Forests: why “doing nothing” can’t be the cure
#RestorationStory by Maaike de Graaf
A few weeks ago, I visited my son who is studying in Scotland. He took me for a walk in the Cairngorns, the UK’s largest National Park, which is a fantastic area. Only afterwards, I realised what we have lost in our densely populated Netherlands: the decreased diversity in landscapes, gradients and biodiversity became painfully apparent. For instance, in Scotland, I have seen lichens with the size of a fist, at the end of the branches of oaks. I have never seen that in my home country. Most likely this is due to air pollution as lichens are very sensitive to this. I suppose I do not have to remind you of the atmospheric nitrogen concentrations in the Netherlands, nor of the acidic rain in the past.
But why am I telling you this? I have been working in several ecosystems as a restoration ecologist but have not seen such a large public dispute on the need of rehabilitation as in the field of forests. It seems that we have 17 million forest managers in Holland, all having a strong opinion on forest management. It must be our country spirit, having strong opinions, as we also have 17 million soccer coaches. Most of these millions of forest managers are convinced that our forests are natural by origin (which they are not). As a consequence, they consider ‘doing nothing’ to be the best way to improve the quality and health of our forests. They completely ignore human impact on forest, which we apply not only by planting, management, and recreation, but also by invisible processes such as impacts of climate change and hydrological changes. Acidic and nitrogen deposition have significantly accelerated the weathering of sandy soils: in the last decades, the same amount of calcium and magnesium have leached from the top of the soil as in the 17.000 years before. And is still continuing. In Brabant, we often measure pH-values below 3. To better understand this: pH-value 3 is compared to vinegar. Imagine being a tree in such conditions: your roots develop poorly, and your capacity to take up nutrients and water is seriously hampered. Your vitality sucks, and you will feel a little unstable. On top of this, you would have to deal with lowered ground water tables, imbalanced nutrient availability (due to nitrogen deposition) and climatic changes. You are stressed by multiple factors. And in addition, you struggle with the loss of connectivity to other forests and pollution by light and sound, all factors that diminish the size of suitable habitat for forest plants and animals.
Personally, I do not believe that ‘doing nothing’ will be the cure for large scale forest recovery. Even if we were to stop forest management, we humans still affect the forests through the processes I have explained above. This is precisely why I believe in using all knowledge, tools and means we have to help our forest to survive. This entails reinstalling higher ground water tables, cutting, planting, leaving dead wood. Introducing missing species, adding rock dust to complement leaching. We have to do it! And I am happy to see it is being done in the Netherlands and beyond, with a great variation in management being applied. Because I also believe that when the future is uncertain, we need to diversify risks, and try different approaches to find out what works and learn from practice.
So why are many people in resistance to forest management, even in forests that should serve multiple purposes? One of my Belgian colleagues recently said that urban societies are alienated from forest practice: Her words were: “They think the forest is their pet”, which I can truly relate to. I can understand that you don’t want to cut your pet, but why don’t you want to pamper it either? Why not revitalizing the forest, supporting it to be healthier?
Here we forest practitioners should dare to look at our own acting. We send different messages, and we are thereby confusing our audience. We tell them about small-scale forest management in the Netherlands, reducing clearcut areas to less than 2 times the tree height. Meanwhile we proudly present pictures of helicopters spreading rock dust, in order to reduce acidification impact. Small-scale management? Such images convey the implicit message of large-scale actions, in a way that many associate with noise, air pollution and nitrogen emissions. Is this how we understand forest restoration? Let us be aware of the messages we send in our enthusiasm on forest management and put them in perspective. Let us work against the Zeitgeist pushing us to convey simple stories, and instead tell of the complex reality of gradients, nuances, and diversity, that needs a variety of solutions.
So, to conclude, we have work to do. Both in restoration and in communication.
On April 14th 2023 Maaike presented this column in Dutch language to the KNBV, the Netherlands organisation of Forest Managers. The column is also published at their website.
All photos except oak moss by Maaike de Graaf