An Arbor Day Question – Are there too many trees or not enough?

By Kyle Johnson

Editors note: Kyle Johnson is a forester with the Bureau of Land Management’s Missoula Field Office. Mr. Johnson is not affiliated with Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities but gave us permission to share his Arbor Day message.

For Arbor Day (this Saturday April 29th) I thought we’d tackle a question that’s been vexing me for a while: How can it be that we often hear forests are imperiled, while also hearing that our forests are overcrowded? Are there too many trees or not enough? Like I said, this question often bothers me because I feel that the lay person and public at large may be confused by these seemingly contradicting messages, so let’s take a deeper look.

As mentioned in previous posts, here in the USA we are fortunate to have some of the most robust and stringent environmental laws and regulations in the world. Our collective awareness of taking care of the environment is amazing and also a benefit of being a developed, first-world country. Many nations in the world are still struggling to get by, and taking full advantage of their natural resources is one of the few avenues they have for profit let alone survival. This is the same as we did here in the US not that long ago, and I don’t write this from a place of judgement, but understanding. That said, there are indeed places and especially the jungle regions where deforestation and exploitation of the natural resources are advancing at a rate that they may forever lost if we as a global community don’t change our course. And I’ll add that we in the US contribute to these seemingly far away problems by buying from those regions and helping to fund or incentivize the destruction. Closer to home, habitat loss is a real problem in our nation as well, typically due to development and urban sprawl. Our cultural pursuit of “a place of our own” often comes at the cost of the wild critters who once lived there. So it’s true, globally deforestation and loss of habitat is a real problem facing our forests.

Conversely, here at home our public forests are by and large, overcrowded and suffering and epidemic of too many trees. This is due in large part to fire suppression that became national policy around 1915, and past harvesting practices that replaced stands of large, widely spaced trees with regenerated stands of small trees, densely stocked. It sounds counter intuitive perhaps to suggest that cutting more trees is the cure for cutting trees in the past, but that is in fact often the case. By selective harvesting, thinning and returning fire to the landscape we aim to produce healthier trees and by extension healthier forests that may one day again resemble their natural condition, and will be resilient to the challenges of a changing climate. While we have too many trees in these forests today, that could all change in the future if they succumb to insects, disease and megafires that are becoming more and more common in recent years.

It’s a tough nut to crack perhaps, and I appreciate your patience as I try to unravel it with you. The truth is there too many trees and not enough at the same time at the global scale, and we have to look a little closer to get a clearer picture. With that said, if you are inspired in plant a tree in your yard for Arbor Day, please do! “Blessed Are Those Who Plant Trees Under Whose Shade They Will Never Sit” – Unknown.

An Arbor Day Question – Are there too many trees or not enough?