Everyone knows what a forest is. Right?
As a forester and forest ecologist for decades, the definition of a forest is second nature to me and must be the same for everyone else. Right?
In fact, my notion of a universal definition was challenged several times recently in conversations with people who have markedly different perspectives from my own.
It was as if we were speaking different languages, and could not communicate effectively until we understood one another’s perspective, or “language.”
I bet that as soon as you saw the title of this article, the image of a favorite forest came into your head. I also bet there are almost as many different images as there are people who read this.
Is it a grove of aspens with bright yellow leaves in the fall? A grove of giant sequoias? A spruce and hemlock forest? Southern pines? A mix of hardwoods, oaks, hickory, maples and paw paw trees in the Appalachian Mountains?
Or perhaps you visualize neighborhood trees lining the streets and shading people’s yards, or maybe lush urban parks.
What if your favorite forest burned last summer? What if vast acreages of trees were killed by bark beetles and only scattered remnants survive? Maybe a hurricane knocked down all the trees, or did loggers harvest them all? Are these still forests?
For most of us, the definition of a forest depends on our experiences and what we value. You can see the myriad opportunities for conflict or confusion.
I recently encountered three people in different settings who believe that a group of planted trees is not a “forest.” A true forest in their definition must be of natural origin and, therefore, never harvested or manipulated by humans.
In one instance, the person held the idea that if we even put out wildfires in the past, disrupting the natural system, it is no longer truly a forest.
In each case, I was taken aback by these perspectives.
The first time, I got defensive and made a list of counter-arguments. Then I stopped to wonder how my acquaintance might have gotten their working definition of forest. And how such a definition might impact how they view forest management.
Indeed, what do these different perceptions mean for us as a society trying to figure out how to sustainably live on planet Earth using renewable, sustainably grown wood?
Not long after, I bumped into another person with a similar definition of a forest. I was still offended and defensive at first, but I quickly transitioned to wanting to better understand this perspective. So I asked questions, listened and then shared my own perspective.
When it happened a third time, I immediately engaged with the person by asking questions to better understand the origin of this notion that is “out there” in at least part of the collective consciousness.
All of the people involved were intelligent, highly educated and had done a fair amount of research on the topic. In all three cases, part of the perspective was that a planted forest was “less than” their “natural” brethren. If the trees were planted in rows, that was even worse.
So how do I better understand and engage in productive conversations with people who hold these divergent views?
All of my acquaintances initially focused on the value of the forest for its diversity of species, particularly on old undisturbed forests with large trees covered with mosses and lichens, multiple layers of trees and shrubs, and an ecosystem rich in insects, animals and fungi. The adjective “virgin” was attached to the term forest.
Suddenly I understood. At the core of these people’s perspectives was a concern for the loss of natural, old, diverse forests.
I get that. I have that concern as well. I did my master’s thesis on old growth.
But does that mean an urban forest is not a forest? Does that mean a harvested forest that is replanted to be grown and harvested again is not a forest? Does it mean the plants, insects, fungi and animals that live in the new forest are not part of an ecosystem?
So we explored the definition of a forest.
We looked at the basic elements of a forest: They are geographic areas with trees; they have associated plant communities of grasses, flowers and bushes; there’s an associated array of insects, animal and fungi species; and the soil is an essential element.
When I walk down a tree-lined street in the shade of a canopy with bird nests, insects and an understory of lawns and shrubs with soil that absorbs water, I am in a forest – an urban forest.
When I walk among the ancient bristlecone pines or giant sequoias or the hardwoods in a wilderness in Appalachia, I am in a protected or reserved forest.
When I walk through Southern pines growing in rows intentionally burned a few years ago, with gopher tortoises, wild turkeys and bobwhite quail, I am in a production forest.
When I walk through my own Montana forestland of naturally regenerated trees, not in rows but in clumps and skips, with scattered dead trees standing and down, with stumps old and new scattered throughout, I am in a family forest managed for a wide array of objectives.
When I mountain bike through a national forest, I see a forest managed for multiple purposes: a controlled burn may have killed trees that were crowding out sage grouse habitat or elk forage areas; maybe they harvested some of the trees first.
What these discussions have revealed to me and my acquaintances is that different forests meet different purposes, and all are equally important to society.
The challenge for society is finding the balance in maintaining a diversity of forests, and that is where democracy and debate come in.
But first, we must make sure we are talking the same language. (Watch this video on “Diverse Forests, Diverse Ownerships.”)
I hope you enjoy Treesource’s series this month on urban and community forests – an artificial forest that is often very structured, but that provides tremendous benefits in terms of human well-being, cleaning our air and water, saving energy, pulling carbon from the atmosphere, providing habitat for birds and insects, and more.
Is this a forest?