The tragedy of public land logging in New England
Contrary to what the timber industry would like you to think,
a healthy forest does not require logging.
The secret ingredients to a healthy New England forest are:
1) time; and
2) space to grow.
The vast majority of New England's original forests developed over millennia with minimal human disturbance. A healthy New England forest is shaped by the complex interplay of wind and ice and the handiwork of beavers. Only 3% of New England forests are permanently managed to allow for these natural processes to drive the ebb and flow of life.
Compared to forests managed for wood products, old and wild forests are:
more resilient to changes in the climate (resistant to new pests and pathogens, wildfire, and changes in weather patterns);
protect communities from the impacts of extreme precipitation events projected to increase with climate change.
Modern forestry stunts the growth of our native forests, preventing them from maturing beyond their teenage years. Because of historic and ongoing logging, median forest age is approximately 75 years in New England, which is only about 25–35% of the average lifespan of many of the common tree species in our forests. New England's forests require a century or more before they begin to attain the characteristics of old forests, including a wide range of tree ages and sizes and complex forest structure with multi-layered canopies and large amounts of downed woody debris.
Logging in New England is a significant driver of water quality degradation and habitat loss and fragmentation. Although this statistic is rarely reported, timber harvest in New England is responsible for 86% of the carbon that is annually lost from forests, far more carbon than is lost annually from conversion of forestland to residential or commercial development, or carbon lost to insect outbreaks, fire, or disease.
In May 2020, a group of 200 climate scientists submitted a letter to US Congressional leadership to disprove claims that new varieties of forest products and biofuels are carbon neutral or effective at storing carbon:
“We find no scientific evidence to support increased logging to store more carbon in wood products, such as dimensional lumber or cross-laminated timber (CLT) for tall buildings, as a natural climate solution… Furthermore, the scientific evidence does not support the burning of wood in place of fossil fuels as a climate solution. Current science finds that burning trees for energy produces even more CO2 than burning coal, for equal electricity produced, and the considerable accumulated carbon debt from the delay in growing a replacement forest is not made up by planting trees or wood substitution… We need to increase growing forests to more rapidly close the gap between emissions and removal of CO2 by forests, while we simultaneously lower emissions from our energy, industrial and agricultural sectors.”
Are wood products important? Of course. But with nearly 90% of New England forests available for timber harvest, very few will ever be given the chance to grow old unless we permanently manage more forests as wildlands.
Source: The 2018 Vermont Conservation Design report by the Agency of Natural Resources