What is the future of older forests?
The NCSSF-sponsored workshops clearly demonstrated that older forests are scarce in the United States. The Pacific Northwest is the region with the most preserved older forests, but even there the area is less than adequate by biodiversity criteria. If the nation is serious about preserving biodiversity, older forest area must be increased. Such efforts must begin with the existing base of older forests, but it ultimately will be necessary to go well beyond this base to effectively meet biodiversity and human values goals. In every region, the full forest growth and development cycle needs to be integrated into old-growth restoration plans.
Each region is different, and there are major differences among and within them about the most useful definition of older forests, the major threats to existing older forests, public perceptions of what is important about them, and land ownership and use patterns. Thus restoration plans for older forests must be intensely local in construction and effect. But they must also create bridges among landowners and publics to establish an effective pattern of older forests on the landscape. Even in the Pacific Northwest, low-elevation and flood-plain older forests are extremely rare.
Fire and its management will play an important role in the preservation and creation of older forests. In the Southeast, the ability of forest managers to continue to use fire in spite of air-quality regulations is crucial to reestablishing old longleaf pine stands. In the dry west, the ability to harvest trees to “fire-proof” remaining old ponderosa pine forests is critical. The larger picture that emerges from the NCSSF-sponsored workshops is that creativity and flexibility, not rigid rules, will be the path to increasing older forests.
The role of urban populations in the older forest drama will become even more important as city dwellers continue to move into the country and as their political sway over rural areas grows with increasing urbanization. Unless city dwellers view older forests as a high conservation priority, it will be difficult to make progress. The relatively static view that many urban people have of forests and the countryside in general will have to give way to a more dynamic sense of how forests grow and exist. Clearly, preserving all the older forests of the Northeast and Great Lakes regions by buying them and creating reserves, even if that were possible, wouldn’t meet the biodiversity need for older forests in the region.
Older forests are an important part of the “evolutionary anvil” upon which biodiversity is hammered out by natural selection. If we drive species to extinction through our artificial, often unwitting human-imposed selection processes, we will be harming the biological potential of the land far more than by the removal of individual species. We will be striking a devastating blow to the wellspring of our biological and social future.
We must have a coherent national forest policy that takes into account what we now know about older forests. We still lack the information to produce a clear, quantitative picture of the benefits of preserving and enhancing older forests. Creating this picture should be a primary goal of renewed forest policy action. As the NCSSF workshops made clear, we have a knowledge base as a starting point, but it’s urgent to move forward now, before urbanization, climate change, new pathogens, and fire rob us of our priceless legacy of older forests.
This is a chapter from Beyond Old Growth (report).
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