Forests Are Essential for Life

Forests are essential to our survival upon our spaceship Earth. Without them, our lands will become desert incapable of sustaining life. Trees are the forest’s interface between the atmosphere that we breathe and the land that we stand upon. Through the work of trees, we enjoy the benefits of soil creation, an active hydrological cycle, the moderation of climate, the exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen through their respiration, the long-term sequestration of carbon, a nutrient rich landscape in which to manage and rotationally graze hogs on mast crops, a diverse forest habitat for wildlife, raw materials for the construction of our homes, and a place to retreat to in order to recharge our souls. Planted in endless rows of the same species, trees become a commodity on a plantation. While mixed species trees, together with herbs, fungi and their mycorrhizal associations, shrubs, brambles, fauna, exists as a diverse polyculture that is redundant and resilient to disturbance.

As small farmers participating in our market economy, we must show that diverse methods of maintaining a forest are just as, if not more, valuable to our income streams than the current practice of clear cutting a stand of timber every fifty to one-hundred fifty years to sell at commodity prices. To this end this article defines nine points that demonstrate why a forest, a polyculture of trees, is more valuable than the market value of their standing timber, once cut and processed into lumber.

Healthy soil is essential to all life on our planet, and forests composed of deciduous trees are efficient creators of soils. Using the mechanics and chemistry of their roots to break apart stones, they are able to extract and add nutrients with the humic acids that exists in the humus of their shed leaves carpeting the forest floor. As recyclers of nutrients, trees capably steward this production of humus from the tonnage of their decomposing leaves, making it available for the entire forest. This seasonal cycle of rebirth, growth, and death carpets the forest with the trees detritus, the byproduct of nutrient scavenging from deep within the earth, solar energy harvesting courtesy of photosynthesis, and water harvesting from the ground and the air. Together these processes redistribute this wealth throughout the forest in the fall and winter, sheltering the soil from the potential of erosion from the cold weather and seasonal rains, as well as contributing the carbon and nutrients that are necessary for the soil food web to regernatively create new soils. The fungi and microfauna, having found a suitable niche in these woodland soils, work together with the trees to exchange nutrients and to break down the leaves into humus rich topsoil, which allows for the continued growth of new trees, mushrooms, shrubs, and a plethora of wildlife.

This spongy topsoil then acts as a fantastic absorbent of dews and rain, allowing the forest to soak up, sink, and store more water into soils, replenishing the ground water table, while mitigating the effects of flooding downstream. This in turn replenishes aquifers, streams, and ponds over an extended time period and deminishes the effects of drought. This forest soil is also necessary to the continued life of the forest, as this is the fertile medium that best supports the new sprouting seeds that will become tomorrow’s towering trees. Forests, merely through their absorption and slow release of rainfall and their alleviation of flooding, contribute to our overall economic health in ways that we take for granted. Floodwaters and the damage they do to roads, bridges, homes and businesses, cars, and lives are serious events that end up costing real dollars. Through the continued forestation of the majority of our landscapes, we can eliminate much of this financial risk.

It is my belief that the lack of trees in the Midwest and plains, as well as the continued reliance on annual crops of corn and soybeans, are both major contributors to the lack of rain and the drought that continues to plague the region. When we consider that the annual corn harvest of one bushel of corn equals nine bushels of lost topsoil, and that a forest can rebuild topsoil at an inch per one hundred years, the economic ROI for clear cutting forests and trading them for annual crop production begins to looks bleak. When we consider that food forests of chestnuts and hazels could rival the annual production of corn and soybeans, while surpassing the nutrient content of both while building and maintaining healthy soils in the Midwest and Plains, our current agricultural pursuits are illogical, both economically and ecologically.

Furthermore, trees are hydrological pumps, pulling vast amounts of water from the earth and seeding the atmosphere through the miracle of transpiration, which makes rain creation possible. It is estimated that half of the moisture that is found in our atmosphere comes from the water that trees have pulled from the soils and transpired into the air from their leaves. Further, much of this ground water is replenished by the action of trees concentrating dews upon their leaves in the early mornings, and releasing it back upon the forest soils that, through healthy soil creation, are receptive and capable of absorbing it. Conversely, the removal of forests can decrease rainfalls in the same area by 50% or more (Mollison, 144). As we now pay the increasing price for poor farming practices that are quickly affected by drought in our food purchases, we have to collectively ask when the true value of forests and trees for their role in creating rainfall and recycling water will be formally recognized.

Along with their role in the creation of rainfall, trees also have an important role in affecting the immediate climate, both through the shade they provide beneath their canopies, as well as through evaporation and condensation. Evaporation causes heat loss, cooling the hot air during the daytime, while condensation causes heat gain, warming the cool nighttime surrounding air. This all occurs on the surface of the leaves of a tree, and according to the USDA Yearbook of Agriculture in 1949, a medium sized Elm tree is capable of releasing 15,000 pounds of water as vapor back into the atmosphere on a hot day (Mollison, 142). At twenty-five trees per acre, the recommendation from the forest service for a ‘forest’, that equals 375,000 pounds, or 45,018 gallons of water made available to the atmosphere. With a gallon of water currently valued at $1.50 per gallon in the US, that equals $67,527 in water vapor made available in the future as rain.

The idea of carbon sequestration is gaining in popularity as we begin to accept the evidence that the Earth is warming. Trees and the healthy forests they live in are excellent long-term storages for the excess carbon that our industrialized societies are churning out, as a result of our reliance on fossil fuels. Should there be a workable carbon credit, farmers and land stewards that chose to invest in forests could begin to see the financial returns on these personal investments that benefit our entire society.

Combining all of the tangible financial benefits of trees and forests listed above with the production of rotationally grazed hogs being finished on the mast crops of acorns and hickory nuts, the small farmer can begin to realize an incredible profit from their forests while increasing the value of their forest. We can raise pigs beneath the canopy in a rotational method, allowing them access to the forests occasionally to harvest acorns and improve the understory; and, we can sell the acorn fed hams for premiums to gourmets and food aficionados, while improving our forests for a sustained and continual harvest. According to farmer extraordinaire Joel Salatin, when compared with a onetime clear cut that will gross approximately $40 per acre over a fifty year cycle, the hog producer can utilize his forests and mast crops to finish his hogs and net $10,000 per acre over the same fifty year period, and maintain the integrity of the forest (Salatin). This is an overwhelming win, as the hogs will only be in the forest for a select time, and when rotated through paddocks on a short rotation, will stimulate the soils and release trees to continue the forest’s long term growth cycle. The short timed rotations don’t sacrifice the long-term benefits of healthy soil production, rainwater harvesting, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat. The mast-finished pork can be marketed for a premium, as it is a highly differentiated product. When the hogs are finished, they are moved out of the forest and the forest is allowed to continue along its growth cycle.

As we can see, living forests, comprised of a polyculture of trees, flora and fauna, and fungi, as well as managed forest systems, are far more valuable than the market value of their standing timber, once cut and processed into lumber.

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