Healthy Forests Take More than Planting Trees
Conservationists should plant more trees, but that’s not the whole story. America’s forests must be resilient to survive wildfires and invading forest pests in a changing climate.

We’ve read in the media that one of the reasons we’re seeing so many wildfires is that the forests, particularly in the western US, have been mismanaged by government agencies (such as the U.S. Forest Service), for political reasons (”You cannot burn my woods!”), lack of money (Congress being stupid, as usual) and lack of scientific input. It’s a relief to read about forest management research and learn that the solutions are not so dramatic, and might even benefit a generally pissed-off industry (logging, timber).


Our remaining forests face great challenges like massive wildfires and invasive forest pests. Managing for this array of threats in a changing climate is complicated. Forest managers are researching strategies that can keep forests resilient under multiple stressors so that they can continue to provide habitat for wildlife, clean air, clean water, carbon storage, and, yes, timber far into the future.

Looking at satellite images and historical aerial photos of old-growth forests for reference, researchers found that forests were made up of a mosaic of individual trees, clumps, and openings (ICO). Working with dry fire prone forests, researchers quantified the average number of individual trees, clumps, and the area of openings statistically likely to be found over one hectare in a given climate. These natural references provide guideposts for the “ICO” (individuals – clumps – openings) approach to determining which trees to remove and which trees to leave during ecological restoration thinning projects.

The need for this type of ecological restoration thinning in the dry forests of western North America is great. For example, across eastern Oregon and Washington, a study led by Ryan Haugo of the Nature Conservancy in Washington found that 41% of forests in the region are currently too dense compared to reference conditions and would benefit from the removal of some trees by fire or mechanical means, including logging.

Example of how landscape scale forest restoration needs are determined by comparing the present day relative abundance of different successional classes to natural reference conditions. This example depicts the Dry Douglas-fir forests from a single watershed within the interior Pacific Northwest Forest. Illustrations adapted with permission (Van Pelt, 2008).


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