The Value of Ancient Forests

There are many ways to think about the value of a forest—from an industrial perspective, it’s about the economic value of the resources contained therein, including millions of board feet of timber, minerals that many be locked beneath the soil, and other potential moneymakers, such as rare plants containing compounds that might be useful for medicine. Some of these resources are truly unique; mature old-growth timber, for example, has properties not seen in new growth, and fetches more at market.

Ecologically, though, value is a much more complex thing to measure, and one thing is certain: when comparing stands of new and old growth, old growth is much more valuable from an ecological standpoint. Forest that has been left undisturbed for an extended period of time hosts an incredibly complex ecosystem with more genetic diversity, trees at many stages of development, rich soil, and many more plants and animals. In some cases, old growth is the only home for rare plants and animals that can’t thrive in new growth environments due to human disturbances or a lack of the resources they need; for example, some birds prefer to nest in snags, the standing dead trees that litter ancient forests. Others rely on the insects that live in fallen logs on the forest floor, something found in abundance in old growth forests.

The habitat provided by ancient forests is incredibly important, especially when they exist in large stands rather than isolated islands. As more and more land is cleared for human development, plant and animal species have fewer places to go, and struggle to survive. Ancient forests provide a retreat and a reservoir of complex genetics; the same genetics, in fact, that might be crucial for the survival of humans as a species, actually, because undiscovered plants, fungi, bacteria, and other organisms may hold the key to the development of new generations of medical compounds. Within every ancient forest lies potential; within new growth or clearcut area is nothing more than a legacy of devastation and destruction with profit as the primary motive.

Ancient forests actually slowly shape and cultivate the landscape around themselves over the centuries. As leaves and logs fall, they break down and enrich the soil, in addition to trapping carbon. As the topography changes, so do the routes of rivers and streams, shifted by fallen logs and forest debris. Slow-growing plants have plenty of time to mature in the protection of an ancient forest, and complex multigenerational ecosystems have a chance to develop in a landscape where time is not at a premium. When these forests are swept by fire and other natural occurrences, these just add to the richness and complexity, rather than devastating the forest.

Research even suggests that ancient forests could be an important well of genetic diversity among economically popular tree species. In logged areas, loggers historically selectively took the trees most suitable for sale, passing over trees they aren’t interested in. Over time, this may have contributed to the selection of a narrow band of tree genes, ones which not only aren’t as suitable for logging, but also aren’t as suitable for the long-term survival of the species. Meanwhile, members of the same species in ancient forests may grow taller and straighter, with a distinctive set of genes that are not easily found in the outside world. Programs to develop better forest management look to these specimens to understand the impact of logging on forests and tree genetics, and to determine how forests might be managed more effectively in the future.

Given the growing understanding of the ecological importantce of old growth forests around the world, from rainforests in Central and South America to pine forests in Germany, one might reasonably expect a shift in policy to protect and research such valuable resources. It’s important to learn more about them and how they function, and that’s not going to be possible if they are in the process of being systematically destroyed for short-term profit, like valuable woods. Yet, there’s still considerable resistance to protecting forests worldwide, and there’s a particular lack of understanding about the importance of ancient forests and the fact that they cannot be replaced by tree plantings; once gone, they’re gone forever, unless you want to talk about establishing a forest and nurturing it for hundreds of years in order to rebuild an old growth forest.

This kind of long-term planning isn’t something most nations are interested in, especially when it requires occupying valuable real estate. When productive timber lands are controlled primarily by the logging industry and other firms with an interest in natural resource exploitation in the immediate future, they have no incentive to leave ancient forests intact. Or they’ll follow the letter of the law, leaving, for example, a strip of old growth in place, without actually complying with the spirit. An island of old growth in the midst of a clear cut is hardly protected and it’s not an accurate reflection of the complex ecosystem that once thrived there; it will be vulnerable to destruction and disease, and it can’t serve as an effective habitat when animals can’t reach it because it’s marooned in a sea of development or stripped earth.

The need to protect forests for their own sake, because they’re beautiful and amazing, is important, but so is the need to protect them because they are ecologically valuable and incredibly unique. Nations like the US must not sell off their natural resources to the highest bidder in search of immediate solutions to budgetary woes, because the costs stretching into the future will be much, much higher, and somewhat unpredictable; who knows what you’ll lose under the teeth of bulldozers and the blades of chainsaws. If you ever find out what you did lose, it will be too late to recover it.