Forest Health

Our Forests Look Healthy, But Are They Really?

In 1996 Charles Little wrote a book entitled The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America's Forests.  The basic thesis is that there is widespread forest death and decline due to the combined effects of air pollution, increased ultraviolet radiation (from thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer), climate change and poor forest management.  While problems have been well documented in many areas across the country, there is no evidence to suggest that our forests in western Massachusetts are dying or declining.  But neither is there a systematic, extensive system of continuous forest monitoring to tell us how healthy they are.

The US Forest Service is currently in the process of analyzing an update of their Massachusetts inventory data--last measured in 1985.  There are also forest inventory plots on state forest land.  These plots have not been measured since 1979, but are currently being remeasured.  The results from both inventory updates should be in by the end of the year.  Data from these plots will tell us something about the health of our forests, but they won't indicate how close we are to critical thresholds where cumulative stresses can cause sudden collapses of ecosystems.  

If you're wondering why you haven't heard of these problems sooner, there are several important reasons.  First, East Coast decline problems are currently limited to high elevation forests in the Appalachians.  Second, forest decline is a very complicated problem.  The technical difficulty of identifying cause and effect relationships has made it easy for powerful industrial interests to effectively challenge research results for well over two decades now. 

The oil, coal, automobile, electric utility, manufacturing and chemical industries don't want to pay for pollution controls.  Nor do they want to reduce the scale of their activities in order to reduce carbon emissions in the interest of slowing global warming and climate change (The Heat Is On).  The big corporate news media are complicit in their avoidance of these and related issues.

Through their control of the political and bureaucratic processses, these industrial interests have influenced the direction forest decline research by requiring that direct cause and effect relationships be proven--in situations where the complex dynamics of ecological interactions make this all but impossible.  According to Charles Little and others, they have also managed to suppress and distort the results of some research projects that were critical of their polluting activities. 

Much of the recent publicity on the issue of forest decline has come from Appalachian Voices, a group of volunteer forest activists, mostly from the southern Appalachians.  They publish a newsletter and have a web site.  They have been working on carrying Charles Little's message to the public.  They have also been working with many forest scientists to publicize what is known about how air pollution affects our forests, and to help plan further research.