
In general, foresters see mistletoe as a “problem.” Although it can kill a tree, it usually just slows tree growth. Among the tour members, the Forest Service and all the collaborative members were convinced we needed to “thin” the forest to reduce the number of mistletoe “infected” trees.
It never occurred to this forester that mistletoe could do the thinning and do better at picking the evolutionary winners and losers than a forester with a paint gun. The irony never occurred to him that he advocated killing the trees by logging them, so they would not be killed by mistletoe. That’s somewhat like saying there’s too many deer, so we need to kill some, or they might die from wolves.
After the Forest Service forester finish his spiel on why we needed to thin the forest to improve its “resiliency” to mistletoe, I raised my hand, and asked the group “what is the ecological value of mistletoe”?
I got some confused stances and silence. Apparently, so immersed in the Industrial Forestry Paradigm, no one, including the so-called “environmentalists” had considered that mistletoe might have some ecological value to the forest ecosystem.
So, I suggested a few things about mistletoe that might be of potential value to the forest. First, mistletoe seeds are commonly eaten by many bird species. In fact, in early German mistletoe was known as “dung on a twig” referring to the perchance for birds to consume the seeds and scattered their droppings around to form new mistletoe plants. The clumps are used as nest sites by raptors and squirrels and others seeking hiding places among the boughs.
Even when the clumps fall to the ground, they provide cover for many insects. One study found 37 percent more insect-eating birds in areas with mistletoe than areas without.
In addition, trees which grow slowly have denser wood. As a result, these trees, when they die, have a longer life as “down wood” on the forest floor. Their contribution as biological legacy and for carbon storage is enhanced by mistletoe.
None of these concepts had occurred to the group before, and even after I mentioned, none of the group endorsed the idea of leaving trees with mistletoe alone. To all, including the “environmentalists” who are so immersed in the Industrial Forestry Paradigm, the mistletoe was just a forest pest and needed to be reduced, if not eliminated.
I thought about Aldo Leopold’s admonishment in his book Sand County Almanac. Leopold was a forester with the Forest Service who went on to the University of Wisconsin where he started the first wildlife biology program in the country. Leopold wrote: “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it? … To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
The “problem” I see in most forest ecosystems is not too many wildfires, too many bark beetles or mistletoe but a hubris among participants who believe they know enough about forests to prescribe any management at all.
The fact that no one in my tour group even wondered “what role does mistletoe play in the ecosystem” is emblematic of the problem in our efforts to “fix” the forest. The real threat to our forest ecosystems is not natural ecological processes like mistletoe or bark beetles, but of our inability to think like a forest ecosystem, and appreciate that there is a role for everything whether we understand it or not.



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  1. Thomas Belfield Avatar
    Thomas Belfield

    Excellent. I worked for the USFS as a botanist and spent a lot of time trying to explain these very things.

  2. BobMc Avatar

    I often challenge people to open the back of their TV sets, and cut some small component from the circuitry–preferably one that they don’t what it does, but it’s small and therefore insignificant. I also suggest they might go trophy hunting, seeing if they can’t find something really big to take. For some reason, they always reply that doing either would ruin their TV. I ask why that is any different than removing things from the environment when we don’t know what they do.

    The most important part in any system is the part that is missing or broken.

    1. Bob Aegerter Avatar
      Bob Aegerter

      Thank you, Bob.

    2. Mary Ann High Avatar
      Mary Ann High

      Fantastic analogy Bob.

  3. Ted Chu Avatar
    Ted Chu

    Excellent piece.

  4. Mary Ann High Avatar
    Mary Ann High

    Precisely George. I just learned some amazing things about mistletoe- thank you. Nothing better than seeing the maligned innocent, vindicated. So good you were there to share that truth. There is no excuse for this pervasive, industrial mindset. The science is there. So of course it is not a lack of information. As a former FS wildlife biologist, I do know there is an impenetrable wall up against this kind of rational thinking. Anything that could possibly affect the volume short-term is shot down, and rarely is there support from leadership to do anything different. Until we stop allowing industry to run the government based solely on their bottom line, I don’t see a way forward. We have to wrest our democracy back in order to revive sanity on this front, and all other aspects of our existence. Sooner the better. Thanks for a great, insightful piece, as always.

  5. Scott Slocum Avatar

    I’m not a devotee of the “Industrial Forestry Paradigm,” but I think its value in industrial forests hasn’t been fully represented here. The direct goal of thinning an industrial forest is to produce a better yield of lumber. One way to do that is by “reducing the number of mistletoe ‘infected’ trees.” There’s no industrial goal “to kill the trees by logging them, so they won’t be killed by mistletoe.”

