Everyone says they want healthy forests. It’s easy for a politician to stand on stage and declare that we want “healthy forests” and have both conservationists and the logging industry nodding along in agreement. However, the words “healthy forest” can mean entirely different things to different people, differences that can easily be distilled as who can see the forest for the trees.
For example, when the College of Forestry at Oregon State University was evaluating the old-growth trees they eventually cut in the McDonald-Dunn research forest, they pointed out that the tops of some of the trees were developing irregularities. This, the College of Forestry’s Acting Dean claimed, was a sign of deteriorating health in that stand of trees.Industrial logging companies see forest health based on how much money can be generated from a plot. They define a healthy forest as one with no dead or dying trees, little diversity in species, and as many trees as possible. In the forester’s ideal plot, there is no natural mortality. Every tree that dies is chosen by the forester and killed by a logger. Every square foot taken up by a hardwood tree, shrub, snag or downed wood, or large old-growth tree with a forked top, is growing space that isn’t being used to grow a tall and straight Douglas fir tree that will be cut at 35-50 years of age and turned into laminate or 2x4s. It really isn’t a focus on a “healthy forest” at all, but on board-feet.
But it isn’t. In fact, irregular forked tops or so-called “octopus trees” are quite common in old trees and forked trees can continue can live for hundreds of years. They provide incredibly important structure diversity and nesting habitat to birds like the spotted owl or small mammals like red tree voles. They are actually an important signifier of a healthy forest.
BUT, forked trees are not as valuable for wood products because they don’t make straight boards. As a result, the logging industry declares these perfectly healthy trees as a sign of an unhealthy forest.
Snags are another indicator of an actually healthy forest that the logging industry tries to demonize. To a timber company, snags are trees they can’t turn into profit, but for wildlife, they are some of the most important parts of the forest. These “critter condos” provide homes for fisher and bears, and food and shelter for woodpeckers. Downed trees nourish the soil, provide shelter for small animals, add complexity to waterways, and act as sponges that help regulate streamflows.
Conservationists and ecologists balk at industrial logging’s vision for healthy forests - monoculture plantations of straight, equally spaced trees designed to optimize board-feet. But this vision is focused only on the health of trees as individuals - trees that can be turned into straight boards and shareholder profit. It actually has little to do with the health of the forests as a whole, and does not include the other values like a diversity of plants and animals, quality of the soil, and ecological function.
So when you hear someone trot out that we need “healthy forests,” take note. Everyone wants healthy forests. Not everyone knows what that means.