Throughout America’s vast landscape of national forests hides undead brain-suckers. Rotted by fungus, cut off from nourishment at the hands (or feelers) of infectious beetles, or scorched and left behind like ghosts in the aftermath of wildfires, zombie trees have taken up residence in some of our most sacred natural habitats and there’s little we can do about it.
An analysis commissioned by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute found that more than 350 million trees are “standing dead” in the 14 million acres of Oregon’s national forests. “It’s a tale of two forests,” says Mike Cloughesy, OFRI’s director of forestry. “About 17 percent of the trees on National Forest System lands in Oregon are dead, compared to 11 percent for other public lands, and 8 percent for private and Indian lands. Actively managed forests have fewer dead trees.” Mismanaged forests become overcrowded as trees grow and new ones sprout; and as forests become clogged with growth, trees fall prey to insects and drought, and die. In a managed forest, many trees are thinned before they die.
The situation is similar in another Pacific Northwest state. About 22 percent of the trees in the state’s national forests are dead, compared to 15 percent on state and local government forestland and 10 percent on privately-owned forestland. That means the percentage of dead trees on federal land is more than twice that of the trees on private land. An alarming figure immune to coincidence.
If the northwest is any indication, “Dead trees fuel wildfires,” Cloughesy notes. “Overcrowded forests burn uncharacteristically hot, killing most trees and putting other resources such as watersheds and wildlife at risk.” One solution might be increased harvesting practices with proponents noting that, “on federally managed lands, annual mortality exceeds harvest, so even a small increase in harvest would help.” Simply put, trees are dying, and in many cases falling, at a faster rate than we are allowed to cut them down.
But Cloughesy isn’t just pushing for some agenda of wiping out forests for that good ‘ole green stuff. No, he also notes that “…from an ecological perspective, standing-dead and fallen timber provides a number of benefits, including fish and wildlife habitat, carbon storage and, as the trees decompose, soil nutrients.” The problem is that federal forests aren’t receiving the care and management that many private or state/local lands are, and he feels the federal forest system is simply falling behind at the expense of the forests themselves.