10 years ago, I began writing a personal blog, titled Out on a Limb: my life with trees. I have fallen out of a few, climbed many, cut them down as a summer Junior Forest Ranger, burned lots in the wood stove to keep the home warm. The Natural History Interpreter, side of me has catalogued thousands of photos which fit into the large file of Forest Ecosystems: lakes and streams, large and small animals, trees and plants. The Cultural Interpreter side of me, has a small library of logging histories, edible and medicinal plants, political books dealing with Wars in the Woods, corporations bribing government officials, environmentalist perspectives on Forests.
What is A Forest?
What I want to explore in this article and which I hope very sincerely, you will investigate in your own community and region comes through asking a simple question: What is a Forest?
My 1989 Webster Dictionary, book, defines “Forest” as: b) A large tract of land covered with timber* trees whether growing naturally or specially planted.
* timber: b) growing trees thought of as wood with a commercial value for building.
The 2020 Merriam-Webster.com has changed the definition of a Forest to: A dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract of land.
For more than 30 years, research documents, internet searches, personal discussions, videos have coloured the Webster.com with the adjectives: Old Growth Forest, 2nd / 3rd Growth Forest. Increasingly, different groups, are replacing the word Forest with: Tree Farm or Tree Plantation.
The following photo montage explores what in 2020, people refer to as a natural forest or to what others will refer to as a 2nd and 3rd growth forest.
Where Are The Natural Forests?
In the above photos – Where are the forests?
I contend, that neither of the 2 vista’s contain even 1% natural forest, water edge to ridge line!
In the foreground of the photo at the top of this page, are 3rd growth trees, about 8 years old. The land managing company has it set that they will be harvested in about 50 years. In the background are trees closing in on 60 years, average age in our area when trees are harvested.
The photo immediately above is a recently cut 2nd growth landscape. It will be planted in its first Spring, making for a 3rd crop, hopefully, like the others, to be harvested in 60 years.
Life in a Natural Forest
Sprouts, growing 3 cm in 2 weeks are from a naturally reseeding forest. Perhaps, 1 in a million seeds will germinate to continue growing, beyond their first year. In the BC Rainforest, it can take over 2,000 years to go from seedling to dying and then decaying into soils, fertile enough to germinate a new seed.
Perhaps in 100 years or longer, a tree for many reasons, such as a wind storm falls onto the forest floor. Most fallen trees, broken limbs, needles and leaves, will decay into fertile soils, thanks to the action of hundreds of types of fungi. A falling tree, opens the forest floor to sunlight and moisture. It might then become a platform known as a nursery log, upon which seeds germinate and continue growing, over a number of years and successive generations.
It takes hundreds to thousands of years, untouched by human activity, to grow and maintain a fully diverse, healthy, natural forest.
The large tree in the photo above, at 1m diameter is approximately 400 years old. The 2 trees in the photo below, at nearly 2 m. diameter are over 700 years of age.
Industrialized Tree Production
Silva-culture is the process of industrially harvesting tree seeds and growing them for perhaps two years, transplanting into a tract of land and grown as a tree crop. Cones for seed are collected / harvested annually. They generally come from the same trees each year, for ease of collection and having a known and healthy genetic make-up. The cones are dried and then shaken to release the seeds into a collection bin. The seeds are kept in special coolers until Spring of the following year. Staff plant the seeds into a very special nutrient rich, synthetic soil growing medium. Millions of seedling are grown in a silva-culture nursery, each year. Sprouts, packed tight into growing trays are kept in specialty green houses for about a year. They are then moved to outdoor, weathering-off tables for another year.
Forest companies, contract delivery of Tree Species and number needed” They are then trucked to the point of planting. Into a recently cut and clear block, individual seedling plugs are dug-in by shovel and muscle. Up to 1800 plugs per hectare will be planted. By comparison, in an original, natural 1 hectare block, there might have been 200 trees growing, 1/10 the density of the 2nd growth tree plantation. An experienced planter can set 2,500 plugs per day.
After harvest, the once-treed areas are only a thin, wrist sized blanket of woody debris. The cleared landscape makes for quicker, easier, cost saving, planting of seedlings. In many cases white plastic cones are put over every tree plug. The cone is a protective barrier, preventing deer, elk or moose from eating the seedlings. Cones might stay on the seedlings for a number of years. Ironically, without the browsers, chewing down the forest, the 2nd growth forests are too dark at ground level to support all manner of other plants and animals.
The plug trees will grow for 60 years, before harvest. In this time, the trees might reach a diameter of 45 cm. A modern tree cutting machine, known as a Feller Buncher, is able to cut, de-limb and stack 5 trees per minute. In an 8 hour day this could equal cutting 2 – 3,000 stems: faster than the rate at which they were planted.
Industrial Treed Landscapes in the near future!
Advances in industrial scaled burner systems, have been developed to have 2nd and 3rd growth tree fiber replace coal, as a cleaner burning BioFuel, for the creation of electricity.
There could be, however, a huge environmental crisis looming with the 2nd and 3rd growth plantations. Recent research is reporting that with such short term harvest rotations, of 60 years or less, the removal of harvested stems and branches from the site, there is not sufficient organic matter for fungi to turn into future soils. Additionally, there is not the annual accumulation of needles and leaves to produce enough nutrients thus stunting their growth, well before the planned harvest year.
Similarly, over the first 5 years of growth in a tree farm, ground temperatures can be 15 C, higher than the air temperature. The higher heat dries out the surface soils which in turn decreases the likely-hood of any insects, fungi or plants from growing. No insects mean no birds, pollination decreases. Without fungi and plants, soil nutrition to grow trees collapses.
In 2nd growth tree farms, snow melts quicker, causing significant flooding, erosion and stream sedimentation. The sedimentation chokes out aquatic insects and destroys fish spawning gravels. Rain water quickly evaporates in the heat of summer. Science based conclusions are that there won’t be a 4th crop of industrialized trees in 150 years. All manner of other plants, animals, aquatic life and birds will go extinct.
With ever increasing tracts of land being converted into Tree Farms / Plantations, what might grow be it: plant, animal, insect or bird will be greatly diminished in species diversity from today!
Unless humans: working together write Ecosystem Based Management laws, with appropriate enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the few remaining natural forests are retained and other land tracts are secured, allowed to develop undisturbed, naturally.
Top photo credit: Second growth farm in the Comox Valley, 06/2020 – Rod Burns photo