Forestry Needs You

By Hannah King · April 9, 2021

It’s pretty uncontroversial to state that we need trees. Whether you are a dog-walker, an ex-tree climber, a carpenter or a hard-core environmentalist, you are likely to be aware of the benefits of a forest. In fact, all you need is a pair of lungs to appreciate that trees are necessary for life. Therefore, we must protect trees of all varieties and geographic locations, and a career in forestry can aid the conservation of trees. Here, I will highlight the need for forest conservation, outline how forestry is a vibrant and rewarding discipline and then detail the various ways in which you can get involved in the protection of our forests.

Why do we need to conserve forests?

Most of the current discussion about wildlife management and protection focuses on individual species. How can we avoid the extinction of red squirrels? Is it impossible to completely eradicate the invasive Rhododendron from the UK? Can we control the spread of Dutch elm disease? Should we reintroduce beavers in England? There is no doubt that we should be concerned about the decline of rare tree species and the pervasiveness of pest species. However, forests are an ecosystem. Many of the benefits derived from forests and the threats imposed on forests occur at an ecosystem level. Benefits and threats are derived from species interactions, not the species in isolation.

Consequently, there is an exciting shift in conservation science and forestry from species-level thinking to ecosystem-level thinking. Both fields are becoming more holistic and are starting to intersect as it is becoming more evident that both disciplines involve big-issue topics.

Take climate change as an example. The current climate is getting more and more unpredictable, and climatic events are becoming more extreme. As a result, the climate crisis is threatening the stability of forest ecosystems, and we expect many to shift to become grasslands. Such a shift would not only threaten global forest biodiversity, and therefore be a concern for conservationists. The shift would also reduce the human benefits derived from trees, such as timber, and therefore is an issue for foresters. Solutions for increasing the resilience of forests to future climate change will require input from both conservationists and foresters to account for the needs of both people and wildlife.

So why do people need trees? The current way of thinking about the human benefits of nature uses the ecosystem services framework. Ecosystem services are “the benefits provided by ecosystems that contribute to making human life both possible and worth living” (UK National Ecosystem Assessment 2011). Trees provide a multitude of ecosystem services, some more obvious than others. For example, trees can help regulate an ecosystem; through air purification, flood control and shade production. Trees also provide us with goods; timber, fruits and clean water, to name a few. Furthermore, trees help support the health of the broader ecosystem, pulling large quantities of carbon into the soil via photosynthesis, breaking up the soil to keep it oxygenated and providing a habitat for birds, beetles, fungi, mosses and lichens.

More subtle, but perhaps more poignant, is the cultural importance of trees. Trees exist on a scale that is larger than humans, both in space and time. Trees will outgrow us, and trees will outlive us. Trees keep us humble. In many cultures, trees are sacred. The truth is, we value trees much more than any other plant. Many will object to the felling of a particularly old or beautiful tree, and it is crucial to recognise the value we place on trees in the context of forestry. Are the management strategies of a forest respectful to the local community?

Is forestry academic?

It is important to note that many environmental practices can be controversial and potentially problematic if we do not consider the opposing views of stakeholders. Reforestation is an example, with ongoing debate and frequent press coverage.

Tree planting is a popular and easily commercialised climate mitigation strategy. It is quick and cheap to plant a few trees, or better still, pay somebody else to do it. In 100 years, your charitable donation will be a fully grown tree that has sucked large quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.  With a new tree, a new forest, a new ecosystem, you have made the world a better place.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. While reforestation is undoubtedly a vital weapon in our climate-change-fighting arsenal, we must plant trees with intention and careful consideration. Will the proposed forest displace a rare habitat or an indigenous community? Will the trees support a biodiverse and healthy ecosystem? How will the forest be managed – are there native grazers that will threaten the growth of the trees, and can we justify fencing or shooting these animals? Are the selected trees native, and will they survive at that location under predicted climate change scenarios? Will the trees actually cause a net decrease in global concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide over time? We must fully address such issues before we put any young sapling into the ground.

You can begin to see that in ecology, nothing is straightforward. Ecosystems are complex and human attitudes all the more so. Therefore, a rigorous investigation is required to fully understand how people and wildlife interact with trees. To ensure that forestry practices benefit us all, we must ask the right questions and find the right answers. Such library scouring, survey creation, and empirical analysis are well suited for academic minds. You don’t need to be good with a chainsaw to contribute to forestry. Whether you are an expert on conservation science, sustainable development, climatology, ecology, agriculture, anthropology or policy, forestry needs you.

Reading list

The best way to gain a solid understanding of the worlds of forestry and conservation is to keep reading around the topics. Often, topical issues are discussed in the news and published in academic journals. Restoration Ecology is an excellent journal where papers in both the fields of conservation science and forestry are published. Articles published in this journal have a section on how their findings can be applied, giving the papers a practical use.

There are also many books you can read that are relevant here. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Do we need pandas? The uncomfortable truth about biodiversity – Ken Thompson – Basic biodiversity concepts in 150 pages
  • Losing Eden – Lucy Jones – A well-researched and beautifully written book about the importance of nature for our mental and physical health
  • The Conservation Revolution – Radical ideas for saving nature beyond the Anthropocene– Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher – A controversial discussion on the political reframing required to meet the needs of people and wildlife
  • Feral – George Monbiot – Guardian columnist and environmental activist criticises the current management of Britain’s landscapes
  • Forests: A Very Short Introduction – Jaboury Ghazoul and Plants: A Very Short Introduction – Timothy Walker – all you need to know about the history and biology of forests.

Hannah King

Hannah is a third-year student who studies Biological Sciences at the University of Oxford. Her areas of interest include ecology, conservation, and the human-nature relationship. In her spare time, she writes about current environmental issues and aims to work in science policy/science communication with a focus on conservation. In this blog, she discusses the intersection between forestry and conservation, highlighting the need for academics in the increasingly interdisciplinary world of forestry.