Let forest science prevail
When people think of old trees, they undoubtedly picture the most famous old trees of California Ð the giant sequoias and our coastal redwoods. Tall and majestic, these trees are often centuries old and are sites to behold.
Yet, most old trees don’t look like the giant sequoias or coastal redwoods at all. In fact, some old trees Ð hampered by a lack of sunlight, nutrients and water Ð aren’t that tall or wide, and are far from majestic.
Some species of trees simply grow very slowly.
A bristlecone pine, for example, can live for 3,000 to 5,000 years, but on average grows to no more than a few feet in diameter. Other types of trees hit old age quite early – 100 years for the Monterey pine – while others aren’t considered old until much later, like 2,000 years for a giant sequoia.
Despite all these complexities, “old” trees are at the forefront of a debate in the California Legislature that treats all as if they are those majestic giant sequoias or coastal redwoods.
A legislative proposal would prevent people who own forestland from ever harvesting any tree that is at least 154 years old and of certain size, depending on the type of tree. While this might conjure up a vision of protecting giant trees, in fact it endangers our forests.
Oddly, this proposal comes at a time when nearly all old-growth trees are protected.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimates that 95 percent of old-growth trees are on state and federal lands and are well-protected. The remaining 5 percent are on privately owned lands that are subject to the state’s stringent harvesting laws.
This tree-by-tree approach flies in the face of accepted scientific and historic knowledge of our forests.
Forest ecologists don’t just focus on individual old trees; they focus on the overall health of the ecosystem. In that context, they consider groves and stands of many old trees important because of the microclimate they create and the significance of the ecosystem as a whole. California’s forestry laws, for example, refer to stands of 20 acres or more Ð not just single trees or small groups.
Today’s crowded forests deprive young and maturing trees of water, sunlight and nutrients, and are nothing like the forests of our heritage. In centuries past, our forests included a mosaic of old and young trees, with openings and meadows that allowed for growth of a diversity of plants. “Old growth” represented 20 to 40 percent of the trees.
The proposed legislation ignores the fact that current state regulations already are designed to consider all environmental factors before trees are harvested on privately owned lands.
Despite the intent of this bill to protect “old trees,” forestland owners who have responsibly managed their lands will be encouraged in the future to harvest trees before they get too old and are put off limits by this law.
This legislation would also give private forestland owners another reason to question why they continue to produce wood on their land when they could sell out to developers and eliminate the forest once and for all.
Practically, this proposal is quite difficult as well.
Forestry companies, many family-owned businesses that already are struggling, would be required to identify old-growth trees by boring into the trunks of trees to get a snapshot of the rings of the tree, with each ring signifying a year of growth.
When a tree is found, a buffer around the tree would be created and the state would dispatch its staff to supervise this process and ensure no tree was missed.
Given that the state would be eliminating the value of each tree’s wood, the state would likely be required to pay the landowner for taking the tree. The result: hundreds of millions of dollars in new costs to the state.
Why? To preserve single trees the value of which many forest ecologists themselves would question.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – under former Gov. Gray Davis and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – opposes this legislation, as do academics, registered professional foresters and the California Forestry Association.
This idea to prevent harvesting of old-growth trees, no matter their size or ecological significance, may be well intentioned. However, by removing scientific evaluation from the harvesting process and arbitrarily putting limits in place, we hurt the long-term health of our forests.
Instead, we should focus our efforts on supporting proper management of our forests and our ecosystems. California’s long, rich history of caring for its forests should continue. However, that is best done in the forests by professionals, not by politicians making tree-by-tree decisions from the treeless halls of the Capitol in Sacramento.
Douglas D. Piirto holds a Ph.D. in forestry from the University of California-Berkeley and is forestry department head at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He also served on the Giant Sequoia National Monument Science Advisory Board. The Heritage Tree Preservation Act, SB 754, could move through the Legislature before its recess at the end of August.
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