Old trees, new ideas, and humility

by Valerie Rapp

Old Growth in a New World:
A Pacific Northwest Icon Reexamined

Thomas A. Spies and Sally L. Duncan, eds.
344 pages, softcover, $32.00.
Island Press, 2009.

Many of this book's 28 authors are the usual suspects -- Jerry Franklin, Jack Ward Thomas, Tom Spies and other experts on the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. In Old Growth in a New World, they debate whether and exactly how the region's famous forests should be managed.

The book's first sections cover familiar ground: Old growth used to be considered a "biological desert," but now we know that these forests are complex and diverse. Old growth forests have great ecological value, and society's ideas about them have changed. … yes, we knew all that. But for those new to the subject, the book offers concise yet thorough explanations of these developments.

Eventually, however, the book offers some new ideas. Recent scientific research shows the limitations of static reserves -- designated areas with fixed boundaries -- in a dynamic natural world. The authors believe that we should rethink reserves, recognizing that areas of old growth continually shift on the landscape, as some forests burn and other forests grow older.

They also point out the need for some active management, especially on dry, fire-prone sites. Thinning of smaller understory trees, prescribed burning, and other actions to reduce fire hazard are essential, they argue, or else drier old growth will go up in smoke over the next few decades. Ecosystem service markets -- carbon credits, perhaps, or credits for wildlife habitat or water source protection -- could help ecological forestry become commercially viable. But these ideas require thinking across landscapes and ownerships, and they require collaboration and trust.

Old Growth in a New World develops its ideas persuasively. The final chapters suggest that old-growth forests could become the template for our new understanding of nature as dynamic, unpredictable, complex and irreducible to numbers. Old growth could lead us to new ways of thinking about forests of all ages.

These new ideas offer exciting possibilities. But the changing ideas about old growth over the past 30 years -- a fraction of an old tree's lifespan -- suggest that we ought to be humble about our new ideas. After all, if it weren't for the old ideas about creating reserves, we wouldn't have 8 million acres of old-growth forests to talk about today.

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