Potential for Collapse of Forest Ecosystems

A guest post from Kevin Matthews:

A substantial body of science shows a general pattern, that when the ecological integrity of a natural ecosystem is degraded, its response curve is non-linear. The state that occurs when the response curve becomes non-linear, such that small additional impacts result in large losses of ecosystem integrity, is sometimes referred to as ecosystem collapse.

One of the scientific bases for why ecosystem collapse tends to catch humans by surprise is pretty interesting with regard to the O&C checkerboard forest lands of western Oregon.

Natural ecosystems tend to be very resilient, accommodating heavy damage and still recovering, up to typically somewhere between 50% and 90% damage. This lulls humans into complacency, to the sense that they can keep taking, and the ecosystem will keep recovering.

Then, somewhere in the range of substantial alteration of from 50% and 90% of habitat area, ecosystem resiliency breaks down. A threshold gets crossed, where things fall apart fast and hard. And in a relatively short time frame, the habitat is changed (loss of soil, hydrology, key species, whatever) so the ecosystem no longer has a viable path to recovery.

The point of collapse is hard to predict because the system responses go rapidly non-linear. Past rates of recovery, however well-researched, become almost instantly irrelevant.

A rough, understated estimate would be that the overall O&C checkerboard is already at 75-80% substantial impact, based on close to 100% impact to the industrial part, and optimistically 60% impact to the BLM part. (Looking just at old growth remnants, 90% or more impacted would be defensible.)

Add in the ongoing impacts due to climate change, and there’s a strong basis to believe the checkerboard forests are hanging on the edge of serious collapse.

Interestingly, much same thing is true for ecosystems overall, viewed at the global scale:

Habitats incorporating giant trees were endemic across the well-watered areas of what is now the U.S., from the Appalachians to the Great Plains, from the Carolinas to Maine to Minnesota. After a few centuries of western expansion, all that remains of those great tree forests is a thin fringe along the western edge of the continent. And this thin fringe is critically endangered.

Time to change our ways.

If we were ecologically realistic, given the heavy impacts on western Oregon forests to date, in order to avoid collapse we might want to plan for significant disturbance to not more than 25% of the checkerboard lands, and that, only in lands heavily disturbed already.

Key questions then would be, how could we make a sustainable level of harvest, contained by that threshold, work for the economics of rural communities? Could we continue needed building construction with the resulting output of sawlogs? Could we maintain a timber culture that we would all be proud of?

Recent calls by Senators and other politicians to increase logging, without addressing these broader and deeper issues, are fundamentally misinformed.

I’d like to see all sides work together in seeking a true balance, based on clear evidence, for forest policy in this new century.

28 thoughts on “Potential for Collapse of Forest Ecosystems”

  1. Kevin, you do know that the words “ecosystems” “degrade” and “collapse” are all human values or structures, not empirical facts in the physical world?.

    To help me understand better, could you give some examples of “collapsed” “ecosystems”?

  2. “I’d like to see all sides work together in seeking a true balance, based on clear evidence, for forest policy in this new century.”

    Hmmm…a call for “clear evidence” and then you write this thing? Wow. There is nothing clear about what you just wrote.

  3. I’m with Sharon on this one. What is a “collapsed ecosystem”? I vividly recall, in the 1940s when I drove through parts of Louisiana as part of my job with the Southern Experiment Station, there were stumps as far as the eye could see (miles and miles). Today those stumplands are well-stocked, productive forests. A city is just as a much an ecosystem as a stand of old-growth Douglas fir. An orange grove is an ecosystem just like a stand of slash pine. Different, yes. more “valuable”? To whom and by what measure? Here’s a question I asked many years ago – “Which is more valuable, an Eflat minor chord, a dozen oranges, or the color mauve?” Still searching for the answer. When I find it, I’ll hire out writing planning rules and un-appealable forest plans.

    • For those sincerely seeking, I’d recommend the underlying major paper:

      Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere

      Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence. The plausibility of a planetary-scale ‘tipping point’ highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.

      The 22 authors and their affiliations are listed at the above link.

      Here is a summary and graphic for non-subscribers:


      • Kevin…I don’t have $32 but I am interested in the localized abrupt and irreversible shifts..

        We talked about tipping points awhile back from Steve Rayner’s guest post on Roger Pielke, Jrs. blog here..

