Forests or trees?

“What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine the fleet limbs of the antelope?” wrote the poet Robinson Jeffers.

Jeffers encapsulated the idea that evolutionary processes shape all plants and animals.  Unfortunately, far too many in the Forest Service and the collaboratives that work with them fail to understand this basic idea—a “healthy” forest is one with many sources of mortality. Chainsaws are no substitute for natural processes.

Recently on a collaborative/forest service field tour, participants were shown some fir trees with root rot. The group was told that the forest was “too dense” and thus the trees had become susceptible to root rot. The solution, of course, was to log (read kill) the fir trees so they would not succumb to root rot and die.

When I asked the collaborative members and agency personal assembled, “What was the ecological role of root rot in the ecosystem?”, I got perplexed blank stares.

It appeared that no one had ever considered such a question. Yet here they were anxious to log the forest based on the assumption that root rot killing trees was something to control or remove from the forest ecosystem.

Among the ecological values that root rot may provide to the forest ecosystem is a natural thinning of trees (unlike logging/thinning that lost money, root rot does this at no cost to taxpayers). Root rot selects for those trees less adapted to current and future climatic conditions, plus creates snags and dead wood that is critical to many wildlife species. The snags store carbon, and when trees fall over, they establish hummocky mounds that result in micro-sites for plants and animals.

The issue of root rot is a good example of where the FS and collaborative members fail to see the forest (ecosystem) through the trees.

Throughout the field trip, I was told the goal of logging was to “restore” forests so the trees would be “resilient” and less vulnerable to evolutionary processes like wildfire, drought, mistletoe, bark beetles, and root rot. But there is much more to a forest ecosystem than trees.

Whether implicitly acknowledged, the focus on trees represents an Industrial Forestry paradigm that views trees as fodder for wood products.

Just as wolves help to maintain healthy elk and deer herds, other evolutionarily processes like wildfire, bark beetles, mistletoe, and root rot maintain healthy forest ecosystems.

However, the Forest Service is focused on managing trees, not ecosystems. What they are doing is “restoring” the “structure”, not the evolutionary processes that have for millennia shaped and honed our forest ecosystems.

The way you build “resilience” into the forest is by protecting, preserving and enhancing the ecological and evolutionary processes that have created the forest. Nature is much better at selecting which trees should survive than a forester with a paint marking can.

Poetry can sometimes show us things we overlook. In the case of our forest ecosystems, maintaining ecological and evolutionary processes is the only way to preserve healthy forest ecosystems.




  1. Joseph Allen Avatar

    “But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” Leopold

    Another terrific post, George. I curse Pinchot virtually every day…

  2. Bob Zybach Avatar

    George: Welcome to Animal Farm. For most of my 70 years an “unhealthy forest” has been defined as one infested with bugs and diseases,making them unattractive and prime fodder for dangerous wildfires. Now, in 2018, you are defining a “healthy forest” as one in which “evolutionarily processes like wildfire, bark beetles, mistletoe, and root rot maintain healthy forest ecosystems.”

    What a load of misleading crap. I’m guessing that “healthy” human communities in your world are ones that don’t treat pneumonia, infections,or broken bones because these conditions are somehow “natural” and not to be trusted with a doctor’s care.

    To claim that “nature” is “much better” at selecting “which trees should survive” than a “forester with a paint gun” is just plain stupid. How about a tree leaning over a roof or highway? One that is on fire, threatening adjacent stands? So long as people live in wooden homes, use furniture and toilet paper, and heat their homes with wood, it will be necessary to select which trees are intended for harvest and why.

    Changing the language might work great in the media or even the courts, but this is an ongoing trend that most people with common sense and a dictionary aren’t buying into. “Healthy” as an actual definition and it is the antithesis of what you are stating.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Comparing ecosystem health and management to human health is a joke. Not even passive aggressive, overtly aggressive. Do you really think that in the last 70 years we haven’t learned anything? Don’t you think it’s deceptive that the FS is selling the idea of health as a way to log? Modern logging is anything but healthy. There are long term impacts like erosion from roads and wildlife displacement. Yes, we need wood, but can’t that be done honestly? Why do we need to log for toilet paper? Ever hear of recycling? And heating homes? Most are heated by other means. Wood for building is still a good use. Yes, we need to use the Earth, but wisely.

    2. Patrick Avatar

      i Would point out that over your lifetime, we have gone from suppressing wildfire, to accepting its role in ecosystem health. The post by George is no different in premise. The days where we viewed every cause of death of a tree as unnatural and needing human control measures to avoid deserves to be understood as outdated thinking. Such stresses foster adaptation and resilience. If you want to look at the human condition, diseases and environmental stresses have caused all manner of adaptive changes in our species.

      I suppose one could make a reasoned argument that catastrophic change that is human-induced, such as invasive species, ought to be controlled, but native and natural processes should be allowed to play themselves out. Everything else is just an excuse for industrialized forestry.

  3. snaildarter Avatar

    Logging damages the forest eco-system, no way to sugar coat it with arguments from the 1930’s.

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It really does sound like gardening instead of a complete ecological view.

  5. Isabel Cohen, Artist/Environmental Activist Avatar
    Isabel Cohen, Artist/Environmental Activist

    Ahhhh, trees! Trees are the lungs of the Earth and need to be left alone, especially forests of them. The Forest Service is famous for destroying not just trees, but millions of birds and animals at will every year! Why is it that we can do nothing to either rid ourselves of them altogether or at least make them stop killing off everything wild they can get their hands on???

  6. rork Avatar

    As a shroom hunter and student, I adore the spirits of rot.
    I rub elbows with lots of botanist and wildlife people in my DNR volunteering and criticizing hobbies. I help catalog flora (just plants) and soil/water/ecotype for mapping projects. The other people see the plants, and they see the animals. I see the fungi. The diversity visible in forests with little or no logging is massively more than logged places, and plantations are deserts (though there may be bushel baskets of just a few species of fungi thanks to the monoculture). When I’m looking for places to study, I review 1940’s areal photography – if there’s big forest then, and it hasn’t been logged since, there will be lots of organisms of the kind I am looking for.
    At least if it ever rains again.


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