Collective Ignorance of Ecosystems

Sanitied thinned stand on the Deschutes NF OregonA forest stand on the Deschutes NF which has been ecologically damaged by logging. Note the absence of tree age diversity, lack of dead wood and snags, and any shrub layer. This is what the Forest Service and Deschutes Collaborative calls a “healthy” forest. Ecologically speaking this is a human-caused disaster. (Photo by George Wuerthner)

A researcher in California is collecting seeds of sugar pine that appear to have resistant to bark beetles. Her goal is to capture and propagate trees that can withstand beetle attacks. According to the article, past logging of sugar pine has dramatically reduced the genetic diversity of the sugar pine population.

Loss of genetic diversity is one consequence of the Industrial Forestry Paradigm that dominates the timber industry and all public agencies from the state forestry agencies to the federal agencies like the Forest Service.

For example, on a recent field trip, the foresters in the group told us they were going to log some fir trees that had “root rot” as well as adjacent fir trees that “might” get the pathogen. No one in our group, which included several so-called “conservation groups”, questioned the starting assumption that it was desirable to eliminate root rot. When I asked the lead forester, why he felt it was necessary to log the trees, he responded by saying the trees were likely to die.

So I inquired further. “So, you want to kill the trees by logging, so they don’t die from root rot?” And then I went on and said: “Isn’t that kind of like our policy in Vietnam where we had to destroy the country to make sure the Communists didn’t destroy it?”

I followed up with “what is the ecological role of root rot in the forest ecosystem?” I got no response, just blank stares. No one had even considered that root rot might play any critical role in forests.

I do not know the role of root rot either, but I don’t just assume that removing trees with root rot “improves” the forest ecosystem. At the very least the dead trees would continue to store carbon, provide homes to countless forest animals and plants, and serve as functional components of the forest landscape.

The irony is that most of the current logging projects on public lands are justified in the name of “forest health” and “resilience.” Yet logging past and present is removing the genetically resistant trees from the forest.

One study reported in Conservation Biology sampled the genetic diversity of forest plots before thinning. Immediately after the logging project, the genetic diversity of trees in the plots was reexamined. The researchers found that approximately half of the natural genetic diversity had been removed by logging.

Importantly it was the rare genetic alleles that were eliminated. Maybe one tree in a hundred might have genetic resistant to say drought. Still, when you remove 50% of the trees from a stand, you are likely to eliminate that one tree that might provide survivors to repopulate the forest stand under adverse conditions.

One of the problems I’ve experienced in my limited participation in forest collaboratives is that no one is even asking the question of whether logging the forest harms it. The entire starting assumption is that logging creates “resilience” in our forest stands. Yet clearly, most foresters don’t even have the curiosity to ask about the genetic implications of logging, much less the answers.  And sadly, most of the so-called conservation groups that participate in these collaboratives are equally as unprepared to examine the starting assumptions.

Many ecologists adhere to the “precautionary principle,” which acknowledges our collective ignorance about how ecological systems work. The precautionary principle warns us to save all the parts, restrict our manipulations to as small an area as possible, and at the same time, create extensive conservation reserves where human intervention is minimal.

Nearly all forest collaboratives I’ve examined start out with the assumption that our forests are “unhealthy” due to normal ecological processes from bark beetles to wildfire. Then, like the old-time Snake Oil Salesman, they assume they have the one and universal cure for every malady real or imagined—logging.

A red flag goes up whenever I read or hear the Forest Service claiming that they are going to thin or log the forest to improve “forest health.” Abundant evidence exists to suggest that periodic mortality—even significant losses—from drought, disease, beetles, fire, and other evolutionary processes create “resilience” and “healthy forests.”

It’s time for our public agencies to acknowledge that the Industrial Forestry Paradigm is a threat to our forest ecosystems and to act with humility in the face of our collective ignorance.



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  1. Jonathan Tetherly Avatar
    Jonathan Tetherly

    Wildlife certainly can’t live in a forest like that, as there is no cover.

  2. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    I think this is one of Georges best articles.

