Viewpoint: Chris Balch – Science shows flaws in forest management – Monadnock Ledger Transcript

The sign at Milford’s Tucker Brook Forest trailhead was printed on Milford Conservation Commission letterhead, and began, “ATTENTION HIKERS: A timbering operation, focused on management for the benefit of wildlife… .”
The clear-cutting of town, federal and state forests has long been an accepted practice. The reasoning is that it benefits wildlife, similar to natural disturbances. Storms, fires, landslides, flooding and disease create areas where the forest is essentially destroyed, and then begins to regrow. These naturally occurring areas are called “early successional,” and quickly grow shrubs that offer wildlife food and cover.
Local populations of white-throated sparrows and the eastern towhee are said to be in decline, so creation of habitat would provide resources to sustain their numbers.
The “benefit to wildlife” is how conservation commissions and forest services justify commercial timber sales in town, state and national forests. Naturally, the timber industry adores this practice because it allows them to profit while claiming to be acting in the interests of conservation.
But is there evidence that creating these areas of pseudo-catastrophe benefits all wildlife? Do they provide real benefits to the forest? Or do they mostly benefit those seeking to profit from the “harvesting” of “forest products”?
Clear-cutting, and even patch-cutting, forests is a different practice than what is used by Mother Nature. The removal of gigatons of tree biomass from a forest includes every nutrient that made up those trees. Natural catastrophes may dramatically change the state of the forest, but nutrients generally remain to begin a new cycle.
One of the critical nutrients to consider, especially during a climate crisis, is carbon. Tufts University forest ecologist William Moomaw has studied carbon cycling in forests and is convinced the best approach is to let forests manage themselves. He points out that older-growth forests with large trees hold remarkable amounts of carbon. The results of a May 2018 study indicate that 50% or more of a forest’s total carbon is sequestered in the largest 1% of trees.
Leaving forest soils undisturbed also pays carbon benefits. Mature forests sequester more carbon in the ground than in the trees due to leaf fall, blowdowns and branches that decompose to form soil. A 2011 report in Forest Science magazine indicates that if protected from logging, New England forests would be capable of storing more than three times the amount of carbon than they do. Scientific institutions worldwide agree that 30% of our wild lands must be conserved to support carbon mitigation. Currently, fewer than 1% have been conserved.
But what about the white-throated sparrows and eastern towhees? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology collects population data on most North American bird species, including birds identified as needing logging for habitat. The lab reports their populations are stable, and that there are no populations in significant decline.
And other species of wildlife? When the sign at Tucker Brook Town Forest states “management for the benefit of wildlife…,” birds and mammals account for fewer than 300 of the approximately 60,000 species that inhabit New England forests – about 0.5% of the total community. Are we “managing” the entire forest community based on this small percentage?
A growing voice of conservation biologists proposes that if forest harvests were subjected to environmental impact statements, they would not be able to justify the true costs based on species loss and longer-term negative impacts on the forest and the environment.
The truth is clear. We do not manage forests with sound scientific practices. We manage them to satisfy human needs for forest products.
Chris Balch is a former state representative from Wilton.
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