New Trees Can’t Save Us from Climate Change, especially if planted dead

Planting forests, USFS, via flickr
Over at KCET‘s “The Back Forty”, Char Miller challenges some too-common thinking in forestry. In Will Trees Save Us from Climate Change? A Doubtful Tale, Miller challenges foresters to move beyond thinking that re-greening the planet via planting trees will save us. Further, Miller suggests that there are lessons unlearned in attempts to plant trees to reforest landscapes. Here’s a shortened version of Miller’s thesis:

…That [trees] can sequester carbon has been much touted in policymaking circles as one tool to help shrink our carbon footprint; and thus trees seem critical to the larger effort to reduce global warming.

Yet it does not necessarily follow … that we must reforest the planet as rapidly as possible….

Sure: if we had a more complete picture of the variations of potential temperature change across ecosystems and typographies; if we could pinpoint when and where alterations in precipitation will occur; and were we able to calibrate the shifting influence that heat, light, and wet will have on differing soil types, then we might have a clue about what tree species to plant in which biota and at what times.

But we don’t. So to plant trees in hopes that they will survive — and thus increase the odds of us doing so — seems, at best, random.

Take a local analogy. In the scorched aftermath of the Station Fire the U. S. Forest Service feared that the erosive force of coming rainy seasons would strip the burned-over district of its soil. It thus launched an aggressive restoration project. Beginning in April 2011, contract labor planted one million seedlings of an expected three million over five years. The goal was to re-green approximately 11,000 acres of the 160,000 that burned at a white heat during August and September 2009. The Angeles National Forest, or at least a portion of it, would be reborn.

It has not happened. Only about 25 percent of the seedlings dug into charred slopes, cindered meadows, and blackened canyon floors have survived, a mortality rate that has stunned agency foresters. “When we planted seedlings, conditions were ideal in terms of soil composition and temperature, rainfall and weather trends,” one of them told the LA Times. “Then the ground dried out and there just wasn’t enough moisture after we planted.”

The Forest Service has gone back to the drawing board, shrinking the number of acres to be planted and, where possible, switching to tree species that are indigenous to the San Gabriel Mountains.

Critics are unappeased. One of them [mused], “The reality we live in is a Mediterranean climate, and there is just not enough water to create what they have in mind. I do not believe they will succeed because this is Southern California, not rain-drenched Oregon.”

This climatic reality is part of the reason why there has been a very long history of flawed regeneration projects on county and federal lands in the San Gabriels….

The Forest Service has never quite learned L.A. County’s hard-won lesson. Despite what federal foresters long have understood about the low fertility of local soils, mercurial weather patterns, and steep canyon walls, they have repeatedly endeavored to re-engineer the San Gabriels’ ground cover. …

Why this institutional memory has not surfaced to check the Forest Service’s current aspirations to reforest portions of the Angeles is an open question.

More to the point, the agency’s century-long inability to rearrange the San Gabriels’ biota to its liking is a powerful rejoinder to those who so confidently believe that planting trees, indiscriminately and in large number, will help resolve some of the challenges that a climate-changed world is bringing. [most hyperlinks omitted here]

Endnote: The evidence Miller cites is not the only evidence that the Forest Service “never quite learned [its] hard-won lesson.” The Forest Service’s Wyoming Study in the early 1970s came to similar conclusions. In the early 1970s, following a bark-beetle infestation and big clearcuts in lodgepole pine in Wyoming, the Forest Service began a massive re-planting effort. The logging went well. The planting did not. And the very large clearcuts raised controversy, in part fueled by the failed planting effort. The saplings died for the most part, scorched by the sun in the barren clearcuts. Many were planted again, and they too died, as documented in “Forest Management in Wyoming, 1971” (cited here). The Wyoming Study, led in part to the Church clearcutting guidelines that made their way into the National Forest Management Act of 1976. You’d have thought that the Forest Service would have been very wary of future adventures in re-planting. But no.

