Understanding forests means confronting harsh realities

One of the great joys of being a forester is developing a deep and complex relationship with the vital and beautiful biotic communities that we call “forests.” It’s a double-edged sword: building a more in-depth understanding of forests also forces us to confront some harsh realities. When I walk in the woods, I see forests that are young and simple, invaded and degraded, missing vital pieces and parts; I see both a complex community of living things, and a world of things that are missing. I call these missing things the secret deaths in our forests — all the things that never had a chance to exist.

It’s easiest to visualize these “secret deaths” in a parking lot. Every parking lot (and everything that’s not a forest or a wetland) in Vermont is the site of a cleared forest or a drained wetland. When that forest was cleared, some trees were killed. However, what has transpired since, and what will continue into the indefinite future, is a far greater loss: the trillions of living things of thousands of different species that will simply never exist because that parking lot will never be a forest, and thus never provide habitat for them, again.

While it’s harder to visualize than when I’m in a parking lot, when I walk in a forest I am also surrounded by secret deaths. Nearly all of Vermont’s forests are young and simple, most having regenerated from agricultural land within the last century. Nearly all are missing critical habitats and characteristics, things like big, old trees, dead wood, a gappy, irregular canopy, and different sizes and ages of trees that have defined them and provided habitats for our biodiversity for millennia. Our forests have lost or functionally lost numerous tree species to non-native pathogens, have been invaded by non-native invasive plants that undermine forests’ diversity and resilience, have lost wildlife species and seen new species introduced.

When I walk in the woods I am overwhelmed by the abundance of life, but also by how much life is missing: the living things that cannot exist because our forests lack the basic attributes that these species have adapted to for thousands of years.

As forest managers, forest stewards and forest-lovers, it is vital that we recognize that caring for forests goes far beyond the trees. Managing a forest responsibly also means caring for animals and plants, fungi and insects, soils and waters — the entirety of the forest ecosystem — and safeguarding all of these things into the indefinite future.

I began my own journey in forestry as someone who just loved trees and forests and wanted to protect them. As I learned more about forest ecology, and the reality of the threats and stressors that our modern-day forests face, I began to see how forest management could help restore ecosystems, help them navigate the incredible challenges of the modern world and help them move into an uncertain future with grace. I began to see how the death of trees could be an important tool for creating habitats for thousands of species and ecological attributes that had been missing from our landscape for centuries. I started to question what “protecting” a forest truly meant.

We do not have to be bystanders, watching our forests navigate a climate crisis and a biodiversity crisis alone. We can take action to reverse the secret deaths in our forests, but we can’t do that without making some compromises, without doing some things as complex and as bittersweet as cutting trees. If we look at forests with a more expansive view of forest ecology, and an understanding of how the death of a tree can help contribute to the lives of billions or trillions of organisms, now and in the future, we can see that it’s a small price to pay.

Understanding the secret deaths in our forests is sobering but also hopeful. When I walk through the woods, rather than focus on the secret deaths, I think of what Dr. Gabor Mat calls “the compassion of possibility,” trying to see the forest not just for what it is missing, but also for what it could be. If we take action, we can reverse the secret deaths, helping our forests rediscover their true capacity for life.

(Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County Forester for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. See what he’s been up to, check out his YouTube channel, sign up for his eNews and read articles he’s written.)