State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Arboreally Speaking, Does Age Matter?

There is unrest in the forest, there is trouble with the trees“…I will mostly spare you one of the more ecologically correct, forest ecology rock tunes (the next two lines, however, “For the maples want more sunlight, and the oaks ignore their pleas,” written in 1978, seem incredibly prescient given that one of the first oak-to-maple succession papers was published in 1984. Of course, Rush is that awesome. Why they aren’t in the rock & roll hall of fame…). But, recent developments in the management of public forests in neighboring New Jersey push me to unexpectedly blog again. Oddly, there is a new bill being considered that is pitting forest ecologists against the Audubon Society. There is no unusual unrest in the forest–it is among the people.

The bill being considered would allow forest management, specifically logging, in some of New Jersey’s public forests. One of the main thrusts of this bill is that the older public forests in N.J. need management. I’ll state here that I have no problem with forestry, especially long-minded forestry that considers the entire ecosystem for generations (of trees, animals and people); I marked trees for logging for nearly a year. There are places where you could take most people and they would never know that the forest had been logged for more than 50 years. Of course, Leon Neel is an exceptional human and the forest he manages reflects his soul. (Don’t let “art” in the book title fool you. Neel is an exceptional naturalist with the patience of Job and a highly scientific mind).

A truly old forest in New Jersey. Photo: Neil Pederson

What pushes me to write is one of the reasons being used to justify the cutting of trees. It is this, “Supporters of the estimated $2.7 million program say it would help the state nurse its 800,000 acres of land back to health by removing trees and allowing sunlight to feed new growth, creating new habitats and reducing the risk of fires.” The risk of fire is a bit of a red herring given overall forest composition and the recent trend to wetter conditions.

Another provocative passage supporting this bill comes from the N.J. Forestry Association in its spring 2011 newsletter:

The New Jersey Forestry Association and other professional groups with practical experience need to keep showing that trees need to be managed and harvested to make the most of what nature has provided. A well managed forest will go on forever, while a forest left to its own devices will die and become useless to anyone, as are the pines in Atlantic County where they have lost their needles and are now rotting from the infiltration of pine bark beetles.”

It is true that conifers are highly susceptible to insects, especially in low-diversity ecosystems, and the loss of the pitch pine is a loss of economic output. But, it is unlikely that all the pitch pine are dead. If they are, how did this species survive for centuries in N.J. prior to the arrival of modern forest management?

The line preceding the above quote, beginning on page 3 of the newsletter, states, “Fortunately, there is a potential answer to the anger shown by the public toward the subject of forest management. The remedy is education. Many of the opponents were obviously educated in school and were probably well-meaning, although sometimes intemperate, but they evidenced no schooling in forest management or the overall state of our natural ecosystem.”

Sadly, this is a very true statement.

Education is the answer, but perhaps not in the direction the author implies. It is not the opposition’s lack of “schooling in forest management” that is the source of pushback to the bill. If I could bring Neel to the podium to speak on the issue of natural resource education, he might say something he once said to me, “Do you know what the problem is with forestry in schools these days? They don’t teach forestry!” By this, Mr. Neel meant that what dominates education in modern forestry schools is centered on economic timber production and that there is not enough emphasis on the ecology of ecosystems. He should have this insight. Neel obtained a BS in forestry from the University of Georgia in 1951. By the end of this two part post, ironically, I will show you that, while most of the scientific evidence that old trees and forests do not die of old age, the first publication I can find suggesting that old age is not the source of tree decline is an article published in the Journal of Forestry in 1927. The conflict here is partly a straying from what foresters learned and knew during the first half of the 20th century and partly what forest ecologists have learned during the most recent decades.


Sure. Why not? Why would trees be different than elephants, pandas, whales or humans for that matter. I mean, trees are charismatic megaflora. Why wouldn’t the laws of biology or the laws of life apply to them? For example, Jonny Flynn or Michael Jordan will not be able to replicate their athletic dunks when they are 80 (btw, did you see Michael’s first dunk over Tree Rollins?). Shoot, they will not be able to replicate these feats when they are half that age! So, why wouldn’t trees die simply of old age?

A living oak with cubicle butt rot. Hat tip to Erika Mashig. Photo: Neil Pederson

This human perception is understandable. When you go into a true old-growth forest you will notice many dead trees on the forest floor. This is a classic characteristic of an old-growth forest. You might notice several rotten trees, too, including living trees with cubicle butt rot (look to your right and scan the image at the end of  this post). To the untrained eye, it might not look pretty. Even to the trained eye it might not look pretty, especially when compared to neatly managed plantations of straight and tall conifers.

So, this human observation is relayed early and often in many classical forestry classrooms, making it feel legitimate (Confession, I attended two forestry schools. I heard this concept frequently). It is so deeply embedded in the fabric of forestry education that the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) espoused this belief as recently as 2001. An IPCC publication stated “Overmature forest stands take up carbon from the atmosphere at slower rates, but even as the growth increment of the trees approaches zero,….”….sigh….If folks read this post, I expect some pushback along the lines of, “We don’t really think that anymore…that is an old idea,” which I know is true. The idea is fading. It is overmature. Unfortunately, where the rubber hits the road, where forest management decisions are made, it is a concept very much still in play. This is where things are in New Jersey (and many other places, honestly. Not picking on N.J. here).

In part two of this post, I will lay out the evidence countering the perception that age matters in terms of tree and ecosystem productivity.

An old-growth forest in northeast China. Photo: Neil Pederson
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12 years ago

[…] the previous post, I outlined the argument lighting up parts of the New Jersey legislature and the human elements of […]

12 years ago

[…] the New Jersey bill failed, it is going to be discussed in New Jersey’s Senate Environment Committee on Monday, […]