Now, in Southern California the Forest Service has, once again, wandered into a planting effort that has failed for pretty much the same reasons. Only this time they had a ‘partner’ – the National Forest Foundation — and outside money from “carbon offsets” government subsidies.

22 thoughts on “New Trees Can’t Save Us from Climate Change, especially if planted dead”

  1. Some in SoCal were proposing to interplant Giant Sequoias in areas recovering from bark beetles, about 10 years ago. In fact, there are already some 20 year old trees that were planted in the San Berdoo. I had to black out some that were originally marked to be cut.

    Funny that the article mentions “burned at white heat” but, makes zero mention of intense soils damage as a likely factor in planting mortality. HMMMMMMMMMMMM I guess such “esoteric minutiae” is too hard to explain to watchers of public television in LA. *smirk*

    • I wonder whether the reporters ‘fact checked’ their allegations re: “burned at white heat”? As per your inference, Larry, of “intense soil damage,” I’m always suspicious of such claims–not that it doesn’t happen once in a while. I was going to quote from George Weurthner’s The Wildfire Reader w/r/t fire severity myths, but I figured that you’d respond with the same kind of vitriol that you reserve for, say, Chad Hansen. So instead, I’ll just ask that you point us toward some credible evidence as to “fire severity” and its relationship to “intense soil damage” w/r/t/ forest fires generally, and perchance this fire specifically.

      PS.. I remember conversations with USFS R4 Regional Forester Stan Tixier re: The Yellowstone Fires of 1988, with me suggesting the virtues of forest replacement fires, and Stan suggesting that if I had seen the wide-spread soil destruction from that fire complex, then I would be more appreciative of the destruction wrought by massive forest fire complexes. I wasn’t convinced then, and I remain skeptical now.

      • The Biscuit study shows, without a doubt, that important soil characteristics are severely impacted by such hot fires. All those bad impacts, especially the catastrophic loss of organic matter, leads to poor survival of ANY plant germinations. Higher bulk densities and more surface rock also leads to poor conditions for new seedlings and trees. Weurthner is entitled to his opinions and observations, as am I but, I also reserve the right to challenge his assumptions and conclusions (and I have, indeed!).

        Certainly, pure lodgepole forests have their mechanisms but, they are also highly-impacted by man’s activities and, I tend to think their wildfires are more intense than historical fires. Fire suppression and climate change have impacts that are hard to gauge. Is it OK to let a forest burn at high intensitiy, which might naturally burn at lower intensities, if not for man’s past and current impacts? Or is it better to let whatever happens, happen?

        • Also not mentioned is the fact that hydrophobicity persists for years, if unmitigated. That simply means that groundwater cannot be fully recharged because rainwater doesn’t penetrate the slightly melted surface layer. It is well known that hot fires cause hydrophobicity, causing intensified erosion. This mild winter has kept flooding damage to a minimum but, intensified floods will remain a hazard for years, and heavy rains are a certainty in the future of the LA Basin.

          There is really not a lot that can be done for the devaStation Fire. It is clearly the result of “doing nothing” for the last 35 years, “preserving” fuels for future fires. In summary, we have hydrophobic soils that have lost all organic matter and have fire-induced loss of soil nutrients. Hmmm, now WHY aren’t these trees surviving?!? *smirk*

          • Ok, Larry. We agree that there are problems with “hydrophobic soils” as related to fire. How big is this problem? In #2 (above), I asked for “credible evidence” that this is a big problem. You continue to respond with “preaching.” I suspect that you have some evidence in your hip pocket. Will you share it?

            • The Biscuit Study confirms the many adverse effects of high intensity wildfires on soils. Is that Forest Service study “not credible”?!?!?

              ” In summary, we have hydrophobic soils that have lost all organic matter and have fire-induced loss of soil nutrients.”

              Aren’t these scientific facts enough?!?!?!?

