Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Young Forest Initiative harms mature forests

And we need old growth forests to combat climate change.

Logging harms old growth forests - Credit: Yale University

As it is across the earth, from the Amazon to Alaska, forests are crucial in mitigating climate change.  Their mature trees store carbon through photosynthesis.  Generally, the larger and older the tree, the greater capacity it has to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, store it within its trunk, and sink it into the ground.  A benefit of mature forests is offering protection for wildlife living within them.  It also shelters and supports a diverse array of plant life, plays a crucial role in water filtration and is a natural shield for stormwater runoff and soil erosion.

In particular, forests in the United States have been subjected to decades of clear cutting.   This is especially true here in New Jersey.   In the nineteenth century, as the U.S.A. was industrializing and before the widescale use of fossil fuels, people heavily relied on wood for residential, commercial and industrial uses.  

Most of the forest canopy was lost as the demand for timber increased dramatically during this period, to satisfy the demand for building materials, railroad ties, and fuel for industry. As a result, large-scale clear-cutting became a common practice in many parts of the eastern United States, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains.

Clear-cutting, as performed then and now, involves removing all of the trees in a particular area, often without regard for sustainable forestry practices or the long-term health of the forest. This leads to significant environmental damage, including erosion, soil depletion, and wildlife habitat loss.  Sadly, the clear-cutting forestry practice has not stopped. It continues today, and the damage caused is as relevant as one hundred years ago.

Clear cuts in Sparta Mountain Wildlife Management Area, New Jersey

As fossil fuel adoption rose, the demand for wood lessened somewhat.  However, forests remain threatened by the demand for wood products in construction projects, the increasing demand for paper and packaging, and the need to clear land for new housing.  The remaining forests have recovered to a point where, in New Jersey, you have forests that contain mature trees again.

Now, instead of a natural variation of old and young trees, there is a situation where the age of most trees in the forests is about the same - 80 to 100 years.

What is the Young Forest Initiative (YFI)?

The Young Forest Initiative (also called the Young Forest Project) (YFI) is a movement, started around 2011, to promote the growth and conservation of young forests, at the expense of older, mature trees. The YFI approach is to establish human led forest management.  The basis of YFI forest management is logging older, mature trees, ostensibly allowing younger trees to take root and grow.  YFI proponents state that by allowing younger trees to grow, specific wildlife species, e.g. the golden winged warbler, that depend on younger forests and grasslands benefit from restoring habitat lost decades ago during the early American industrial revolution.  Aside from the purported biological benefits used to justify the removal of mature trees from an ecological perspective, significant economic benefits drive much of the sponsorship from the federal and state governments.

Who directly benefits from it, and how?

YFI provides economic benefits to non-governmental stakeholders such as private landowners, forest product industries, and recreation and tourism businesses. By actively promoting and managing young forests, these stakeholders can benefit from producing valuable forest products, such as timber and wood chips, and the increased recreational opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts.  Thus, significant economic drivers exist to harvest trees, and these drivers are not inconsequential.

Are there any drawbacks?

Well, the wildlife adapted to mature forests will lose their habitat.

American bald eagle - Sparta Mtn WMA - Credit: NJ Forest Watch

Removing mature trees from old-growth forests can negatively impact the habitats and populations of species that depend on these forests for food and shelter.  With their mature trees, old growth forests provide a diverse range of habitats for a wide variety of species, many of which are adapted to specific stages in the forest's natural succession.

For example, many birds, mammals, and insects rely on old growth forests for nesting sites, foraging opportunities, and protection from predators. The loss of mature trees can result in the loss of these critical habitats, reducing the ability of these species to survive and reproduce.

In addition, old growth forests also provide important habitats for species that depend on the specific microclimates created by the mature trees. For example, some bat species rely on the cooler, moister environments created by the shade of mature trees for roosting and rearing their young.

The consequences of habitat loss for wildlife species can be significant and long-lasting. It can lead to declines in populations, the loss of biodiversity, and changes in the overall structure and function of the ecosystem.

In some cases, habitat loss can also result in the extinction of species that cannot adapt to the new conditions created by the loss of mature trees.

And then there is the invasive species issue.

Japanese barberry - a pervasive threat to New Jersey’s forests -

Removing mature trees from mature forests can increase sunlight on the forest floor, increasing invasive species.  For example, in mature forests in the eastern and southern USA, invasive plant species from Asia, such as Japanese barberry and Kudzu, have invaded native forests. Invasive species such as these can quickly spread and outcompete native plant species, leading to changes in the composition and structure of the forest ecosystem.

Doesn’t removing mature trees contribute to climate change?


As stated before, the removal of mature trees increases the carbon in the atmosphere, contributing to the harmful effects of climate change. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, and as they mature, they store large amounts of carbon in their wood and leaves. When mature trees are removed, this stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to the overall increase in atmospheric carbon levels.

How is the state of New Jersey promoting similar goals?

The state of New Jersey is currently implementing selective tree harvesting on several of its public forests, some of which are contained in defined Wildlife Management Areas (WMA).  One WMA in particular, Sparta Mountain, has active logging activities conducted under the direction of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) agency.   This logging activity, performed under the context of forest management, removes healthy mature trees from the forest using mechanized logging equipment.   This tree removal not only destroys habitat and increases the threat of invasive species spread, but it also increases groundwater pollution.  

What does this mean for NJ municipal parks such as Roaring Rock?

Along with White Trail in Roaring Rock Park - Credit:

Granted, much of this forest activity is currently being conducted on NJ state public lands.  That said, recently proposed New Jersey legislation would require all public lands within the state, including municipal parks, to have forest management plans if they are at least twenty-five acres in size.  That legislation, introduced in 2021, met with local government opposition since it created a statewide unfunded mandate on local governments, which helped stall its progress.   Although currently stalled, the state may modify the legislation to remove the controversial funding issue and advance it in the future.

What can I do, as a New Jersey resident, to help?

New Jersey Senator Bob Smith announcing task force - Credit: Insider

New Jersey Senator Bob Smith commissioned a forest task force in 2022 to define and shape future legislation.  This legislation will have an impact for decades to come on New Jersey’s public forests.

New Jersey residents may contact Senator Smith's office to express support for preserving New Jersey's public forests. You may either

  1. Call his office at (732) 752-0770,
  2. Send mail via USPS to this address: 216 Stelton Rd., Suite E-5, Piscataway, NJ 08854, or
  3. Use this convenient online form (click HERE to take you to it)

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