To preserve forest health, the best management decision may be to do nothing, study finds

October 17, 2012
In 1990, this part of NSF's Harvard Forest LTER site was a jumble of downed trees. Credit: Marcheterre Fluet

(—In newscasts after intense wind and ice storms, damaged trees stand out: snapped limbs, uprooted trunks, entire forests blown nearly flat.

In a storm's wake, landowners, municipalities and state agencies are faced with important financial and .

A study by Harvard University researchers, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and published in the journal Ecology, yields a surprising result: when it comes to the health of forests, and wildlife, the best management decision may be to do nothing.

Salvage logging is a common response to modern in large woodlands. Acres of downed, leaning and broken trees are cut and hauled away.

Landowners and towns financially recoup with a sale of the damaged timber. But in a salvaged woodland landscape, the forest's original growth and biodiversity, on which many animals and depend, is stripped away.

A thickly growing, early-successional forest made up of a few light-loving tree species develops in its place.

But what happens when wind-blown forests are left to their own devices?

Sassafras comes to life after significant storm damage. Credit: Bill Byrne

The Ecology paper reports results of a 20-year study at NSF's Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in Massachusetts. Harvard Forest is one of 26 such NSF LTER sites around the world in ecosystems from to deserts, grasslands to the polar regions.

"To manage sustainable ecosystems, we must understand how they recover from extreme, natural events, such as hurricanes, fires and floods," says Matt Kane, a program director at NSF for LTER. "This process can take decades. The NSF LTER program is uniquely able to support important experiments at the time scales needed."

At Harvard Forest in 1990, a team of scientists recreated a major hurricane in a two-acre patch of mature oak forest.

Eighty percent of the trees were flattened with a large winch and cable. Half the trees died within three years, and the scientists left the dead and damaged wood on the ground.

In the 20 years since, the researchers have monitored everything from soil chemistry to the density of leaves on the trees.

Harvard Forest ecologists monitor downed wood in the hurricane re-creation experiment. Credit: John Hirsch

What they found is a remarkable story of recovery.

Initially, the site was a nearly impassable jumble of downed trees. But surviving, sprouting trees, along with many new seedlings of black birch and red maple—species original to the forest—thrived amid the dead wood.

Although weedy invasive plants initially tried to colonize the area, few persisted for long.

"Leaving a damaged forest intact means the original conditions recover more readily," says David Foster, co-author of the paper and director of the NSF Harvard Forest LTER site.

"Forests have been recovering from natural processes like windstorms, fire and ice for millions of years. What appears to us as devastation is actually, to a forest, a natural and important state of affairs."

After severe tornadoes in Massachusetts in June 2011, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Division of Fisheries and Wildlife pursued a watch-and-wait policy at a site in Southbridge, Mass.

There, salvage work is limited to providing access routes for public safety.

The area is quickly regaining lush, native vegetation. It supports everything from invertebrates to salamanders, and black bears that winter in thick brush piles and forage for insects in rotting logs.

While a range of economic, public safety and aesthetic reasons seems to compel landowners to salvage storm-damaged trees, paper co-author Audrey Barker-Plotkin of the Harvard Forest site suggests that improving forest health should not be one of them.

"Although a blown-down forest appears chaotic," she says, "it is functioning as a and doesn't need us to clean it up."

Explore further: Beetle dung helps forests recover from fire

Related Stories

Beetle dung helps forests recover from fire

November 29, 2007

Armed with a pair of tweezers and a handful of beetle droppings, University of Alberta forestry graduate Tyler Cobb has discovered why the bug-sized dung is so important to areas ravaged by fire.

Probing Question: Can logging be done sustainably?

April 3, 2008

In an era of ever-increasing environmental awareness, few industries receive more scrutiny than logging. For decades, environmental groups have claimed that commercial logging practices result in devastating consequences, ...

Bacteria on old-growth trees may help forests grow

June 7, 2011

A new study by Dr. Zoe Lindo, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Biology at McGill University, and Jonathan Whiteley, a doctoral student in the same department, shows that large, ancient trees may be very important ...

Scientists forecast forest carbon loss

April 6, 2012

For more than 30 years, scientists at the Harvard Forest have scaled towers into the forest canopy and measured the trunks of trees to track how much carbon is stored or lost from the woods each year. This treasure trove ...

Recommended for you

A better way to read the genome

October 9, 2015

UConn researchers have sequenced the RNA of the most complicated gene known in nature, using a hand-held sequencer no bigger than a cell phone.

Threat posed by 'pollen thief' bees uncovered

October 9, 2015

A new University of Stirling study has uncovered the secrets of 'pollen thief' bees - which take pollen from flowers but fail to act as effective pollinators - and the threat they pose to certain plant species.

Mapping the protein universe

October 9, 2015

To understand how life works, figure out the proteins first. DNA is the architect of life, but proteins are the workhorses. After proteins are built using DNA blueprints, they are constantly at work breaking down and building ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.