              • Larry,
                All I asked for was a simple hyperlink or two. Is there only one Forest Service study titled “The Biscuit Study?” If so, where is it? When I look for credibility, I usually want to dig deeper than that it was published by a government agency. Not that I don’t trust our government! **smirk**

                    • It is very clear that hydrophobicity can be a problem, and the Bormman paper didn’t attempt to measure that. However, it is VERY clear that intense soil damage did, indeed, occur on those Biscuit plots.

                      Here is another link to a comparison of low intensity prescribed fire, and high-intensity burns, as well as some climate impacts from doing nothing.


              • While I’m waiting for your hypelink(s), Larry, I found this from Ray Ring in High Country News,

                Often we are told that the hottest fires ruin the soil by forming water-repellent “hydrophobic” layers under the surface. Not mentioned is the fact that such hydrophobic layers typically break down within two or three years.

                The biggest monster last year? Oregon’s 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire left most of the tree canopies surviving on nearly 40 percent of the land it burned. Even in the most severely burned areas, fire-adapted plants, such as oaks, ferns, beargrass and kalmiopsis bushes, resprouted. The fire also opened habitat for a rare insect-eating pitcher plant, Darlingtonia californica, by killing Jeffrey pines and invading cedars.

                “It was a large fire — it covered a lot of acres. But it was not remarkable in its physical effects,” says Jon Brazier, a Forest Service hydrologist who studied the Biscuit fire. “The watersheds were not destroyed. The water quality is still good, the streams are in good shape — they are changed, but they are still functioning.”

                • Sure, there is not a lot we can do to manage fires in the high elevation ultra-flammable forests. However, in the vast lower elevations, tree densities and species compositions should be restored, to keep those forests safe from more and more human-caused wildfires.

                  Ray Ring also fantasizes that beavers could be a solution to fire resiliency. *smirks*

  2. “Now, in Southern California the Forest Service has, once again, wandered into a planting effort that has failed for pretty much the same reasons. Only this time they had a ‘partner’ – the National Forest Foundation — and outside money from “carbon offsets” government subsidies.”

    Thanks for this post Dave.

    The pattern in decision-making is well established though — I would hardly characterize the process in terms of the project decision having “wandered.” There are two crucially important points I hope you will focus upon in future posts.

    First, this is not a wandering but an inexorable neoliberal endgame; and second, this is about the disturbing collusion of government / corporate (aka “public/private partnerships” such as the National Forest Foundation and the USFS.) Having just returned from the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center Symposium on the Tongass, the NFF/USFS message could not have been made any more clear.

    After all, they are now poised to monetize the entirety of what remains of the commons — its water, carbon, air, fish, soil, plants, and even animals (as biodiversity credits); and the monetization even, of all beneficial elements and natural processes by which ecosystems function.This they call “Payment for Ecosystem Services”.

    Payment indeed. The same highjackers of land management will accomplish this promised “restoration” with a ransom note to be paid by taxpayers and future generations. To fully understand what this means, is to appreciate this for what it is: perpetual extortion. We will not only fund the destruction, we will fund the restoration, and ultimately be expected to make the ultimate sacrifice: forfeiture of ownership of the commons itself.

    The referenced agency decisions, whether to plant grass, or whether to plant trees are based upon a well-established decision tree. That decision tree is watered and seeded with a well-managed and well-cultivated torrent of public vitriol like Larry Harrell’s, whose righteous indignation of course, has been captured by the promisors and perpetrators.

    Such are the storms (now more frequent and of increasing intensity) seeded by failed expectations and false promises of state and federal “managers” of economic policy dependent upon resource extraction.

    • Just a reminder that the last lumber mill in the LA Basin has been gone for THIRTY YEARS! Any claims of vegetation management down there to benefit “resource extraction” (aka logging interests) is completely false! The nearest lumber mill is a 12 hour round trip, and of course, the logs don’t pay their way to the mill. I might be the most qualified here to present post-fire impacts from wildfires, with much of my career spent in salvage sales. The media and other folks still cling to the mantra that wildfires are good and man’s intervention is bad. In many places, it is man’s intervention that has created the open cathedral type forests we all love. The fact that those Indian-managed lands still exist, is testament to their skill and wisdom of manipulating their forests for their greater good.

