Guest columnist Bart Bouricius: The destructive arrogance of habitat management

  • Wendell State Forest was the scene of logging protests over the past couple of years. FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/25/2021 3:02:21 PM
Modified: 11/25/2021 3:02:05 PM

Modern humans evolved from their primate ancestors only in the last few hundred thousand years. The earliest forest ecosystems with true trees emerged hundreds of millions years ago and managed themselves. The notion that humans must “manage” nature as “resources” within an industrial economic system is only a few hundred years old.

Some now argue that all of nature should be “managed” in this way, despite the mass extinction and climate disruption caused by such management. In response to the dire consequences of this extractive system, eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has argued that we need to leave half of earth as undisturbed, to manage itself.

In a May article in “Frontiers in Forests and Global Change,” Robert Leverett and his coauthors note that the world’s forests “accumulate carbon and reduce annual increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide by approximately 30%,” and if left undisturbed, recovering forests could nearly fill the entire carbon loss gap “between anthropogenic [human caused] emissions and removal rates.”

Land “management” by the Massachusetts Fish and Game Department is focused on resource extraction from the natural environment, whether of game animals, fish or wood products. Because of this narrow focus, the department seems unable to respond to climate change with the necessary emphasis on natural carbon capture and storage that the climate emergency requires.

The Department’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) repeatedly congratulates itself for the fact that more carbon is annually stored on the land it manages than is harvested from it. But justifying extractive management in this way is far from an adequate response to the climate crisis we now face.

We must greatly reduce logging on public lands. Unlogged forests accumulate more carbon and harbor more biodiversity than any logging regime. Moreover, as climate change already underway will increase the rate of natural disturbance, human-caused disturbance should decline in response. Unfortunately, DFW is failing to do serious carbon accounting of its logging projects, such as gigantic clear cuts and the biomass burning associated with clear cuts at Muddy Brook in Hardwick, and the Herman Covey and Birch Hill Wildlife Management Areas, to name a few. See this detailed document for photos and information: maforests.org/DFW.pdf/.

Such management by logging releases into the atmosphere most of the carbon from tens of thousands of acres of forested land. The agency also plans to eventually cut 86% of all DFW forests on a rotating basis to create “young forest habitat,” which means that much of their over 200,000 acres of managed land will store much less carbon than it would if it was permitted to continue growing.

The DFW provided $307,631 in 2019 (the most recent data available) in grants to private landowners, much of it for commercial logging projects to create young forest habitat (stumps and brush). This ongoing destruction of older forests prevents them from ever becoming old growth forests, which now comprise less than .05% of our state’s forests. Old forests with very large trees are exceedingly rich in carbon and biodiversity, and ensuring their increase should be a conservation priority.

Logging transforms areas of living forest actively accumulating carbon into net sources of carbon dioxide for years afterward as remaining biomass decays, and it takes decades to rebuild the carbon stores removed in the process. The harvesting, transportation and manufacturing of forest products also entail carbon emissions that must be considered, and only a tiny fraction of the products produced last for extended periods of time.

Left alone, our forests can continue to accumulate carbon for centuries, and we can ill afford to squander this capacity for short-term gain in the face of an ever-worsening climate emergency.

The Baker administration has proposed that 50% of the state’s goals of reduced carbon emissions should be met by purchasing carbon offset credits from other states, rather than by maximizing forest carbon accumulation here.

Governments or corporations buy these credits in order to continue emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Renowned forest ecologist Charles Canham notes that existing carbon-credit markets provide “no real offset to greenhouse gas emissions at all” and that “the flaws in the markets are structural and deep, and may be irredeemable” Canham’s analysis can be found here: caryinstitute.org/news-insights/feature/rethinking-forest-carbon-offsets/.

The future is up to us. Please ask your state representatives to support these forest preservation bills: H.912, An Act Relative to Forest Protection and H.1002, An Act Relative to Increased Protection of Wildlife Management Areas.

Bart Bouricius, a member of the Wendell Forest Alliance, lived in Amherst for 25 years before moving to Montague.

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