Old-Growth Forest Degradation: The Not-So-Slow Depletion of a Natural Resource
by Cheri Bermudez
As Earth’s population increases the amount of livable space available on our planet is quickly diminishing. Romanticized views of infinitely vast, unexplored wilderness areas and a “never-ending frontier” have been proven false thanks to rapid globalization and the digital revolution. Humans are moving into what was once considered dangerous, uninhabitable wilderness at an alarming rate, and as a result indigenous species are being forced out of their natural habitats. Unfortunately, when competing for space, native animals and plants don’t stand much of a chance against ambitious builders, politicians, and landowners. Within the last 30 years, humans have managed to destroy approximately half of the world’s forests (Moyers 2001). Old-growth forests have been hit especially hard, being reduced to only around 10% of their original range (Environmental Defense 2007). Although not widely talked about (perhaps because they lack the multitude of flashy flora and fauna possessed by the more popular rainforests), old-growth forests are an integral part of our planet, and are an essential element in the basic biological processes that define nature.
Defining an Old Growth Ecosystem
There are many factors that differentiate old-growth forests from regular forests, the most obvious being the age and size of the trees. In Vancouver, old-growth trees range from 200 to 1000 years of age and can stand well over 100 feet high (Discovering 2005, Hume2 2005). Although old-growth forests are visually awesome, they constitute much more than just a pretty landscape. The basic ecology of these areas is unparalleled in complexity and impossible to recreate in any other setting. Old-growth forests are home to myriad species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. These forests take thousands of years to develop, so they are an invaluable resource for ecological studies (Vancouver 2006). Symbiotic relationships and environmental cycling are expressed in a seemingly infinite number of ways within these unique biomes, providing scientists with a unique perspective regarding the interconnectedness of ecosystems and ecosystem processes that can be found nowhere else on Earth.
Old-growth forests are diverse, housing many different species of tree such as hemlock, Douglas-fir, cedar, and spruce, all in unique stages of their life cycles. As older trees begin to die saplings are nourished underneath the forest canopy; this constant cycling dynamic creates many potential habitat niches, and produces shelter, food, and resources for many species (Vancouver 2006). For example, standing dead trees are a very important component of the old-growth forest ecosystem. “The mortality of standing trees is important…from the point of view of biodiversity, as it creates standing dead trees, which are a prerequisite for the presence of a large number of organisms”(Aakala 2007). Trees in old growth forest also function in mineral cycling. In an ecological study by B.C. Scharenbroch at the University of Wisconsin, it was found that “treefall gaps” (areas where a dead tree has fallen naturally but is still surrounded by other trees) created areas of soil with increased leaching of minerals and nutrients, as well as greater “in-situ nitrogen mineralization” (2007).
Aside from their biological and ecological value, old-growth forests have an intrinsic spirituality that cannot be quantitatively measured. There is a “majestic” feeling about old-growth forests, perhaps because they reflect the sheer power and magnificence of nature (Moyers 2001). Dr. Kathleen Moore of Oregon State University describes the multitude of feelings she experienced while visiting an old growth forest, these including humility, joy, wonder, comfort, and contentment (2006). She states that “the ancient forest speaks of continuity, of the past that nourishes the present and of the future that will grow from this ground in good time…the complexities of an old-growth forest invites us to ask how we fit into the Earth’s vast and complex cycles” (Moore 2006). The value of the knowledge, self-realization, or sheer comfort one may find in an ecosystem such as this cannot be measured because it is indeed priceless.
The old-growth forest ecosystem is so complex that a single experiment could not possibly examine and analyze all of the organisms and processes that would suffer from clear cutting or deforestation. While the total consequences of such actions are immeasurable as a whole, there have been many experiments describing specific repercussions and environmental impacts of the exhaustive logging and clear cutting currently taking place. One such experiment examined the effects of clear cutting on abiotic forest elements. It was found that cutting away large sections of forest alters water flow and causes erosion. As a result, soil quality suffers, as do the plants that depend on nutrient-rich, aerated, moist soils, as well as the animals that depend on the plants for survival (Moyers 2001, Scharenbroch 2007).
