Let’s not give up yet on sustainability, self-reliance, diversity

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Published: 3/26/2020 2:13:53 PM

As ever, in a time when people are looking for answers to serious problems, the prospect of a quick and convenient solution is enticing. So it seems with Vermont climate activist Bill McKibben, who’d like to see Massachusetts serve as a whipping boy for vast climate wrongs perpetrated around the globe. Writing in a recent My Turn “Open letter to the Massachusetts Legislature,” Mr. McKibben calls on our Legislature to end logging once and for all across big swaths of Massachusetts forest in hopes it will make a helpful dent in global climate change.

In reality, eliminating logging on public or private land would do nothing to reverse or even slow climate change. Even worse, Mr. McKibben’s extinguishing pen stroke would impoverish our lives just as surely as if we banned farming in Massachusetts — after all, when we obtain a product produced locally by our own efforts on the land, such as the winter fuel that warms us or the root vegetables we might roast for dinner, we stay engaged with the land and our future. But, as with ordering a one-off avocado on Amazon, that comfortable legislative pen stroke envisioned by Mr. McKibben would be a real setback to the longstanding and hardscrabble efforts by many people to sustainably produce what we need right here in MA.

It is important to remember that as long as we are alive and kicking on this planet, we will need access to natural resources such as wood and food. To this end, our Massachusetts mix of active and passive forest management has been remarkably sustainable so far. In fact, today we have much more wood — and therefore carbon — in our forests than we did 100 years ago. And we continue to grow more. Rather than worry about the forests we actually manage, maybe Mr McKibben can worry about the forests we actually lose — to development — right here in Massachusetts, including over 30,000 acres of forest lost since 2012 alone (source: Mass Audubon).

Science has clearly established that thick areas of young trees are essential to birds as part of an overall complex forest landscape of young and – of course — mature forests. When stimulating the growth of young trees by harvesting important wood we need and use, forest management simultaneously supports over 60 bird species that breed in Massachusetts. Many of these species are uncommon or declining, and 18 of them are listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need.

So how does young forest help birds thrive? Though less preferable to hikers, many birds delight in the dense and protective thickets of whippy stems laden with rich insect and fruit resources triggered by sunlight reaching the forest floor and understory. If you’ve ever had a tree taken down in your yard, you’ll know the difference in sunlight that cutting even one tree can make.

Does all the talk of birds and trees obscure a deeper forest reality? True, trees and birds alone do not make a forest. But when a diversity of birds — or trees, or pollinators, for example, or ants — are thriving, this reflects positively on the total condition of the forest.

Pollinators? Scientists studying managed forest sites near the Quabbin Reservoir found that the abundance and diversity of forest bees increased in areas that had been recently logged when compared to adjacent uncut forests. Writing in the journal Forest Ecology and Management in 2017, they note that forest bees benefit generally from a complex forest landscape that includes adequate young forest habitat. Not surprisingly, the increased sunlight in logged areas stimulates flower production, a key resource for pollinators.

Likewise, scientists found that the abundance and diversity of forest ants increased after logging in a densely-shaded hemlock forest in Petersham, as noted in a 2015 paper published in Ecosphere. The increased sunlight let in by logging warmed the soil, benefiting more ants than a similar forest that was left uncut.

Appropriate logging can stimulate multiple biodiversity benefits even when done for other reasons. And, like farming, when thoughtful forestry helps us meet our local needs in a sustainable and self-reliant way, we all benefit - birds, ants, pollinators and people. We are growing more wood than we cut. Our Massachusetts forest is not causing the climate crisis. In our great desire to solve carbon problems, let’s not abandon local sustainability and traditions of self-reliance, and by all means let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot with a seemingly convenient stroke of a pen.

Michael Mauri is a Massachusetts licensed forester based in South Deerfield.


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