    1. Patrick Avatar

      I don’t think the idea here was that this was industrial forest, rather it was national forest that these folks felt needed thinning to remove trees that were “infected” or “infested”, as if national forest should be subjected to commercial “industrial” forestry paradigms. I think George’s point was that these “infestations” represented natural processes that were served ecological purposes that the forest products-centric folks failed to consider.

      1. Scott Slocum Avatar

        Yes, and it seems that what we have here is a disagreement about whether a given forest should be managed for timber or for a wild ecosystem. When someone says “National Forest,” I don’t think “wild ecosystem.”

        1. Patrick Avatar

          I suspect we don’t disagree that much on principle, but perhaps on the extent to which we manage national forest for forest products to the exclusion of other interests. I don’t have a problem with selective logging and high grading practices, but believe some percentage of snags, trees with mistletoe in this case, and old growth should be allowed to stand. Furthermore, logging should be restricted along stream buffers and in highly erodible/slide-prone areas to maintain water quality and fisheries. National forests to me are working forests that serve multiple uses, not just timber production.

  6. MK Ray Avatar
    MK Ray

    I read a study once about the increased number of birds where mistletoe is present. They increase the dispersal of seeds and young tree recruitment of the host trees too.

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “In addition, trees which grow slowly have denser wood. As a result, these trees, when they die, have a longer life as “down wood” on the forest floor. Their contribution as biological legacy and for carbon storage is enhanced by mistletoe.”

    “Slow” is not a word that is approved of our modern world, even if it does provide a benefit! Profits cannot wait. The forests can take care of themselves, and everything works together. What an informative article, thanks!

  8. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    Thanks for another great essay, George. The natural world can “manage” itself just fine without our interference.

  9. Yvette Avatar

    I’ve not thought of mistletoe in a long time since I’ve not seen it in a long time. It use to grow on the American elm trees in the yard where I use to live. Those trees are gone. Now I’m wondering why doesn’t misletoe grow on the native oak trees in my current yard.

    I’m glad George was there to stimulate creative thinking.

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      As an adjunct, I’d be curious if anyone has the same positive opinion of poison ivy as they do of mistletoe. If I find it in the yard, I leave it (cause I’m not bothered by it, and many birds love it) but others hate it with a passion.

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        I’m not sure. I’ve got something that looks like it, but I haven’t had any reaction to it. It’s pretty fast growing, but for now seems to be not so bad.

        You’re right Yvette, this really was a creative post. I’m not sure if we have mistletoe around here where I am, not the European mistletoe, maybe North American though? I’ll have to look when I have the chance.

      2. rork Avatar

        I remove poison ivy from my place only if I am trying to grow something else there, like flowers, and I stop it from using some young valuable trees. It is locally abundant (in MI), and should be obvious to any outdoors person in my area, so there’s no danger. Don’t crush them and get the juices on you and most people will be OK.
        We have a new vine, Asiatic bitter-sweet, that is far more frightening.

        1. Ida Lupine Avatar
          Ida Lupine

          How about porcelain berry? I’ve never seen anything more beautiful, but it’s an invasive too. Asiatic bittersweet too.

          I’m lucky never to have gotten poison ivy, but I did like a dummy touch this vine to see, but did not have a reaction at all. I usually avoid anything that even looks like poison ivy when I am hiking.

  10. MTConservationist Avatar

    George Wuerthner, you accusing anyone of hubris, let alone professional foresters and pragmatic conservationists, is a laughable example of the pot calling the kettle black.

    You have your uncompromising views, and to your credit you’re able to articulate them well. But how about considering that we don’t live in your ideal zero-sum world, and other views may also be practical or beneficial even if they don’t meet your standard for ideological purity.

    Keep ranting your black and white dogma when it comes to every Western environmental issue. Fortunately, many of us are rolling up our sleeves getting actual conservation work done within today’s complex social and political realities.

  11. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It’s far, far from an ideal world. Well, no one can say I don’t roll up my sleeves and do my part either.

    I don’t worry about things like mistletoe and downed and dead trees, I pick up the trash others leave behind, either as part of an organized group, or on my own when it just becomes intolerable. What is safe to pick up without catching a disease, that is – plastic coffee cups, Styrofoam cups, beer cans, soda cans, etc.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner