Ten forest myths

Forests, forestry and the forest industry are among the most environmentally friendly of human activities, contrary to common perspectives.

Working every year with hundreds of school kids and various public groups, several misconceptions, under-lying assumptions, or myths seem to bubble-up to the surface on a regular basis. How many of the following ten have you harbored?

1. Trees provide the air we breathe.

Most of the Earth’s fresh oxygen is produced from the oceans, which makes sense when you understand that three-quarters of the Earths’ surface is covered with water. For terrestrial systems, non-forest biomes are the most common. So, oxygen from trees? Meh. Okay, they produce some, but it is not a particularly high value attributable to trees or forests.

2. We should plant two trees for every one we harvest.

In the Lake States, planting is typically unnecessary. Our forest management systems are tailored to the various forest types to create environmental conditions that encourage natural regeneration. This management is quite successful. So, why plant a few trees when nature will successfully produce billions? This said, there are circumstances where tree planting is needed and useful.

3. A tree grows one ring per year.

If a tree grew only one ring, how could you tell where last year’s ring ended and the next year’s ring began? In fact, our northern temperate trees grow two annual rings each year. The wider, light-colored ring grows in the springtime, followed by the narrower, dark colored ring in the summertime. Then, the tree stops growing wood for about six months. 

4. Forests are disappearing.

This is not true in Michigan or across the Lake States, although it is true in some regions around the world. As of 2017, Michigan has more acres of forestland than any time since the 1930s, when statistical forest inventories began. Now, if you live in an urban area and see sprawl gobbling up the countryside, it might be easy to get this impression. However, statewide, we now have a bit over 20 million acres of forest, and that covers a little over half the state.

5. Clearcutting is deforestation.

Deforestation, by definition, is a land use change from forest to something else. The overwhelming amount of deforestation is for agriculture, and then, secondly, for building human infrastructure. Clearcutting is a forest regeneration practice designed to stimulate the reproduction of sun-loving tree species, such as the aspens, red pine, jack pine and others. Natural clearcutting happens through wildfire, windstorms, insect and disease outbreaks and similar events. While clearcutting is not quite exactly the same thing, it’s far more benign than natural occurrences. 

6. Planting a tree will save the planet.

This is a popular promotional campaign and has some value in raising awareness, but in ecological terms it is nonsense. Even if every Michigander planted a thousand trees every year, that amount would not come close to annual natural regeneration. However, planting trees does have strategic value in filling-in where nature missed a beat, to change forest type compositions, or to achieve a visual quality objective at a residence or in a city. So, planting trees is a great thing, it is just not going to save the planet.

7. Mother nature knows best.

Nature knows nothing. It is not sentient. Benign neglect is not a fruitful strategy. The predictable paths of natural succession lead to places most people are not going to be happy with. First, the forest legacy following the historic logging era left forests in an unnatural condition, which is the forest that we see today. Second, ecological forest processes alone are unlikely to meet all the demands that society places upon forests. Third, forest health challenges and exotic species place additional pressures on forests. The solution to these problems is active forest management. We don’t manage forests for the forests’ sake. We manage forests for people, by working with natural processes.

8. Timber harvest destroys wildlife habitat.

Harvest, natural disturbance or forest succession creates habitat changes. These changes benefit some species and do not benefit others. Therefore, any particular timber harvest will have wildlife winners and losers. The same is true without the harvest. More likely, critics of timber harvest react to the change in visual quality, which is an especially poor measure of ecological integrity.

9. Government owns most of the forest.

Nearly two-thirds of the Michigan forest is privately owned. Of that, families own nearly three-quarters. The State of Michigan owns about 21 percent and the federal government owns about 17 percent. Ownership has a huge impact on how a forest is managed. However, regardless of ownership, all forests provide benefits to everyone.

10. Forest industry is a destructive, extractive industry.

It is counter-intuitive to many, but the forest industry provides the financial incentive for forest management. No markets leads to no management. With an unmanaged forest, there is a road of troubles. Additionally, there is no greener industry. Thousands of daily products, made from the most environmentally friendly raw material at our disposal, come from forests. Forest products also include clean water and a diversity of wildlife habitat. In contrast to the myth, the forest industry supports a wide range of goods and services, including a healthier environment. Wood use is not a choice, it is essential to our survival. Every U.S. resident uses an average of three to four pounds of wood every day.

Michigan is a big state. It can be misleading to assume that what may be seen in a particular area or along highway corridors is what occurs across the state. Our forests currently produce an amazing array of benefits and unmet opportunities. The potential for increases in quality and quantity of these benefits is huge.

Our popular culture seems to perpetuate many incorrect assumptions and perceptions about forests and how humans depend upon forests. Do not believe everything you read. Look it up and learn, it can end up being pretty fun stuff!

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