The old-growth ecosystem has also been studied on a macro-scale using satellite imaging. After examining GIS maps of the remaining old-growth forests in British Columbia, the Valhalla Wilderness Society declared that, “massive clear cut logging and the increase in high intensity fires” (resultant of clear cutting) are both contributing factors to the continuous decline in the amount of old-growth forest left (2004). This, in turn, negatively affects species dependent on these non-replicable natural resources, such as the endangered mountain caribou. The mountain caribou survives primarily on a specific lichen that only grows on trees more than 100 years old. With the continuing decrease in the number of trees on which the lichen can grow, the remaining caribou population is becoming heavily fragmented as it expands its search for food and struggles for survival (Park Defender 2004, Hume1 2006).
A study by William Keeton and Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington tested the theory that seedling fitness is positively correlated with the presence of old-growth remnants (i.e. dead trees and naturally occurring detritus). They discovered that conifers and cedars do, in fact, grow both more quickly and more readily when associated with the naturally decomposing organic matter in old-growth ecosystems (Keeton 2005). If deforestation continues, it is likely that the number of saplings that make it to adulthood will begin to diminish due to lack of proper organic “nesting”.
In an experiment which examined the effects of clear-cutting on streams that run through old growth forests it was found that ephemeral streams have more than double the amount of organic matter build up than perennial streams. It was also determined that ephemeral streams have a higher chance of drying out more quickly in deforested areas than in those areas covered by a natural canopy (Price 2003). Collection and analysis of invertebrates from both stream types showed that there is greater biodiversity in perennial streams of both aquatic and non-aquatic insects. The complete impact of the chemical and biological disparity between old-growth streams and those influenced by clear-cutting remain to be seen, however there is no doubt that logging is altering the physical environment in more ways than just the removal of trees. Deforestation creates unnatural and rapid change within old-growth ecosystems, and eventually it will be impossible for this fragile biome to support all of the organisms that depend upon it.
The Human Dimension
The opposing human interests of old growth forest sustention and degradation both play integral roles in the ultimate fate of this ecosystem. Economic incentives are perhaps the most easily identifiable driving factors favoring forest clearing. Logging is Canada’s main industry, employing over 90,000 people and producing over 15 billion dollars in profits each year (Moyers 2001). Many Canadian citizens rely on logging for their livelihood, and without this source of income and employment, Canada’s economic structure could collapse.
When faced with choosing between what is best for the public good and what is best for business, unfortunately some logging companies opt to choose the latter. In the early 1900’s, Canadian legislation was passed to protect watersheds in order to ensure safe drinking water forever (Hume3 2006). “Over the years, logging incursions were increasingly made into the drinking watersheds” despite prohibitions passed to protect these sources of safe water (Hume3 2006). The Canadian government allowed these unlawful incursions to occur by essentially ignoring the above mentioned legislation. The Canadian residents who depend on these watersheds were “robbed by their own government of the right to clean water” for the sake of increasing the profits of big business (Hume3 2006).
The temptation of making a quick profit at the expense of old-growth sustention proves to be too much for some. Old-growth cedars are valued at $6,000 or more, and as a result Canadian officials have been competing with timber thieves. It is estimated that the average timber thief can make $100,000 a month by stealing and selling old-growth trees (Hume2 2005).
Although there are many human factors working against old-growth forest conservation, there are also many forces working towards the preservation of these ecosystems. In 1996 the “War in the Woods” took place, in which “hundreds of people were arrested in the Vancouver Island sound during mass demonstrations and blockades against logging plans “(Hanisworth 2006). The protests helped pass legislation protecting the old growth forests. Ever since, there has been a constant struggle between loggers and environmentalists in an attempt to find a neutral balance between logging and conservation.
Nuu-Chah-Nulth, a Native American tribe indigenous to the Vancouver area, is attempting to gain control of the forested land. If they are successful, it is expected that the Nuu-Chah-Nulth will help to conserve the forest by allowing only minimal logging and promoting eco-tourism (Hainsworth 2006). First Nations, a group that consists of and represents Canadians that are indigenous to the old growth forest area (including the Nuu-Chah-Nulth), has organized meetings between environmental scientists and logging companies in an effort to come to a compromise regarding logging in the area (Moyers 2001).
