Positive relationship with local forests will help maintain a livable Western Mass.

  • MAURI

Published: 7/31/2019 8:37:21 AM
Modified: 7/31/2019 8:37:11 AM

News of a changing climate is causing fear that we are headed into a less livable future — perhaps even into a “catastrophic” future marked by “…human devastation and…extinction...” [“An appeal for coverage”, Greenfield Recorder letter, June 4, 2019].

The big picture doesn’t offer much comfort, but our local forests may offer some, especially for our own region. In fact, if the world of Western Massachusetts is to be livable in the future, it will be in part because we will have maintained a positive, protective and productive relationship with our local forests.

Our forests provide a wide array of ongoing benefits we rely on – renewable timber and firewood, water storage and filtration, air purification, bio-diverse wildlife habitat, opportunities for personal enjoyment, and more. Our forests also take up a lot of carbon from the air, though it is only a small portion of the amount we emit – indeed, even if no tree was ever cut in all of Massachusetts again, the climate crisis would still rage on.

But it is not for carbon uptake, useful timber or any other single feature that our forests are so essential to a livable future. Instead, it is through all of these benefits taken together — science refers to these collectively as “ecosystem services” — that forests make their unique contribution to a livable world.

Here are some ideas that we can implement locally that will help us ensure that our forests will continue to make that essential contribution to our future.

Protect forests from deforestation (that is, from conversion to non-forest): Nothing can replicate the full set of ecosystem services provided to us by forests as they grow more trees over time. Land trusts and others are working hard to protect additional acres of forest. Join in!

Generally let forests grow (but that doesn’t mean ignore them): Most of the ecosystem services provided by forests occur little by little while the forest is growing and “doing its thing”. Occasional thinning can channel growth to selected trees, compounding the amazing benefits of growth over long timeframes.

Minimize factors that interfere with forest growth and processes: We love the fact that giant trees grow from tiny seeds. But invasive plants (and other factors) pose serious threats to this very fundamental forest process. Once established in the forest, invasive plants undermine every conceivable ecosystem service, with no limit to the harm they can do. Fortunately, science has created powerful tools to help counter such plants, though the tools come with risks.

Think about how climate change might impact the forest: Many of the stresses forests already face now are likely to be made worse by projected changes in the climate. Forestry practices we undertake now to ensure that our forest is diverse and vigorous will increase its resiliency to future impacts. We’ll want to ensure our forest roads and trails are up to the challenge as well.

Keep enough of the forest wild: We benefit from forests that develop with minimum human input. How much wild forest should we have? It’s hard to say. A recent Harvard Forest publication recommends keeping 10% of the New England forest in large wildland reserves.

Only cut trees to accomplish objectives that cannot be accomplished without cutting: Maybe it goes without saying: forests don’t need cutting for their own sake. But sometimes we need to cut trees for our own purposes. Examples include reducing crowding among trees so that they are healthier, harvesting useful timber, or creating areas of young trees. Notably, young forests are nature’s mechanism for selecting future trees adapted to a changing climate.

But when logging, do so in a way that maximizes retention: The question here is, how few trees can you remove and yet still accomplish the objective of the cutting? Can you take only part of the trees and leave the rest to go back into the soil?

Do not cut forests for energy (but consider making efficient energy use of trees you do cut): Large-scale logging for energy risks over-cutting and over-simplifying the forest, undermining many of its ecosystem benefits. But at smaller scales, when you cut trees for other purposes, why not efficiently use some of that harvested wood for energy? The tradition of local firewood is a familiar example of this. And by heating homes with this wood, less fossil fuel needs to be burned, which directly addresses the primary man-made cause of climate change.

Michael Mauri is a consulting forester based in South Deerfield. His clients include land trusts, conservation organizations, municipal watersheds and private woodlot owners.

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