How does the Forest Service define forest health?

By George Wuerthner

The Forest Service justifies logging forests based on what it calls “forest health.” The agency claims logging will “restore” resiliency. But few ask what exactly constitutes a healthy forest ecosystem?

The agency defines forest health as a lack of tree mortality, mainly from wildfire, bark beetles, root rot, mistletoe, drought, and a host of other natural agents. To the Forest Service, such biological agents are “destructive,” but this demonstrates a complete failure to understand how forest ecosystems work.

This Industrial Forestry Paradigm espoused by the Forest Service views any mortality other than that resulting from a chainsaw as unacceptable.

This perspective is analogous to how fish and game agencies used to view the influence of natural predators like wolves and cougars on elk and deer. Over time biologists learned that culling of the less fit animals by predators enhanced the survival of the prey species.

Similarly, wildfire, bark beetles, and other natural sources of mortality enhance the long-term resilience of the forest ecosystem.

For example, the snag forests resulting from a high severity fire have the second-highest biodiversity found in forested landscapes. Large, high severity fires promote more birds, bees, butterflies, wildflowers, bats, fungi, small rodents, trout, grizzly bears, deer, elk, and moose.

Many species of wildlife and plants are so dependent on snags and down wood that they live in mortal “fear” of green forests. Some estimates suggest that as much as two-thirds of all wildlife species utilize dead trees at some point in their lifecycle.

Even worse for forest ecosystems, the Forest Service emphasizes chainsaw medicine to “fix” what they define incorrectly as a “health” problem. Chainsaw medicine ignores the long-lasting effects of logging on forest genetics.

Research has demonstrated that all trees vary in their genetic ability to adapt to various stress agents. Some lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine have a genetic resistance to bark beetles. Others are better adapted to deal with drought and so forth. Yet, a forester with a paint gun marking trees for logging has no idea which trees have such adaptive genetics.

A designated “unhealthy forest” by the US Forest Service, scheduled for clearance in the Stanislaus National Forest.
Photo by Richard Halsey.

Research has shown that thinning even 50% of a forest stand can remove half of the genetic diversity because it is the rare alleles that are important in the time of environmental stress. Perhaps one in a hundred trees may have a genetic ability to survive drought or slightly thicker bark that enables it to survive a fire.

There are numerous other known ecological impacts associated with logging that are either minimized, overlooked, or ignored by the Forest Service. For instance, one of the primary vectors for the spread of weeds into the forest ecosystem is logging roads. Logging roads are also a primary chronic source of sedimentation that degrades aquatic ecosystems. Logging removes carbon that would otherwise be stored on the site. Even burnt forests store far more carbon than a logged/thinned forest.

So when the Forest Service asserts it is logging the forest to enhance “forest health,” one must ask whose definition of forest health are they using? The timber industry? Or an ecological perspective? So far, the agency is more a handmaiden of the industry than a custodian of the public trust.

Originally appeared in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

The Schwinn – Therapy to Calm the Mind

“Be home for dinner.”

If you remember hearing your parents shouting this just before you flew out the door as a kid, there’s a fair chance that you’ll likely also remember what gave you the freedom to escape – your bike.

Sometimes with a box of stuff strapped on your book rack (for me, jars for bug collecting, BB gun, Snickers, a bottle of Nesbitt’s orange soda), you raced to meet your friends. Where you’d end up, no one really knew. You just rode – sometimes without hands, sometimes standing, always yelling, laughing, talking.

Freedom. Bike. Two of the same.

Although bikes have been around for a long time, there was a special time when they showed a couple generations the meaning of independence forged with an indestructible iron frame painted blue, red, green, or black with white pinstriping on the tubes, the front wheel fork, and fenders. Schwinn.

The only safety feature was a single, red reflector on the rear fender. And no helmet.

You didn’t come home early unless you’d taken a spill on the asphalt.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Fighting the Four Horsemen of Nature Suppression, and still having room to enjoy life and the beauty around me, has been a major challenge over the past 17 years. Daily email reminders, “Have you seen this!?,” of yet another destructive habitat clearance project by Cal Fire or the US Forest Service were slowly consuming my heart. After multiple attempts to deal with the abyss, I finally learned how to protect myself through my 7th Rehab experience.

One of the most effective therapies during rehab was, and remains, discovering a task that involves creating something with my hands, something that allows me to set an achievable goal, something that allows my mind to create new neural pathways to replace the well worn ones that descended straight into the abyss.

The task didn’t take long to reveal itself – the 1961 Schwinn Speedster bicycle my parents had given me when I was a kid.

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I offer this lifeline to all of you who care about Nature, understand the magic it holds, but feel overwhelmed by those who want to rip it all out. There’s hope. But first, some background.

You know the feeling when witnessing the destruction of habitat. Anger, frustration, helplessness. You stare into the abyss and it begins to stare right back, pulling you in, consuming you, darkening your heart.

We’ve all heard the encouraging platitudes. “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” “Behold the turtle; he only makes progress when sticking his neck out.” “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” That last one has never made much sense to me.

In the work I do – as many of us do – to protect other living things who share the earth with us, it is difficult at times not to be absorbed by the darkness and give up.

I’ve tried six times to look away, to give up the fight with the Four Horsemen of Nature Suppression – Burning, Mastication, Herbicide, and Hubris. The pain was just too great. But each time, I was pulled back in, tempted to take another sip by a devilish bartender, descending back into the inferno from which I sought escape. It was killing me.

Not anymore. I’ve finally found a successful rehab program, my seventh, to help me develop the skills, the temperament, to ignore the siren’s call when need be, smiling while turning away and enjoying the beauty of life that surrounds me everyday. The help I needed was all around me. I just didn’t see it. Although my recent counselors, Wren, Schwinn, and Marcus Aurelius, are local, the program they offer is available no matter where you live.

The basic foundation of the program is one the Stoics of Ancient Greece shared with the world long ago – we are responsible for our own sense of worth, we choose how we feel, and only the present moment is the relevant time period in our daily lives. Gnothi seauton, nothing new under the sun, and unconditional kindness fits in there too, but more on all that, and the counselors who helped me understand, later.

The wisdom learned: one can continue to care, to carry on the good fight, but that task must breathe only within a confined space, only when necessary, then locked away to prevent one’s heart from being enveloped by the darkness the task breeds. With the newly available mental space, new tasks emerge to quiet the mind. Gandhi spun cotton. Muir hiked. I began restoring my 1961 Schwinn bicycle, spent quiet hours discovering the lives of Roman emperors, and remembered how to listen to birds.

The male House Wren singing his song, securing his space.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The little Wren landed on top of the wooden bird house. He’d been singing nonstop in the upper reaches of the oak tree since I’d arrived. It’s been maybe five minutes.

He continued his singing – short bursts, a buzz, then a rapid series of similar notes. Between each short speech, he’d slightly reposition himself on the tiny roof. My camera caught him winking a few times. Then he’d fly off to another high perch, sing some more.

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