        At first sight, the contemporary resurgence in catastrophist thinking might be understood as a response to improvements in our understanding of critical earth systems resulting from research-led improvements in scientific understanding. However, I have not been able to identify any new empirical studies to justify the claim that, “Although Earth’s complex systems sometimes respond smoothly to changing pressures, it seems that this will prove to be the exception rather than the rule.” (Rockström et al 2009:472). Leading ecologists have long suggested that the general assertions of systems theorists that “everything is connected to everything else” and “you can’t change just one thing” are actually less robust than is often claimed. It seems that most species in many ecosystems are actually quite redundant and can be removed without any loss of overall ecosystems character or function (e.g., Lawton 1991, but for a contrasting view, see Gitay et al 1996). While it is doubtless the case that there are many non-linear relationships in natural systems, it is another matter as to whether non-linearity dominates and whether we should, as a matter of course, expect to find tipping points everywhere. Indeed, a recent review challenges Rockström et al.’s claims, arguing that out of the planetary boundaries posited, only three genuinely represent truly global biophysical thresholds, the passing of which could be expected to result in non-linear changes (Blomqvist et al, 2012).

        The same report also challenges the idea that the planetary boundaries constitute “non-negotiable thresholds”. The identification of the planetary boundaries is dependent on the normative assumptions made, for example, concerning the value of biodiversity and the desirability of the Holocene. Rather than non-negotiables, humanity faces a system of trade-offs – not only economic, but moral and aesthetic as well. Deciding how to balance these trade-offs is a matter of political contestation (Blomqvist et al, 2012:37). What counts as “unacceptable environmental change” is not a matter of scientific fact, but involves judgments concerning the value of the things to be affected by the potential changes. The framing of planetary boundaries as being scientifically derived non-negotiable limits, obscures the inherent normativity of deciding how to react to environmental change. Presenting human values as facts of nature is an effective political strategy to shut down debate.

        • The political critique in a blog post of a major paper published in the leading peer-reviewed journal doesn’t do much for me.

          The science speaks for itself.

          • Kevin, at the risk of sounding like ESIPRI, if unpaid peer review were such a good quality control mechanism, maybe we should use it instead of litigation to review FS projects? Or to regulate oil and gas companies? Or to credential doctors?

            Many of us in the science biz have seen a lot of ideas come and go in our lifetimes. Real scientific ideas (like remember Junk DNA) and not just value/science jargon mixes…

            Actually, the “science” cannot speak for itself, as most of us can’t afford to read it..

            It’s not a political critique… it’s a review by another scientist in that Rayner is an anthropologist, and a researcher in science and technology studies. The science and technology studies researchers provide us an understanding of how the “science biz” actually works, as opposed to their marketing.

            But the point is, you don’t need a large Hadron collider or knowledge of differential equations to analyze this kind of work. You just need a brain, and some acquaintance with the natural world, which all of us on this blog have.

    • Maybe Mt. St. Helens or Tokyo or the Gobi Desert represent “collapsed ecosystems?” I think I’d opt for the more accurate: “changed landscapes.” Life, in all of its forms, seems pretty adaptable, robust, and energetic. One minute someone wants “more old-growth” and the next minute they want more “early seral.” These are all human values, but certainly not universally shared. Camels and tortoises prefer the desert, for example, while moose and turtles prefer wetland environments.

    • Ecosystems of the east could be considered “collapsed”, when compared to pre-European conditions. However, much is being “restored”, at least on an incremental basis, compared to the historical damage already done. The old cotton fields of the South have some pretty good pine canopies. Bottomland stands seems to be great places of biodiversity. In South Carolina, I counted 40 hardwood species and just 3 conifers. Still it was a great exercise in tree identification for someone who took Dendro back in the 70’s.

  4. Back in the early 90’s, when working on big bark beetle salvage projects, I shared a “barracks” with other temporary “ologists”. The archaeologists talked about “protecting the integrity of the site”, by adding a “buffer” into their protected area. In the end, their sites became filled with snags, threatening historic structures and preserving the fuels for a future wildfire. Some of them learned from that, and decided to work closer with me to better protect their interests. Yes, trust was earned!

