29 Oct 2008, 9:02am
Saving Forests
by admin

Restoration Forestry

Our forests are beset by disease, insect infestations, and especially megafires. Millions of acres of unhealthy forests burn every year, denuding whole landscapes, filling the air with smoke, killing wildlife and destroying their habitats, baking soils and causing massive erosion into rivers and streams, and draining the budgets of our public land management agencies. The crisis of catastrophic forest destruction seems insoluble.

But there is a solution, one that protects, maintains, and perpetuates forests, wildlife, water and air, public health and safety, heritage, and our economy. The solution is restoration forestry.

Restoration forestry is the art and science of returning forests to heritage conditions of fire resilient, open and park-like structures. Our forests today are often crowded thickets, overladen with fuels, and prone to catastrophic fires. Restoration forestry removes the excess fuels and puts forests back into their historic condition, as they existed before Euro-American contact.

Restoration forestry is a silvicultural system, broadly speaking, that is neither even-aged nor uneven-aged. The objectives of restoration forestry include maintenance and enhancement of multi-aged, low density stands with a predominance of older, fire-resilient trees. Those are forest goals, not tree farming goals, but they are silvicultural.

Restoring historical conditions sustains forests by protecting them from total mortality canopy fires, by maintaining fire-resilient old-growth trees, and by enhancing the capacity of forests to grow trees to old ages.

Our old-growth trees arose under much different conditions than today. The forest development pathways of pre-Contact eras were not punctuated by catastrophic stand-replacing fires but instead were the outcomes of frequent, seasonal, light-burning fires in open, park-like forests. Those fires were largely anthropogenic (human-set by the indigenous residents). Because the fires of historic eras were frequent and seasonal, they gently removed fuels without killing all the trees. The widely-spaced trees thus survived repeated burning and grew to very old ages.

As more and more forests have been investigated for actual age distribution, a gaping hole in the early theory of stand-replacement forest development has arisen. The anomaly is that many forests, particularly older, untouched forests, are not even-aged. Instead, many (if not most) older forests are distinctly multi-cohort. That is, forests often have two or more widely divergent age classes of trees.

This fact tends to disprove the “stand replacement fire” theory, at least in regards to older forests. Their development pathways must have been different than that. It is now widely concluded that many (if not most) North American forests were at one time (120 to 500 years ago) open and park-like with widely spaced, large, old trees, and that forests were conditioned to be that way by frequent, non-stand-replacing fires. The new theory holds that historical frequent fires were light and low-burning, and that those fires did not kill the bigger trees.

That is, the actual historical forest development pathways for many (if not most) of our forests involved frequent light fires, not stand-replacing fire.

Modern fires in dense thickets, untempered by frequent, seasonal, anthropogenic fires, cause total tree mortality. No trees survive the infrequent holocausts, and so no trees attain old-growth status. In fact, modern fires routinely kill old-growth trees that withstood multiple fires in bygone eras. Modern fires, burning in dense, build-up fuel conditions, often convert heritage forests to more or less permanent brush fields

By restoring thicket forests to their historical norm of open, park-like conditions, and in addition restoring historical anthropogenic fire regimes, forests can be saved from catastrophic incineration and conversion to brush.

Restoration forestry is the medicine that could save our forests from Mother Nature’s disasters. We know it works; we have physical, historical, forensic, scientific, empirical evidence of that.

We also know that in the absence of restoration forestry, the patient will die. Without tending, our forests will be incinerated to smithereens in holocausts that cost tens of millions of dollars to fight, destroy billions in property and environmental values, and imperil and sometimes take human lives.

Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen is widely regarded as the “father” of restoration forestry. He not only coined the term, he has written extensive on the subject. Some quotes:

“Restoration forestry is the concept of restoring modern forests to health using history as a guide.

Restoration forestry is a vision for the future rooted in respect for the past. Thus, restoration forestry uses the historic forest as a model for the future forest. No scientist, forester, or environmental activist could conceive of more beautiful or diverse and sustainable forests, with more wildlife, than those found by the first European explorers.

Restoration forestry aims to recover our nation’s forest heritage while also restoring the productive and harmonious relationship between people and forests that existed in historic forests.

Restoration forestry is defined as restoring ecologically and economically sustainable forests that are representative of landscapes significant in America’s history and culture. These forests also should serve society’s contemporary need for wood products and other forest values. ” — Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Restoration Forestry, the Forest Foundation. [here]

“Native Americans were an integral part of America’s forests. The forests and the people who lived there formed an inseparable whole that developed together over millennia. …Native Americans helped to create and sustain the ancient forests that Europeans found beautiful enough to set aside in national parks.” — Thomas M. Bonnicksen, America’s Ancient Forests: from the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery

“Restoration forestry aims to bridge the environmental disconnect, reacquaint people with their forests and restore forests to their historic grandeur. Using history as a guide and modern science as its primary tool, restoration forestry acknowledges the many values people expect from forests, such as the need to keep forests biologically diverse and productive, and the importance of ensuring the safety of forest communities. It addresses the economic realities, ecological challenges and social demands of making forests great again.

Restoration forestry will create beautiful, natural forests, and encourage productive use of resources that might otherwise go up in smoke. It sets forth a feasible way to provide abundant wildlife habitat, safe communities, clean air, sustainable energy, greenhouse gas storage to help address global warming and a dependable source of wood products. At the same time, it returns to the landscape forests that look and function much like they did hundreds of years ago.” — Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Protecting Communities and Saving Forests: Solving the Wildfire Crisis Through Restoration Forestry. [here]

Restoration forestry, applied at landscape scales, will make our forests safer and less prone to catastrophic, forest-replacing fires. Restoration forestry protects, maintains, and perpetuates habitat, heritage, wildlife, aesthetics, recreational uses, watershed values, economics, public health and safety, and every other forest characteristic valued by human beings.

We have a huge forest fire crisis today. We need some practical solutions (other than more of the same only worse, which is the current policy, and is not practical at all). Restoration forestry offers practical, pragmatic, utilitarian methods and techniques aimed at preventing catastrophic megafires. The techniques lean on what we have learned about the past, but are oriented in practice and vision toward the present and the future.

There is a solution to the ongoing terrible destruction of our public forests. That solution is restoration forestry.



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