Conservation or Preservation?
Most regions across the U.S. are happily putting forested land into conservation and celebrating that they're mostly "already meeting Montreal 2022 Biodiversity Goals". If you recall, this was when the world pledged to put 30% of all lands and waters into conservation by 2030 in the hopes to halt the massive species die-off we're witnessing. Animal populations have dwindled by 69% over the last 50 years alone!
The word "conservation" sounds great but it is misleading: We need PRESERVATION for biodiversity and draw down- a natural state for ecosystems where forests are left untouched and unmanaged, but left to rewilding and nature recovery. This is also what the IPCC calls for. We have kept our forests artificially young over centuries of logging, and not tapped into the full potential for forests to maximize their draw down capabilities and accumulate carbon along their entire lifespan.
Forested land in conservation is managed land: it can be logged for profit, thinned for fire management, sprayed with poisons for invasive species, etc. Heavy forest management in fact has permeated an "edge effect" across our forests, keeping succession unnaturally young, increasing light, wind, erosion, opening forests up to invasive species, making them more susceptible to fires, and all around changing the ecosystem and habitats which interior forest-dwelling species (FIDS) need. As a result, we have created 'working forests' from most of our original ecosystems - these forests 'finance' their own management through timber. Working forests, same as tree farms, are regularly and systematically upended releasing enormous amounts of CO2 and destroying habitats of APEX species such as brown bears and wolves - in turn (in the Eastern US) we are overrun by deer and coyotes.
Carbon Draw-Down and Sinks
Since at least 2014, there is no doubt that trees do not slow in their growth rate as they get older and larger — instead, their growth keeps accelerating, according to a study published in the journal Nature because CO2 removal is based on mass and surface area. In this way, trees become carbon absorbing machines, cleaning our air ever faster, the older and larger they become. They also absorb carbon until the day they die so we must keep our trees alive as long as possible - that is how they can do the most good during the climate emergency.
Once the tree dies, it very slowly decomposes -sometimes over several hundreds of years, releasing the part of carbon it stored in its mass, and generating fertile soils. The majority of the carbon absorbed by a tree in a forest ecosystem however remains in the soils and the mycorrhizal fungi networks. Scientists have discovered that up to 70% of all human caused pollution is stored in the mycorrhizal fungi networks!
When we log a forest and remove the trees, we don't only remove the CO2 stored in the trees (wood) themselves; due to the symbiotic relationship between the tree roots and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), the AMF necessarily also die and release massive amounts of stored carbon back into the air. Therefore, logging has much more dire consequences for the environment than was previously thought. This is something that needs to be included in any carbon accounting to be accurate but is studiously being ignored. The forest product industry should focus on tree farms for timber. Tree farms are mostly monocrop cultures, which are already artificially grown, do nothing for biodiversity, little for air, water, or soils.
According to the UN Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) forests contain 60,000 different tree species, 80 percent of amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species, and 68 percent of the world's mammal species. Not to mention the uncountable insects and enormously important microbial activity, the fungi, lichens, and bacteria which are key in helping all ecosystems continue to remain healthy. Old growth (120/200 years +) are in their most structurally advanced stage and therefore generally have exceptional levels of biodiversity compared to logged forests. However, because of the timber value of older trees they are declining globally. The loss of old-growth forests is coupled with changes to the global climate, reducing opportunities for natural climate solutions. It is also coupled with the loss of biodiversity as the "edge effect" (see above) increases light, wind, erosion, invasive species, humans, and all around changing the ecosystem and habitats which interior forest-dwelling species (FIDS) such as bear and wolves need.
Today, it is more important than ever to let mature forests (80-100 + years) become old growth.
Let nature take over.
Read our latest Op Ed Here: Government officials need to do more to protect mature forests — and fight climate change:
Maryland Matters, 8/1/23 by the Climate Communications Coalition with: Sam Davis, PhD with the Dogwood Alliance (SC & NC) ; Zack Porter with Standing Trees (VT); Lea Sloan with the Sierra Club Grassroots Network Forests & Climate Team (MD); Julia B. Lowe with the Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter Conservation Committee (IN); Michael Kellett with RESTORE: The North Woods (ME); Sam Stearns with Friends of Bell Smith Springs (IL); Davis Mounger with Tennessee Heartwood (TN); and Lauren Kallmeyer with Kentucky Heartwood (KY).