  3. well I hope they keep replanting the trees, over in Charlotte, they’re trying to setup a policy meaning anytime a tree needs to be removed for zoning issues, a new one will be planted. But its so backwards, our government doesn’t have the resources or money to prune or take care of existing trees. aghh…frustrating.

    • Neither Char Miller nor I am against planting trees. In fact Miller opened his piece that way, noting his love for trees. I just didn’t highlight it. Planting trees is one small gesture we can do to try to repair the damage wrought by what David Ehrenfeld calls The Arrogance of Humanism. But care must be taken so that whatever we do, as technologically powerful actors on the world scene, we don’t add insult to the injury we have already inflicted on Nature. And “one small gesture” does not make up for all our other environmental insults. Something to remember as we set up to celebrate Earth Day tomorrow.

  4. Dave, thanks for posting this, Char had sent it but I didn’t get to posting it yet.

    I’m pretty surprised at the tone of this article. Areas burn up. based on stochastic situations trees may regrow on their own or they can be helped to grow back by planting.

    In the 80’s we had hordes of scientists and practitioners (and intermediate characters) experimenting, at least in central Oregon, where I worked. Certainly there is a lot more known now on all these topics than in the 30s or even the 60s.

    Planting in dry areas is difficult and requires years of experimenting with nursery stock (1-0 vs. 2-0, bare root versus containers), treatment of seedlings (remember vermiculite slurries?), refrigerated trucks and tree coolers, etc. I’m surprised that no one else on this blog remembered how much work it was to optimize these practices for dry areas. Maybe all the other folks involved have retired and moved on. Unfortunately, if folks want to plant trees again.

    But what surprises me the most is that the seemingly desirable practice of “plantin’ trees” is thought to be “reengineering” when trees were there before and are good for wildlife, soil retention, etc. (or at least that’s what’s argued when “cuttin’ em down” is considered to be bad. It seems rather philosophical. What am I missing?

    • Perhaps you might be missing, the (non-philosophical) factor of a destabilized climate prone to extreme weather events? Sustained, regional droughts and watersheds destabilized by intensive timber harvest is now making the claims of restoring “resiliency” (in some areas) a mirage on the desert horizon.

      • In the interest of constructive (or otherwise) feedback, I invite the 4 thumbers down to explain their disapproval of comment #18.

  5. In #10 Larry points out that some soils were damaged by the Biscuit fire. Ok. We get that. But questions linger as to “how much” and “for how” long? Then Larry goes on to point to another study that he claims highlights “some climate impacts from doing nothing.” Here the link:

    The referenced report is “Soils Under Fire: Soil Research and the Joint Fire Science Program”, by Heather E. Erickson and Rachel White, 2008. I read that study yesterday and found it to be, in my opinion, a very balanced report. It has some interesting stuff re: fires and soils, BUT does NOT as far as I can see talk about “climate impacts from doing nothing.” Maybe I missed it. Larry: Can you show us were I, once again, missed the information you are attempting to daylight?

    Or maybe Larry is suffering from what decision theorists call “affirmation bias”, or “confirmation bias”: looking for evidence to confirm preconceived notions. Wikipedia informs us that “Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence.” We all suffer from this bias along with other biases. During my career the Forest Service seemed to me to be especially prone to fall into these “decision traps” as I pointed out in How to Avoid Harebrained, Cockamamie Schemes.

      • Ok.. I’ll admit to thinking about ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ when writing up the comment. I plead guilty. But that still doesn’t relieve you of responding to my allegation that: “Soils Under Fire: Soil Research and the Joint Fire Science Program” … does NOT as far as I can see talk about “climate impacts from doing nothing.”


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