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Planting trees is great but letting them grow old is better

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

by Lawrence Shelton

May 6, 2021

We’ve all heard it before: If you want to help the planet, plant a tree. As Vermont approaches its annual celebration of Arbor Day, held the first Friday of May each year since 1886, you will most certainly hear this adage again.

But in this era of reckoning, Vermont must learn from the latest science and create a new Arbor Day tradition: celebrating old forests.

Arbor Day was devised in Nebraska City, Nebraska, in 1872 to make the prairie more hospitable to its Euro-American settlers. Much of Nebraska is naturally treeless. The glorious cottonwood galleries that once existed along the waterways were quickly disappearing as a result of material demands from the still-young prairie colony. Planted trees would provide windbreaks for homes and communities, shade city streets, protect against erosion, and supply wood.

Ironically, halfway across the continent in Vermont, where we now take trees for granted, the landscape looked astonishingly similar back then. Over 80% of the state was cleared, leaving smoldering slash piles and a lunar landscape dotted with sheep, devoid of vegetation, exposed and vulnerable to catastrophic flooding. Tree planting was practiced in earnest to reduce erosion and protect downstream communities.

Today, tree planting is in the news again, albeit for different reasons. With celebrity star-power and vast sums of corporate support (some would say “greenwashing”), efforts such as the “Trillion Trees Initiative” have become the darling of even our nation’s least ecologically minded president, former President Trump. The website heralds tree planting as a cure-all for the world’s ailments, from unemployment to environmental degradation. The carbon follows the tree, or so they would have us believe.

Haven’t we fallen for that before?

Yes, tree planting makes sense along Vermont’s highly eroded rivers, streams and lakeshores, where buffers can reduce erosion and nutrient runoff. Our cities and towns also benefit immensely from tree plantings, particularly in low-income or communities of color where shade and green space are lacking.

But when it comes to deriving the most benefit — carbon storage, clean water, clean air, flood protection, and high-quality habitat that is desperately needed — the science is clear: Letting existing forests grow old is far more effective than starting from scratch.

Tree planting at scale functions largely as a public relations ploy. Planted trees have a high mortality rate, require land that may be better used for other purposes, and often entail industrial monocrop plantations that are biological deserts, replacing complex native ecosystems and displacing Indigenous cultures that have depended on natural ecosystems for countless generations.

And then there’s this all-important question, which most large-scale tree planting schemes typically avoid: What happens to the trees in 50 or 75 years? The Trillion Trees Initiative website is high on timber industry talking points, and low on details about the fate of the trees that are planted.Perhaps this is unsurprising, considering that the nation’s largest timber extraction corporations, like Weyerhaeuser and Lyme Timber Co., are among the leaders of the effort. Most tree plantings will become sawlogs, pulp, or pellets for biomass energy. Will that help our global carbon budget? The world’s scientists say “no.”

In recent years, researchers around the globe have come to a shockingly straightforward, low-cost, and low-tech conclusion: the No. 1 strategy for optimizing natural carbon storage to mitigate climate change is to simply allow intact forests and wetlands to reach their full ecological potential; to grow old and wild.

Here in Vermont, we have an especially important role to play. Our temperate forests are a part of the largest intact hardwood forest on the planet. And yet their ecological potential is not realized. Despite widespread reforestation since the 1800s, intensive “management” keeps New England’s carbon stocks low. One study led by the University of Vermont indicates that Vermont’s forestlands could store two to four times more carbon than current levels if simply allowed to grow old.

This Arbor Day, let us celebrate old forests. Only 3% of Vermont’s forests are managed to grow old and maximize benefits for biodiversity, carbon storage, clean water and flood mitigation. Most of the rest await the saw or the ax. In fact, currently over 40,000 acres of our Green Mountain National Forest are slated for logging. People are uniting as Standing Trees Vermont to oppose logging on our public lands and support rewilding and re-establishment of old forests.

As Vermont’s Climate Council, state agency staff, and elected officials debate policies for a more resilient future, one question begs asking: Do we have the courage to give our forests and wetlands the simple gift of time? Future generations of Vermonters will thank us.

This commentary is by Lawrence Shelton of Hinesburg, who came to Vermont almost 20 years ago to hike the Long Trail. He is a member of Standing Trees Vermont, a group alarmed that more than 40,000 acres of Vermont’s National Forest is slated for cutting.

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