Why We Need a New Conservation Ethic

By Jack Petree

Forest landowners, foresters, consultants, policy advocates, environmental activists, and anyone else with a stake in the future health and resilience of our forests should pay close attention to two new reports from the USDA Forest Service: Invasive Species in Forests and Rangelands of the United States - A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the United States Forest Sector (2021) and Disturbance and Sustainability in Forests of the Western United States (2021).

While not exactly fun reading, the 700-plus pages of the two documents represent a foreshadowing of things to come for the forests of the United States generally and for the western United States, specifically. An alternate title for the two books might be, Business As Usual Won’t Cut It Anymore.

An important takeaway from the two publications is that we are still in the learning stages regarding what is on the horizon when it comes to our future forests. While the reports raise more questions than they answer, they also raise warning flags for those managing our forests; what might have seemed relevant three decades ago has been superseded by new realities.

Sustainability Is Threatened

What do the two works tell us?

Forest sustainability is at risk throughout the United States today. That risk seems especially acute in the West, though no part of the nation is exempt from a perfect storm of events that put pressure on the nation’s forests.

The terms “forest health” and “forest sustainability” are important to understanding the documents. Forest health is pretty self-explanatory. Forest sustainability is an entirely different thing. Sustainability deals with the ability of an existing forest to recover to something resembling its initial state following a significant disturbance event — an event that might include fires, a harvest, severe weather, or any one of dozens of other threats.

Disturbance and Sustainability in Forests of the Western United States poses the problem bluntly, “. . . because forest disturbance is often a pathway to fundamental ecosystem change. . ., we are confronted with the possibility that large swaths of insect-killed trees or burnt-over forests are a harbinger of radical change in forest structure, composition, and extent at the regional scale, especially if anticipated changes in climate exacerbate the frequency, severity, and extent of these disturbances.”

A Perfect Storm

A perfect storm is defined as being, “A critical or disastrous situation created by a powerful concurrence of factors.”

According to the two documents, the “powerful concurrence of factors” afflicting our forests today consists of dramatic increases in the multitude of enemies forests have always been prey to — insects, diseases, invasive species, severe weather incidents, drought, fire, and others. These enemies seem to be attacking in near unison and at levels not seen before, causing in combination far more damage than each might have caused individually.

An overstocked forest weakened by severe drought subsequently attacked by a severe insect infestation on top of a newly introduced pathogen can experience extensive tree death — and when struck by lightning, explode into a firestorm of catastrophic proportions. Such a forest might, in previous decades, have survived one or two of the attacks, but the concurrence of events cascading on one another, vastly multiplies the effect of each.

Adjusting to a New Paradigm

How does that devastated forest replace itself? All too often in today’s world, it cannot.

Both of the documents demonstrate that in much of the western U.S., the stand -replacing disturbances we have been seeing in recent times are often the death knell for the forest returning to anything that resembles what it was prior to the catastrophic event.

As a result of the extended period of warmer temperatures and the accompanying droughts we are experiencing today, tree species that grew well on the devastated area previously are either difficult to reestablish or cannot be reestablished at all. These tree species are replaced by invasive brush and weeds even with traditional interventions.

In addition to heat and drought, consider an additional forest killer. According to the Western Forests document, in addition to the native species already raising havoc in our forests, the United States is now home to more than 50,000 non-native species of plants, pathogens, and insects with at least several thousands of them piling on to attack our forest resources.

It should be noted, the Western document points out, “increased biotic disturbance from insects and disease,” not fire, accounts for most forest disturbance in the western U.S.

A New Conservation Ethic Is Needed

Consensus regarding our forest conservation ethic has changed at least five or six times over the past 100 years. A new consensus must be developed to address new situations threatening our future forests. Rising temperatures and drought, coupled with thousands of new insect, pathogenic, and plant-based plagues will change forestry as we know it for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.

The conclusion drawn by the two documents?

“Many of our ecosystems have reached a point where healthy functions that effectively store carbon and promote sustainable nutrient and water balance are in a more tenuous balance owing to the effects of invasive species. Sustaining ecosystems that store more carbon than they release and that regulate nutrient and water cycles will become more challenging in the future and will require using a creative blend of old and new land management tools. Business as usual is not a sustainable approach to the future.”

Jack Petree is a public policy consultant an owner of Tradeworld Communications. 

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