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Keep Carbon in the Forests

Clearcuts. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A new report by Friends of the Clearwater documents that 18,000 Idaho roadless acres and 22,000 roadless acres in Montana were logged while presumably protected under the roadless rule. While commercial logging is illegal, there is a loophole that permits logging for “forest health.”

However, where the U.S. Forest Service sees a “health” problem, ecologists such as myself see healthy ecosystems. Forest Service policies are dominated by the industrial forestry paradigm that considers anything that kills tree-except chainsaws — as a problem. Wildfire, bark beetles, root rot, disease, drought, and other natural mortality factors are indicative of functioning forest ecosystems.

Just as wolves or cougars might remove susceptible elk from a herd which in the long run improves the herd’s health; natural tree mortality ultimately creates healthy and resilient forest ecosystems.

The irony is that logging for “forest health” has tremendous negative impacts on the overall function and health of forest ecosystems. Logging roads are a significant vector for the spread of weeds and sediment that clogs streams. Logging fragments forests and removes the biomass (i.e., trees) that are critical wildlife habitat for many species from woodpeckers to native bees. Logging activities disturb and sometimes displace sensitive wildlife like grizzly bears and elk.

Worse for the long-term health of our forest ecosystems, logging indiscriminately removes trees. All forest stands have genetic variability. For example, some trees are more resistant to drought or bark beetles. Some trees grow better under cold temperatures while others are adapted to heat. Logging has been shown to reduce the genetic diversity of our forests, thus reducing the “resilience” of forest ecosystems.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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