Considering the Future
In order for conservation efforts to be successful, it is imperative that environmentalists and logging companies work in tandem to promote and exercise sustainable logging practices. This is, of course, more easily said than done.
Iissak (a group dedicated to working with both loggers and conservationists) came to several landmark agreements regarding logging in old-growth forests (Moyers 2001). It was agreed that some areas of the remaining Vancouver old growth forest should never be opened to logging and that areas that are logged are to be held under strict protocol. In turn, environmentalists are not to blockade the logging companies, and biologists/experts from outside sources can be brought in to determine if the logging companies are harvesting wood in a way that is conversation-friendly. Basic harvesting procedures were also reformed as a result of Iissak efforts. Loggers are now flown in via helicopter so as not to disturb the forest with roads or trails. The predominant goal of old growth logging has shifted from maximizing production to mimicking natural processes as closely as possible during harvest. The loggers cut smaller patches of forest at a time, and leave snags which provide habitat to local species. Young trees are left alone and certain trees, which are deigned to have spiritual or historical significance, are not touched (Moyers 2001).
Economically, these new methods of harvest are counterintuitive: the annual harvest yields fewer trees yet overall production costs are higher. In an attempt to correct this imbalance commercial wood harvested sustainably is marketed and labeled as “certified,” allowing consumers to choose between buying wood that is collected in an eco-friendly way (“certified wood”) and wood that is not (“uncertified wood”). In 1999 three of the world’s biggest timber buyers, Home Depot, Ikea, and Lowe’s, all agreed to stop buying “uncertified” wood by 2002 (Environmental Interactions 2007).
Environmental Defense, a conservation group that works with big businesses in an attempt to preserve natural resources, educates paper companies about the environmental advantages of using “post-consumer content paper and…other raw materials aside from trees” (2007). As an alternative to clear-cutting, Environmental Defense suggests that paper producers grow “tree farms” and harvest wood from farms instead of from natural habitats. Certain paper mills have also begun using a process in which regular lumber is made stronger via a veneer process; this is helpful because one of the most appealing characteristics of old-growth wood is its strength (Environmental Defense 2007).
Remote sensing and GIS imaging are also being used in an effort to harvest trees in a more eco-friendly pattern. Satellite images allow scientists to monitor the rate of logging relative to total forest area, as well as to identify areas that are too fragile to endure more harvesting (Environmental Interactions 2007). Although most conifer and deciduous forests can be maintained and supplemented via the planting of new trees, this system is not practical in an old growth ecosystem because of the time it takes for a single tree to mature. A “young” old growth tree is usually a minimum of 200 years of age. It is important that old growth forests are monitored closely because once a tree is cut, only time can replace it.
The many, constantly cycling and interacting, micro and macro-ecosystems that constitute our planet’s natural rhythm are all maintained by a delicate, complex system of environmental checks and balances. Since the industrial revolution, technology has been increasing exponentially faster than the knowledge of the long term effects these new technologies will have on our planet. The drive to produce more, to gain more, and to take more seem to be the leading principals of big business. This “more is better” philosophy will inevitably lead to the degradation and destruction of Earth’s natural resources, and eventually, the ecosystems that once housed them. Careful consideration as to how the constant exploitation of natural resources will ultimately affect the lives of all organisms who are (directly and indirectly) dependent on them seems to take a backseat to quick profit and instant gratification. From oil to water to timber, mankind is quickly using up the resources necessary to support future generations of people, plants, and animals alike. Perhaps famed preservationist Aldo Leopold put it best when he questioned, “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard[…the] parts?” The individual components of ecosystems (like the trees in the old growth ecosystem, for example) act as catalysts, reagents, and buffers for multiple natural processes of great complexity and diversity. Without a thorough understanding of these intricate systems, it would be foolish to discard the very elements that comprise them, and even more foolish to regard such complex efficiency with a blind lack of respect due to a false sense of anthropocentric entitlement.
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Note: Article contributed by the author, Cheri Bermudez, for publication in Biology-Online.org Articles. Contact us for any authorship issues associated with the article.
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