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Conservation Perspective: Healthy Forests for the Trees

Catastrophic fires, poor grouse habitat, declining water quality … healthy trees cure all these ailments.

Conservation Perspective: Healthy Forests for the Trees

Healthy habitat as a foundation of conservation. (Shutterstock image)

You may have heard some variation of an ancient Chinese proverb that speaks to both forestry and optimism, with a cameo appearance by procrastination.

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago," says the frequently quoted version. "The second-best time is today."

Both those commodities—young trees and fresh optimism—are facing a certain shortage at the moment. Optimism seems to be on the run in every corner of the country.

Tree inventories are also depleted in much of the U.S., while in other places, our forests aren’t working as well as they could. In some areas, our forests have become public-safety liabilities, capable of fueling conflagrations that threaten rural homesteads and communities.

Other places have the opposite problem: too few trees to filter water and provide adequate wildlife habitat.

We talk all the time in this column about healthy habitat as a foundation of conservation. But often our conversation is place-specific: extensive sagebrush for imperiled sage grouse, or productive wetlands for migrating waterfowl, or edge cover for nesting turkeys.

We rarely talk about national habitat requirements, but America’s forest policy influences everything from water and air quality to habitat for deer, birds and small game.

Planting a tree may be the 'ultimate expression of optimism,' says the Arbor Day Foundation. (Shutterstock image)

Compounding Value

You’ve probably heard the adage that explains the fundamental value of land. It’s valuable precisely because "they’re not making any more of it." Because it’s a finite resource—and the amount available for things like raising ducks and deer diminishes as we build on and pave over it—then everything that we can do now to sustain its value becomes doubly important for the future. This is why measures like conservation easements are considered good investments.

If you think of our national acreage as a sort of 401(k), or mutual fund, then our current land base is the corpus of the investment, literally our nest egg. We want clean water now so we can raise healthy communities and kids a few generations away. We farm efficiently so we can feed the nation and the world right now, but we care for our land so we have soils capable of producing next year’s crop. And we invest in open spaces now because we know that acres won’t multiply to benefit our grandchildren’s children.

If you stick with that analogy, then the value we add to land is a sort of interest, cream that we can skim off to spend as needed, now or in the future. You might think of the nation’s forestland as that cream, an element that adds value to our land and can be used when necessary. But, as most wise money managers note, the way to grow the value of any corpus is to reinvest the interest.

"The act of planting a tree is maybe the ultimate expression of optimism," says Dan Lambe, president of the Arbor Day Foundation, the Nebraska-based conservation organization that has moved from its plant-a-tree roots to advocating for forest health worldwide. "It’s not about planting for today, but for the future, and ensuring that the future is as bright as we believe it can be."

Lambe says the nation's forest health varies, with more private forestland than ever achieving certification standards. But he notes that there are more threats to forests than ever, ranging from fires, pests, disease, and excessively high and low temperatures.

"Look at Texas this February," says Lambe. "Those sustained extreme [low] temperatures caused widespread damage to the state’s forest resources, both in towns and in the countryside. On the other extreme, sustained high temperatures and lack of moisture can stress forests, leading to conditions that favor fires but also shorten the lives of forests in other ways, for instance by making them vulnerable to insect pests."


Beyond Habitat

Most of us know forests and interact with them for their wildlife habitat. Across much of the Northeast, mosaic forests are synonymous with ruffed grouse and woodcock. Our great hardwood stands are home to white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, and national forests of the West host elk and mule deer. But the ecological services that healthy forests provide humans go way beyond the wildlife we love to hunt.

"Forests are climate moderators," Lambe points out. "They sequester carbon, clean the air and water, and create ecosystems. But they also help moderate temperatures across regions and the world. Forests are one of nature’s best technologies to foster balance, health, and wellness in our climate and for people."

Lambe says the role of the Arbor Day Foundation is to work with partners in the public and private sectors to ensure that forests are protected, managed and restored. Trees matter, not because each individual specimen is noteworthy, but because healthy forests solve so many seemingly intractable problems.

"The reason we need to pay attention to forests today is because they’re the best nature-based solution to the crises we’re facing in our changing climate," says Lambe, who notes that planting and managing forests creates jobs now, helps conserve landscapes for future generations, and benefits whole ecosystems cheaply and effectively.

"Forests make our world literally more livable," he says. "That’s why we do it. It isn’t about the trees as much as it’s what the trees provide."

Root Cause

The Arbor Day Foundation has planted millions of trees.

Based in Nebraska, the Arbor Day Foundation ( is a nonprofit conservation and education organization with nearly 1 million members. The group was formed in 1972 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Arbor Day and works to "inspire people to plant, celebrate and nurture trees."

The Foundation plants and distributes more than 10 million trees annually. Since its inception, its members, supporters and partners have planted more than 350 million. The organization also bestows "Tree City USA" recognition on municipalities committed to planting and nurturing trees, and helps restore forests around the world.

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