U.S. Forestry Practices Compared to Other Countries

Posted: November 21, 2011

By: Professor Peter Kolb, University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation

Beetle Kill forest killed due to poor forestry practices Across central Europe, forests have been harvested intensively and continually for over 2000 years. Many countries there, notably Sweden, Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland have developed forest management practices that maintain forest productivity, biodiversity, scenic, and recreational beauty, and that have greatly limited catastrophic disturbances including bark beetleoutbreaks.

European Forests Vs. American Forests

As an example, the country of Germany has roughly the equivalent land area and forested area as Montana. A greater oceanic effect provides for a slightly milder climate and more evenly distributed annual precipitation. Tree growth rates can be twice as high there as in Montana. Whereas Montana has approximately 950,000 permanent residents, Germany has 83 million residents. Hiking and nature appreciation is a national pastime and a large proportion of German forests have a primary nature reserve or biodiversity protection designation. Important to note, German forest management including tree harvesting is not viewed as a barrier to such objectives, but rather a tool to help achieve desired conditions for rare and endangered species and recreational quality. …

On an annual basis, Germany harvests 12.6 billion board-feet equivalent of wood, Montana over the past decade has annually harvested an average of 750 million board-feet, most of which has come from private lands, not federal lands even though the latter accounts for 67% of the Montana forest land base. To put this in perspective, the height of the timber harvest from [US] national forests was roughly 12 billion board feet in the 1980s. Now the entire harvest of national forests is roughly two billion board feet. For Montana, like many other western states, the repercussions have devastated the U.S. forestry industry, wood products, and logging professions.…

Bark beetles are a common problem in all forests in Germany for the most prevalent tree species, yet in the past decades, bark beetle epidemics have not occurred, mainly because they have been prevented. The one exception is in the Bavarian National Park, where forest management was excluded as the purpose of the park was for nature to run its course without human interference, and for the dominating native pure spruce forest to grow into ancient old-growth character. In the late 1990s, a spruce bark beetle population started to build in this forest. In the past decade, it has killed 80% of the trees across 60% of the park and is expected to decimate the rest in the next five years. This past year, the Bavarian government agreed to allow foresters to start implementing measures to attempt to control the epidemic as it is now spilling out of the park onto private forested lands.

Management Solutions for the US?

Can these management tactics also work for forests across the western United States? Our understanding of tree and beetle biology for our afflicted areas and species, as well as experiential knowledge certainly matches what German foresters have to work with. Multiple studies have shown that thinning forest stands to alleviate the impacts of light and water competition on tree vigor while leaving what appear to be the best trees results in less successful bark beetle attacks (Schmid et al. 2007). It has also been postulated that greater heating from sunlight increases stress on bark beetles as they seek out trees. Increasing the diversity of tree species in forests that are primarily monocultures, such as the situation we see in Wyoming and Colorado with lodgepole pine, thus reducing contiguous host tree availability also makes for a more difficult environment for bark beetles, and reduces the ability of epidemics to develop. Similarly, decreasing the size of similar tree age and size patches of host trees will have the same effect as increasing species diversity. Younger-age trees are unsuitable host trees for most of the most prevalent tree-killing bark beetle species. Finally, using harvest trees to trap beetles into, and then process those trees thereby destroying the brood, combined with the use of synthesized aggregation and anti-aggregation pheromones (attractants and repellents) to manipulate and control populations of beetles. All of these tactics have been used with documented success in western forests. They do require the skill and expertise of forest managers and forest entomologists, as well as a skilled and modern logging workforce. They also need a funding mechanism as the extensiveness of bark beetle mortality and risk is enormous (Figure 1). As a side note, we are quickly losing our skilled logging workforce in Montana (and across the West). Without this workforce and infrastructure to take these materials, we’ll lose our ability to manage forests.

Another issue is what to do with the significant volume of already dead trees. In Germany, much of the beetle-infested or killed wood is harvested. Fifty percent of the more than four billion board-feet equivalent annual harvest in the German state of Bavaria, a forested land base of slightly more than 6 million acres, is salvage and sanitation harvest of dead and dying trees. This is all accomplished in a taxable profit-generating free-market system. What is suitable goes to sawmills and much of the rest is utilized for electricity, steam, and home heating (Figure 2) with one-third of all households heating with wood. Wood is rated as a renewable biomass source and replaces an equivalent of 396 million gallons of heating oil per year in Bavaria alone. Across the western United States, such utilization also occurs at a small scale in the form of rural home heating and cogeneration “hog-fuel” of some wood products industries. … One of the major barriers to such investments remains the availability of wood raw materials where 67 percent of the forested land base, bark beetles, and all, is under federal management. …

Conserving tree species across their historical range with densities fitting the definition of “forest” both in the short term (next 50 years) and long term (next 50-200 years), that is capable of naturally regenerating and conserving their gene pool will be challenging if the predictions of climate change are realized. In addition, the characteristics and values associated with those forests have a greater probability of being conserved with active forest management than if left to what is deemed “natural” processes and consequences. “Active management” is defined here as the process where forests are inventoried within a reasonable scale for their biological and physical properties, and this knowledge is used to plan and implement landscape activities that provide for greater tree survival and natural regeneration when exposed to significant changes in temperature, precipitation and associated disturbances (wildfires, insects, and diseases), and that all management options ranging from benign neglect to commercial tree harvesting are utilized. A thus managed forested landscape would consist of a mosaic of “wilderness” and “old-growth” patches as well as areas with harvests designed to promote tree vigor (thinning) and species and age class diversity (seed tree, shelterwood, patch cutting). In Montana, most Native American tribes have already adopted this management style on their reservation lands. Both the confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes (Flathead reservation) and Chippewa and Cree tribes (Rocky Boy reservation) are using active forest management practices, as well as rapid salvage and sanitation harvesting, to stem bark beetle epidemics and reduce the probability of catastrophic wildfire effects in their forests.

… As a forest practitioner with now 29 years of applied experience caring for trees and managing forests as well as extensive academic and scientific training and work on the ecology of Northern Rockies forest ecosystems, it is my opinion that active forest management and the use of wood-based renewable bioenergy applied in appropriate locations using both the academic and practical knowledge and experience currently available will most likely result in greater forest resilience to large landscape-level disturbances that are both within and outside of the historic range of variability. This will also maintain or increase most forest ecosystems’ ability to store and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide.