Once, while studying groundwater contamination at an air base in Florida, I was taken to several old, abandoned landfills to determine which of them should be drilled for testing. One presented a real problem: In the twenty years since it had been closed, the landfill had been planted with pine trees — part of the base’s forestry program. Now those rows of trees were twenty or so feet high and no more than three feet apart in any single direction. This made it near impossible to walk on the property, much less get a drill rig in there. Each drill hole would have required cutting down hundreds of trees, so we had to take a different approach.
Driving through the South, I had long been aware of the interesting symmetry of the roadside in some places. In Texas, when I was a kid, I had observed that fields planted in rows perpendicular to the road made an interesting visual whir as you sped by. Like flipping a deck of cards, the lines of plants seemed to wave as you passed — the nearby ends curved, straight, then curved again. It worked with plowed fields, cotton, corn and many other crops. Southern pine forests, however, offered a slightly different experience. While the trees were all planted in rows, like crops, the whirring experience occurred on a bigger yet narrower scale.
Forested areas have always interesting to me, as I come from a place with sparse trees. Forests had their own mystery, undoubtedly sparked by fairy tales and the possibility of seeing strange creatures hidden in the woods where a variety of growth, ground cover, bushes and different types of trees added to their allure. Any opening in the trees might reveal a splash of color, an unaware deer or fox, or a pretty stream or pond. They beckoned, and as noted by Mary Todd Lincoln, “My evil genius Procrastination has whispered me to tarry ’til a more convenient season.”
This was not the case in the Southern pines. There is little variety, the trees are all the same height, shape and color, spaced in rows equidistant from each other. The space between the rows is traditionally kept open with little cover for any creatures that inhabit natural forests.
Of course, these forests are just crops — owned and operated by Big Timber — not for their environmental values but for harvesting to make lumber products and paper. Identical size, lack of undergrowth and standard spacing assure the ease of harvest in a future year. Plant diversity, wildlife or scenic beauty is just an annoyance interfering with consistency and profit. It’s just business, and it supplies the world with paper and lumber.
But it is not a real forest.
In the wake of wildfires over the last few decades, the U.S. Forest Service has been busy planting trees to resurrect the forests. As told to Saul Elbein, forester Malcolm North related, “We’d go out to a big fire or clear cut … and every ten to twelve feet we’d plant another pine tree. At the end it would look just like a corn crop … They called it ‘pines in lines’… and it became industry standard as the Forest Service replanted the native mixed-species forests of Western conifers with trees for commercial harvest.”
Just like all those tree plantations across the south.
However, Elbein reports that some thinking may be changing — “a new model of forestry that would replace the old straight-line monocultures with new methods emphasizing variety of both spacing and species … It’s a more natural way of doing forestry.”
Of course, trees also battle global warming, “Trees are about a quarter carbon, and as they grow (or burn) they bind (or release) about four times their weight in carbon dioxide. For all the hype around carbon-capturing machines, says Mary Booth, an ecologist at the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Policy Integrity, when it comes to drawing down carbon, ‘forests are the only proven, scalable technology we have’” Elbein adds, “Restoration policy can no longer fail to address what kind of trees are being planted, or how it jibes with the larger health of the forest, the amount of water available, or the needs of local people.”
He describes “a strategy called Individual-Cluster-Open, or ICO: a mixture of individual trees (which can grow big), clusters of trees (which support each other through their mycorrhizal networks), and open spaces that can fill with shrubs or new species and serve as firebreaks … and a variety of species, rather than just the quickest growing pines, catering the species they plant to local microclimates: an approach more like a vast, variegated garden than traditional monolithic silviculture.”
“That may be a valuable lesson for the mission of re-growing the global forest: sometimes it’s less a perspective of taking action than of removing obstacles and getting out of the way.”
Another approach is noted by Reporter Adele Peters — the use of drones. “’Obviously, planting a billion trees will take a long time without the help of drones,’ says Bremley Lyngdoh, founder and CEO of Worldview Impact. Two operators working with 10 drones can theoretically plant 400,000 trees in a day.”
“The drones first fly over an area to map it, collecting data about the topography and soil condition that can be combined with satellite data and analyzed to determine the best locations to plant each seed. Then the drone fires biodegradable pods — filled with a germinated seed and nutrients — into the ground.“
“Ultimately, drones could help support much more massive tree planting, which would have a significant impact on climate change: researchers recently calculated that there is enough room to plant another 1.2 trillion trees, which could suck up more carbon each year than humans emit.”
Researchers Maslin and Lewis report on a new study, “While the best solution to climate change remains leaving fossil fuels in the ground, we will still need to suck carbon dioxide (CO₂) out of the atmosphere this century if we are to keep global warming below 1.5˚C. So the idea of reforesting much of the world isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.”
They note, “Rewilding habitats and reforesting may be easier in the future as the world is already becoming a wilder place in many areas. This may seem a strange prediction, given that the global population will grow from 7.7 billion to 10 billion by 2050, but by then nearly 70% of us will live in cities and have abandoned rural areas, making them ripe for restoration.”
Maybe it’s time we saw the forest, not the trees.
Saul Elbein, Tree-Planting Programs Can Do More Harm Than Good, April 26, 2019, National Geographic
Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis, Massive Reforestation Is Key to Averting a Climate Catastrophe, 08 Jul 2019, World Economic Forum
Adele Peters, These Tree-Planting Drones are Firing Seed Missiles to Restore the World’s Forests, 04/10/19 Fast Company