  5. To assume that forests can be clearcut and sprayed with herbicide and pesticide over and over and strip mined everywhere and all the plant and animal species will bounce right back is absurd. Go see for yourself. Every time a forest is clearcut, fewer plant species return. Crowded monculture stands are uninhabitable from lack of food, shelter and sun. Nothing can survive except extreme fire danger. Fish can’t survive in hot water without shade. Birds can’t survive without bugs and seeds. Animals need food and shelter. Crushing their dens with bulldozers kills them and makes the soil too hard to dig in. Even the snags and rotting logs are removed from where there had been habitat. Large snags store water. Go see for yourself. Even wetlands are drained of water to make way for more damnedable man made species of no benefit to any others. The top soil is bulldozed in heaps and burned with the slash. When the mico-rhysal fungi has been killed, it’s gone from the soil. But humans say “Oh, everything’s fine. We replant single aged monoculture reprod. By the time the clay substrata stops growing anything any more I’ll be gone, so who cares about tomorrow.” HUMANS SUCK the life from Earth and that causes ecosystem collapse, but they’re too dumb and lazy to go see anything so just spout company rhetoric.

    • Well, then, I guess you will like that we haven’t done any clearcutting in the Sierra Nevada National Forests for TWENTY years, now. Our thinning projects remove individual trees with surgical precision, sculpting those monocultures back into more “natural” stands. We still have plenty of restoration work to do, as we have seen what happens when we “let nature takes it course” in man-affected forests.

      • Indeed, Larry, the approach you describe in the Sierra Nevada sounds so much better. Intelligent thinning as you describe is not likely to drive a forest toward collapse.

        Personally, I do believe in the possibility of a sustainable timber industry.

        But in the O&C checkerboard, large clearcuts are still standard practice on the large private holdings – clearcuts which even Norm & Jerry have termed “forest termination”.


        And at the same time, under calls for “more harvest” no matter what, elements of the BLM are seeking to reintroduce clearcutting to mature native forest (LSRs) in the public sections, under the term “regeneration harvest”.

        Beyond that, Defazio et al. are still shopping around proposed legislation to turn over the BLM sections to private industrial management for wholesale clearcutting.

        In Oregon, still ‘saw-log central’ of the US, clearcutting is still at the heart of the issues. How much more of it do you think these mountainsides can take?

    • But Marcia, the main place people can afford to grow “crowded monoculture stands” in this country, due to the expense, tend to be in the wet West and the wet South where trees grow well enough to make the investments and there is no “extreme fire danger.” (any contrary observations appreciated).

      Please don’t tell people on this blog to “go see for yourself” as many of us have spent years in the woods. So if we disagree with you it’s not because we haven’t visited plantations.

      All the BMP’s I’ve seen prevent cutting trees near streams.

      I don’t know what you mean by draining wetlands for “damnable man made species” but so far “man (sic)” has not actually made any species.. so I don’t know what you are talking about.

      Larry might also argue that fires kill a great many creatures, make an area uninhabitable, can make the soil sterile, can kill trees along streams

      I’m still looking for an “ecosystem collapse”. I think the worst in the US may have been the Dust Bowl.. but did “the ecosystem”t actually “collapse?” Or did it become difficult for humans for a period of time? Of the collapse believers, does it have to be irreversible to be a real collapse?

      • Seriously, Sharon? Ecosystem collapse – not unlike ecosystem integrity – is a well-established scientific concept. It is not a matter of “belief,” but of observation, documentation, and publication.

        Of course, if one does not look, there is no observation. Denial of basic concepts in ecology hardly fosters a substantive discussion of forest planning.

        With regard to the interesting question, “does it have to be irreversible to be a real collapse?” the answer is no, it does not.

        Once the curve of ecosystem state versus ecosystem forcing has traversed a fold bifurcation with hysteresis, return to a diverse, resilient ecosystem state is difficult – less probable in a given period of time – but not impossible.


        Ecology, like many other realms of natural phenomena, is complex and probabilistic.

        • Kevin: What the heck does “once the curve of ecosystem state versus ecosystem forcing has traversed a fold bifurcation with hysteresis” mean? It does sound ominous, certainly, but I’m having a real difficulty in understanding what it means.

          As a college trained ecologist myself, I also have to question your assertion that “denial of basic concepts in ecology hardly fosters a substantive discussion of forest planning.” Please reconsider. When so-called “basic concepts” of ecology are used in the development of forest plans, then it is critical to question — and possibly even “deny” — those concepts as being: 1) accurate in the first place (science is based on challenges), or 2) relevant to the planning process. Those really are substantive considerations.

