My Turn: Not wild and intact but wonderful and essential


Published: 7/8/2021 2:53:30 PM

A recent My Turn stresses the importance of forests in supporting “public well-being” (Forests are critical for life on our planet, May 27). And who could disagree? Author Miriam Kurland makes good points about the conversion of forests to solar fields and excessive cutting of forests for energy. But in railing against what she calls “outrageous falsehoods to confuse,” the author inadvertently sows her own bit of confusion. And so it is in light of potential confusion about forests and forestry in Massachusetts that I would add to offer some helpful and encouraging clarity.

Citing a familiar list of essential services forests provide (biodiversity, clean water and air, etc.), Kurland states: “we need wild, intact forests to save future generations from disaster.” But what, actually, are wild and intact forests? Do only wild and intact forests provide these essential services? And do such forests even exist in Massachusetts? Most importantly, whether such forests exist or not, what should we be doing with the forests we actually have?

The term “wild, intact forests” evokes a vision of pristine forests in untouched wildernesses, forests free of human influence, forests that have never been cut nor ever will be cut. But, unfortunately, such forests do not exist in Massachusetts, at least not anymore — except to a miniscule extent. It is well documented that much of our original forest was cut and cleared for agriculture long ago, while the rest of the forest was repeatedly logged to support agricultural life, town life and local industry. And, of course, large carnivores were driven out.

This is not unique to Massachusetts. A recent study found that only a tiny fraction of the entire land surface of the earth is “functionally intact.” For starters, a truly intact forest would still have its large carnivores (in our case wolves and mountain lions) to regulate deer (and moose) from the top down.

Lacking wild and intact forests, are we thus headed for the forest-driven “disaster” Kurland foretells? I don’t think so. In fact, though not wild, intact or pristine in any true sense, we have good reason to take comfort in the marvelous forest we actually do have, a good and wonderful forest that provides all the essential services despite our historical use of it.

Thank goodness it’s a fundamental property of forests in our region that they keep on growing. That is why, even after clearing and logging long ago, the forest has grown into what we see today. Few will be surprised to learn that, even as our forest has been re-growing, it has been home to ongoing logging. The logging was driven then (as now) mainly by our need for the amazing wood that forests produce, wood that will remain as important as ever. For if we are to meet the challenges of climate change, it will not be with concrete, steel, or fossil fuels, but with wood, which grows.

And this is our forest, not pristine or pure, but deeply inhabited (by us) and deeply used, bearing its layerings of history with an ever-intact and dogged resilience and a wild and persistent drive to keep growing. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that some, ignoring history and taking a mental snapshot of the present moment, might think of our current forest as wild and intact. And in calling for wild and intact forests to save us all, some, perhaps unintentionally, are actually calling for a continuation in some form of those same practices, including logging, that have given us the remarkable forest we enjoy today.

This is where well-conceived forestry, with up-to-date science and methods, can play a key and positive role, though that role may have ever less to do with logging and ever more to do with many other challenges that forests are facing.

If we (our elected officials included) keep our wits and curiosity about us, we will not deviate into deadening forest lockdowns or ramp up into dire overcutting but rather we will aspire to cultivate a good relationship with the forest, one that will ensure that our forest thrives, and that we thrive, well into the future (see “Positive relationship with local forests will help maintain a livable Western Mass.,” My Turn, July 3, 2019).

We can have our boards and our biodiversity, our water and our wildlife, our fresh air and our solitude, and our carbon and our fun, all from the same forest. We just need to do it appropriately and well.

Michael Mauri is a forester based in South Deerfield.


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