Chris Balch of Wilton is a former NH state representative, a retired science teacher, an environmentalist and an activist.
The sign at Milford’s Tucker Brook Forest trailhead was laminated in plastic, printed on Milford Conservation Commission letterhead, and began, “ATTENTION HIKERS: A timbering operation, focused on management for the benefit of wildlife…”
The clear-cutting of town, federal and state forests has long been an accepted practice. The reasoning is that clear-cutting benefits wildlife in a manner similar to natural disturbances. Storms, fires, landslides, flooding and disease create areas where the forest is essentially destroyed and then begins to regrow. These naturally occurring areas are called “early successional,” and quickly grow shrubs that offer wildlife both food and cover.
Songbird populations may be positively affected by the creation of new habitats. Local populations of white-throated sparrows and the eastern towhee are said to be in decline, and therefore, the creation of habitat would provide needed resources to sustain their numbers.
This “benefit to wildlife” angle is how conservation commissions and state and federal forest services justify commercial timber sales in town, state and national forests across the country. Naturally, the timber industry adores this practice because it allows them to profit while claiming to be acting in the interests of conservation.
But, is there evidence that creating these areas of pseudo-catastrophe benefits all wildlife? Do they provide real benefits to the forest? Or do they mostly benefit those seeking to profit from the “harvesting of forest products?”
Clear-cutting and even patch-cutting forests is a very different practice than those used by mother nature. The removal of giga-tons of tree biomass from a forest is the removal of every nutrient that made up those trees. Natural catastrophes may dramatically change the state of the forest, but the nutrients that built the forest in the first place generally remain behind to begin a new cycle.
One of the critical nutrients to consider, especially during a climate crisis, is carbon.
Tuft’s University forest ecologist William Moomaw has extensively studied carbon cycling in forest settings and is convinced the best approach to managing forests is to let them manage themselves. We need to “leave forests alone, and their carbon uptake will skyrocket.”
He points out that older growth forests with large trees hold remarkable amounts of carbon. The results of a May 2018 study indicate that 50% or more of a forest’s total carbon is sequestered in the largest 1% of trees.
Leaving forest soils undisturbed also pays carbon benefits. Mature forests sequester more carbon in the ground than in the trees. This is due to leaf fall, blow-downs and branches that decompose to form soil that sequesters increasing amounts of carbon.
The results of a 2011 report in Forest Science magazine indicates that if protected from logging, New England forests would be capable of storing over three times the amount of carbon they currently do. Scientific institutions worldwide agree that 30% of our wild lands must be conserved to support carbon mitigation. Currently, fewer than 1% have been preserved.
But what about the white-throated sparrows and eastern towhees? What about wildlife?
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology collects population data on most North American bird species, including those birds identified as needing logging for habitat. The Lab reports their populations are stable, and that there are no populations currently in significant decline.
And the other species of wildlife? When the sign at Tucker Brook Town Forest states “management for the benefit of wildlife…” we have to wonder what the conservation commission’s definition of “wildlife” is.
Bird and mammal species account for fewer than 300 of the approximately 60,000 species that inhabit New England forests or about 0.5% of the total living community. Are we “managing” the entire forest community based on this small percentage?
A growing voice of conservation biologists propose that if forest harvests were subjected to environmental impact statements, with a net cost to benefit analysis, they would not be able to justify the true costs based on species loss and longer-term negative impacts on the forest and the environment.
The truth is clear. We do not manage forests with sound scientific practices. We manage them in a terribly short-sighted manner to satisfy human needs for forest products.