    Logging is a treatment applied to forests to generate lumber not to heal the land vegetation complex. A tree that dies in the forest is as George says, not useless to the ecosystem- it is necessary. The forest really grows on the bodies of old trees that in times previous to modern silvaculture, were allowed to complete their life cycle. In doing so the ecosystem was made whole again. So many years of profit motive have produced a bureaucratic culture that now believes its own propaganda about logging. It is a must log system to please the hierarchy of the government/corporate cabal. No real ecological solution is considered acceptable.

    I see the BLM’s Coosbay office (not to be outdone by the USFS) has produced projects to kill oak trees using herbicides like glyphosate. This will supposedly stop the spread of “oak sudden death” disease. So again, the ‘cure’ must be sanctioned by the wizards of bureaucracy and made popular using double speak. Killing the forest is ‘saving it’ as ‘war is peace’. The lessons exposed by historians must be covered up and forgotten as well.

    Several hundred years ago, Germany and Denmark to name a few decided to grow only those trees that would be marketable in homogeneous age classes. In a ‘nutshell’ it did not work. The result was disease, soil loss, loss of diversity, siltation and lowered productivity. Then these countries were faced with trying to put the pieces back together again to restore the ecosystems that they destroyed at great cost.

    If the stupid, cowardly bureaucrats and arrogant business types were the only ones at risk I would not be so concerned- but this time around the entire planet is at risk and is dying a terrible death.

  3. idaursine Avatar

    Good God! And when GW asked a question and was met with blank stares….

  4. Dale Houston Avatar
    Dale Houston

    Very sad the role that the US Forestry plays in the integrity of the genetic is short sighted and does not consider the comprehensiveness of science.

  5. Rob Avatar

    Excellent article. As a retired wildlife Ecologist, I have thought this about the field of forestry ever since taking several classes in college. Unfortunately it is not only forestry that ignores ecology as it goes about its business impacting the planet, but many other environmental related fields. I’ve worked with several stream restoration projects where the focus was so much on the water that the plans called for removing all steep eroded banks and large debris from the stream. Paying no attention to the specialized nesting habitat for kingfishers and swallows the steep banks represent or even the value of large debris for aquatic life.
    An understanding of the basic ecology of any ecosystem in which work is to be done needs to be the foundation on which any work plan is developed. And to borrow a phrase from the Hippocratic oath – First do no harm.

  6. Nancy Avatar

    “Garrity said Friday that not only did he not receive an invitation, no one from what he called the environmental community got one either. And without that perspective, he says this week’s roundtable was simply an echo chamber.

    “It’s not going to be a good dialog unless they invite groups that oppose some logging by the Forest Service.”

    1. idaursine Avatar

      Wow. 🙁

  7. idaursine Avatar

    A different kind of destruction, but same basic reason. I had been reading a fictional mystery book of the area, and I thought what was the Lolo zone famous for (or infamous for) in my mind? Does anyone remember this, it reads so shockingly all these years later, and was done strictly to increase elk for hunters:

  8. idaursine Avatar

    Apparently they are still trying to bring back the elk herd there, and 8 years later, the answer is even more killing:

    “The Department says that in order to bring back more elk, that will mean killing bears, mountain lions and more wolves, along with large-scale habitat improvements.”

  9. Dale Houston Avatar
    Dale Houston

    US Forestry has elected to go with the greed of the lumber industry in lieu of sound environmental practices. Very, very sad

  10. False Progress Avatar

    I first saw Wuerthner’s writings in a 2008 article that accurately described the visceral impact of “clean, green” wind turbines, which also require a lot of clear-cutting for roads and tower pads. You’d think more environmentalists would notice but many blindly support anything “fighting fossil fuels” without studying context.


    That article could use a major update since the PTC greatly accelerated wind energy sprawl in the past 11 years. I’m baffled at all the eco-sellouts who support it, especially given wind’s lousy ERoI and intermittent output. You can save trees by putting it offshore, but the details of that are hardly a cure for its blight.


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