    • Marcia: I have worked in and around clearcuts my whole life, and that fact is that plant and animal diversity are almost always increased — often dramatically — following a clearcut. This is not an absurdity, it is reality and caused in general by the replacement of deep shade on the forest floor with direct sunlight. Plants and animals love sunlight and gravitate toward it whenever they can. I’ve “seen this for myself” many (many) times and have taken thousands of photographs documenting this fact over millions of acres of forestland.

      Life on earth is an extremely resilient, adaptive, and well-established condition. Volcanic eruptions and glaciers might do their best, but life returns just a soon as the ice starts melting or rain starts falling. Every time. Your apocalyptic visions are disturbing and frightening — but fortunately are not based on facts or real-life conditions. Humans are not pathogens, as you describe, but necessary components of life on this planet. Many plants and animals depend on us for their continued existence — life loves disturbance, and we are a very disturbing animal.

      Maybe you think I’m too “dumb and lazy” as you say, and am just “spouting company rhetoric” as you suggest, instead of going to “see anything,” but I have actually spent several decades of my life looking at these situations, and I think you are greatly mistaken in your fears and pronouncements. Which is very good news, if you think about it.

      On a related perspective, Kevin asks, “How much more of it (“clearcutting”) do you think these mountainsides can take?” I would suggest this question could also be asked in reference to mowing lawns, harvesting corn or wheat, or grazing cattle. The answer is “thousands, or more.” Larry describes many instances where clearcutting is inappropriate for a combination of social and biological reasons — but nature has worked in clearcuts for millions of years via volcanoes, wind, ice, landslides, floods and meteor strikes. And life comes right back, every time.

  6. The point of conceptually “going to see for yourself” is to observe and understand the gap between reasonable best management practices, BMPs, and what are the AMPs – actual management practices – in western Oregon forests today.


    These are the AMPs that local people react against when they hear calls for more logging in these forest lands.

    • Kevin: This is a perfectly normal clearcut of what appear to be young second-growth Douglas-fir (possibly even a plantation), on private land in the Pacific Northwest. I hope it is broadcast burned before it is planted — my crews did tens of thousands of acres of this kind of work and, in the past 50 years, none of them (so far as I know) have experienced a wildfire. Some of them have already been clearcut again, at ages barely more than 20 years since we first slashed, burned, and planted them. Definitely “high site” ground.

      I do have three complaints about this example, though: 1) I think the thin strip of “leave trees” along an intermittent drainage will continue to fall over, causing more soil erosion, and forming a potential concentration of fuels along a potential “chimney” in the most dynamic (“fragile”) areas of the landscape; 2) It’s too bad they couldn’t have waited a few more decades before clearcutting — perhaps substituting a couple of Larry’s site specific thins in the interim, to pay wages and taxes and help maintain the local manufacturing infrastructure; 3) the main thing wrong with these things — in my opinion, and other than their paint-by-the-numbers reforestation planning — are the property ownership lines that keep the government and private landowners from being able to work within the true economical, biological and topographical constraints of the landscape.

      And possible alternatives:

      1) Log and burn the intermittent drainage cleanly — as it might appear following a ground fire — and then construct a better reforestation plan for the next generation of trees and people — one in which drainages such as this are manged for freshwater production, as well as aesthetic, wildlife, and timber values;

      2) If a lot more federal timber were available — as in the time from WW II until the early 1990s — then a lot less clearcutting would be taking place on private lands;

      3) Instead of taking so much land out of production, the feds should be looking at creative ways to exchange lands and ownership lines in order to better match the topography (subbasins are perfect), and thereby better manage the landscape via increases in economic efficiencies and decreases in potential wind damage to “leave trees” along linear “midslope” property lines and intermittent drainages, and to related soil erosion.

      • Thanks, Bob, it’s great to have someone in the area who is familiar with this..

        When I was in high school, I the summer of 1971, I did a summer science program through OMSI. We camped out on Estacada district of the Mt. Hood and saw some clearcuts on FS that were bigger than this… I wonder what they look like today? Might be interesting to have someone go out there and photo or video. If I were tapped into sources of financial support, I would send Larry on a trip up there to take photos and video.

        Certainly, there were a lot more (acres clearcut) going on then than today and I don’t think any “ecosystems” “collapsed.”

        I think your comparison to Mt. St. Helens is helpful. If it’s about losing trees. If it’s about “volcanos are natural and clearcuts are not,” then it’s really not about environmental effects, it’s about philosophy .

        • My Mom lived in Coos Bay for more than 20 years. In my many journeys up there I have seen the ugliness of clearcutting…. and the speed with which they recover all the growing space. Ironically, there is a great diversity of clearcuts throughout the Oregon landscape.

