My Turn: Public forests and public welfare

Published: 10/18/2020 2:58:29 PM

The recent My Turn by Ms. Kate Landroos Conlin entitled “Our forests: Denying science kills species” demands a response. I certainly agree that denying science threatens biodiversity. I find her specific claims, however, to be largely unfounded and based on out-dated science still circulating in the forestry community. I also agree that “Ignoring the needs of the natural world is the very reason why we are in a climate crisis to begin with,” but I must object to the claim that more logging is the way to meet those needs.

Ms. Landroos Conlin argues that those of us who favor preserving our public forests to help mitigate the intertwined emergencies of catastrophic climate change and mass extinction do so for self-serving “aesthetic” reasons or in pursuit of some imaginary notion of what is “wild” or “natural.” She goes on to suggest that we constitute a “dangerous movement” blinded by racism and science denial. Oh, my! Such accusations can only feed the rancorous tribalism that drives us apart in these tortured times when, more than ever, we should be coming together to respond effectively to the growing list of fundamental threats to our civilization.

Setting such mud-slinging aside, let us focus on the science. Like Ms. Landroos Conlin, I believe that a “science-based understanding of natural systems” should guide forest policy in such a way “that promotes diversity and makes sure that the woods are alive and vibrant.” Even though we appear to agree on fundamentals, we arrive at very different positions. We preservationists maintain that available science favors the view that the best management of our public forests is very little or no management at all, and that no other policy provides so much benefit to public welfare at so little cost. On the other hand, Ms. Landroos Conlin and most of the forestry community argue that “active management,” i.e. continued logging, is the only way to preserve critical components of forest ecosystems and mitigate a variety of negative impacts. Whereas we argue that nature knows best, they argue that foresters know better.

There can no longer be any serious doubt, even among foresters, that the way to maximize carbon capture and storage in forests is to leave them alone. Recent peer-reviewed science has shown that trees continue to capture and store carbon over their entire lifetimes and do so at increasing rates as they age. Moreover, we now know that whole forests in our region store ever more carbon the older they get.

Logging increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a major cause of global warming. Not only is there a short-term burst of emissions from combustion and decay, but there is also a long-term loss of carbon storage potential because of the additional carbon that would have been sequestered had the forest been left alone.

These are facts. They are not in dispute, but they have yet to widely inform forestry practice. Not one of the three agencies responsible for logging on public land report the consequences of their activities for CO2 in the atmosphere.

Here in Massachusetts, forests were long ago and are now once again the dominant habitat, and it is incumbent on us to ensure that they long prosper. To this end, the single most important thing for us to do is to protect them from human exploitation. As things now stand, hardly any of our forests enjoy permanent protection guaranteed by law.

We must enlarge our vision of biodiversity protection beyond a focus on individual species struggling to survive to encompass the protection of whole ecosystems in all their exuberant plenitude. That is how we preserve all the “cogs and wheels” that keep ecosystems humming along. The notion that forest preservation represents a mortal threat to biodiversity is simply ludicrous. Intact forests provide rich reservoirs of biodiversity, supporting more biological variety than any other terrestrial ecosystem. They should be the centerpiece of our efforts to protect biodiversity, not an afterthought.

The people of Massachusetts deserve public forests that best serve their welfare, broadly defined to include the ecological services upon which we all depend. As we strive to achieve this goal, science is essential to help us to understand the consequences of our actions. In the end, however, questions about our goals and values are best answered by open debate and democratic process. Let us proceed in this way, fully informed by the need to address the existential crises now before us.

Bill Stubblefield is a Ph.D. biologist and resident of Wendell.

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