Old Growth in the New Economy

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Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Two year old Madrone Shelton hugs Grandfather TreeReaching capacity, people nestled tightly into Nelson Hall at Humboldt State University eagerly awaiting a lecture sponsored by Pacific Forest Trust entitled “Old Growth in the New Economy.” The lecture featured preeminent Northwest forest ecologist Dr. Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington, and Humboldt State University’s distinguished redwood ecologist Dr. Steve Sillett. The dialog focused on the roles and characteristics of Northwestern old growth forests, the ecosystem functions they provide, and how forest stewardship can benefit climate, wildlife, water, and a sustained resource economy.

Moderator Andrea Tuttle of Pacific Forest Trust began the discussion with the question: “What are old growth forests.” Dr. Steve Sillett jumped in and responded, “Old growth forests are extraordinary forests that contain 300 feet or taller trees, a mixture of tree ages, and a complex forest structure.” He emphasized, “The complex forest structure characteristic of old growth forests provide diverse habitat and high biomass production.” As his response further developed, he explained that old growth forests display high tree productivity, which results from their complex forest structure. Adding, “Total leaf area and tree vigor are the foremost determinants of tree productivity in old growth forests.” Naturally, old growth redwoods are highly productive. Dr. Sillett jubilantly added that a redwood he recently studied had an astounding two acres of total leaf area!

As the discussion progressed, both speakers described the many ecosystem services old growth forests provide, such as essential habitat, soil retention, and sources of human pleasure and education. Additionally, old growth forests play a major role in a region’s climatic phenomenon, most familiarly the redwoods and fog in our backyard. Furthermore, and perhaps the most effective tool to combat rising carbon dioxide levels and mitigate climate change, they are vital carbon sinks, providing enormous carbon sequestration potential. In fact, according to Dr. Sillett, “redwoods are the leaders in carbon sequestration, sequestering up to three times the amount of any other tree.” Dr. Sillett explained that redwoods have huge capacities to store carbon because they produce decay resistant heartwood which retains carbon for long periods of time. “Enough,” adds Dr. Franklin, “to make a significant difference in the global carbon budget.” Clearly old growth forests are vital components of Earth’s biosphere.

However, in order to protect and harness the full potential of old growth forests they must be sustainably managed for the long-term and protected for posterity. Dr. Franklin stated a fundamental rethinking of what forestry management means is needed. He stated we need to redefine the concept of forest rotation, from one of single-tree, even-aged tree management systems to a system where continuity of tree generations is preserved. He insisted forest management that focuses on enhancing productivity and biodiversity while also sustaining and retaining continuity leads to an increasingly resilient forest ecosystem, beneficial for both forest critters and humanity alike. Additionally, Dr. Sillett stated that a return to natural fire cycles is essential for effective management. Before the lecture was opened to audience questions, the future of old growth forests was discussed. Both Dr. Sillett and Dr. Franklin expressed the urgent need for a federal, but preferably international, forest stewardship policy that preserves and protects these extraordinary old growth forests into the future.

EPIC is a member of the Federal Forest Carbon Coalition—a new first-of-a-kind consortium of over 60 national, regional and local organizations. The coalition recently issued a suite of science-based recommendations to the Obama Administration entitled Modernizing Federal Forest Management to Mitigate and Prepare for Climate Disruption. The recommendations for our public lands include permanently protecting all high-biomass forested areas (older forests; live, dead and fallen) from logging, recognizing carbon as a significant public resource, increasing carbon storage, restoring mature forests, promoting more natural fire regimes and a moratorium on fracking.

We are working to promote better management practices of public and private working forest landscapes because we know that large, old, fire-resilient trees are the guardians of our air, water, wildlife and need diligent protection and conservation. EPIC ensures that environmental laws, which provide the framework and safeguards necessary to protect the thousands of species that make up the web of life, are upheld and improved and that native forests are managed using the best available science.

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Thanks to EPIC Intern, Jason Landers for writing this article.