          My experience in doing plots on the Rogue River-Siskiyou NF, out of Powers, showed me that Forest Service clearcuts are far from the uniform private land tree farms. I have also seen private lands that weren’t replanted, and were left to “recover” on their own. Yes, they grew back but, it was brushy, with not many conifers.

          In 1994, I was part of a PSW research team to establish permanent growth plots in a great variety of Rogue River NF clearcuts. By design, “units” were selected with variety in mind. Some units had pre-commercial thinning. Some were burned and some weren’t. Some had herbicide application. Yes, and some seemed to have had no treatment.

          I think we all know about the bad things associated with clearcuts. It is up to our foresters to convince the public that there are good reasons for considering them.

      • It obvious it’s a “second growth” clearcut. I would imagine that all you see is second growth. The public usually can’t see the clearcuts…because of all the trees!

        I agree with Bob about the Stream Management Zones. On a lot of the sites where I took the “clearcuts don’t burn” photos, the only thing burned was the strip of trees along the SMZ’s. Which I found a bit ironic. On one burn the USFS found water clarity to be “surprisngly clear”….because of the “upland” regen clearcuts on both sides of the stream that didn’t burn.

        • I think you’re right, Derek. I can spot a few clumps and tops that m-i-g-h-t be 350 or 400 years old, but I don’t think so. Depending on how you define “2nd Growth,” the vast majority of these trees appear to be less than 160 years old. Maybe all of them. Not sure how many — if any — old-growth were growing in this landscape 200 years ago, but it would be interesting to find out.

          The so-called “Best Available Science” New Forestry “riparian buffers” have been a joke. At least in northern California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and most every other place they’ve been injected into the environment. I really haven’t seen (or documented) a single instance in which the objectives of leaving these biological anomalies have been met. They burn up, blow over, or otherwise react to the fact that they’re trying to impose a condition that has probably never existed before. And without any real scientific justification — just regs. And without any apparent success.

  7. I support fully-transparent Forest Service discretion to manage areas with site-specific science, to help avoid ecosystem health problems. Preservationists seem to feel that they cannot defend their beliefs with site specific science. They will continue to use normatives and litigation to push their agenda of “whatever happens”.

    The threat of regulating and/or banning logging on private lands will only serve to accelerate intensive logging, especially now, when log values are higher.

  8. The MPB epidemic in colorado has just etirpated old growth Goshawk nests over millions of acres. Mass amounts of thermal and hiding cover will soon be deadfall. Thke Goshawk has lost, the woodpecker has won.

    The praries have been plowed up everywhere…and yet the birds still sing and the bees still pollinate….and know one care of the flowers that got extirprated. Now you couold return alll but 25% of the checkerboards to native grasslands…and Eithiopia would starve. Of course,high prices are a good thing…to cure obesity. And I’m sure when the loaf of brad costs $10 bucks, Obama will be in front calming the mob by telling them high food prices are good…to reduce obesity.
    An environmenatly concious soiciety doesnt’ exist. House are bigger, per capita electricty use has doubled since 60’s revolution got over. A freind of mine, who’s always recycling and trumpeting the praise of CFR lightbullbs…just bought a second house that’s use half the year…and felt not one ilk of enviro guilt. Enviros where their enviromentalism like a new fashionable coat. For all to see, but none for the enviro. Reducing consumption has been the hallmark failure of envior movement.

    • So True! Less for humans means more for everyone else from woodpeckers and goshawks to salmon and soil microbes. Let us start thinking about what we need (air, water, food) and not what we want (cars, clothes, bigger houses). Let us start thinking about which category making babies falls into. The human capacity for denial and existing in paradox has gotten us to where we are today. Time to wake-up!

  9. Derek- like I’ve said, not getting things you want, when you have money to buy them is a hard thing for any human, not just Americans.

    Some of the biggest decisions that influence consumption (how many children to have, for example) are deeply personal and not easily subject to regulation.

    How many folks are in the US are subject to some immigration laws, but the US will always going to be open to more people because that is our culture.

    That’s why I think broad exhortations to “use less” will not be effective. The greatest thing to help us “use less” is poverty and I don’t think anyone wants that.

    As many folks in the religion business will tell you, preaching is lots easier than actually living a good life..and aligning words and actions can be hard. I hope you are gentle with your friend :).


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