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The continuous cover forestry elephant

In post two of what looks destined to become a series questioning the roots upon which forestry is built (see Hoppus Foot). Let’s point our focus to the new movement of multi-structure, continuous cover forestry (CCF). Is CCF the elephant in the woods we are all ignoring?

What is CCF?

Continuous cover forestry is the premise at the heart of many of the advances in modern silviculture. The creation of adaptable and resilient forestry requires multiple structures in our treed landscapes. This ensures the land is always under some element of canopy (at which point we could ask whether the presence of forest in time is the continuous element or the continuity of canopy by area…). In doing so we hedge multiple smaller bets and spread risk.

To us, it makes total sense. Increasing three-dimensional structure decreases wind damage, increases soil and ecological health, and gives a greater range of diameters and product classes. Increasing species diversity reduces risks from disease. There are a few questions that sit around managing increasing complex systems in terms of volumes and mixed product classes, but, all in all, it is certainly something we think worth striving for. Something we at Evolving Forests are big believers in.

What’s the catch?

The nagging doubt is that 100 years ago we would have been saying the same thing about the need for a strategic reserve of timber through monocultural plantations. Such plantations create self-sufficiency of timber supply. They are a a surefire and fast way to afforest a largely deforested country. Let’s not forget that even at 14% forest cover we are still largely deforested in the UK. These plantations also provide a structure from which we can then restructure to a more complex system. These are all things we can agree are good aspirational targets. No doubt, this blog a 100 years ago would have likely bought into that too.

The other end of the spectrum

On the other hand, if we were a re-wilding land owner or Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) we would be saying that an increase in native woodland and re-wilded wood pasture, complete with feral herbivores, is the obvious way forward. The reasons being that the native woodland already exists. There is genetic diversity present. Species are naturalised and linking these spaces up is less intrusive than large scale planting. As such, re-wilded spaces are better placed to survive the impacts of climate change. These too, are all things we can agree are good aspirational targets.

Where is this going?

The point is that other people believe (or believed) these things as much as we believe in multi-structured forest landscapes. We can’t ignore that those who planted the spruce plantations in the 1920’s onwards were as sure that they were doing the right thing as we are today about multi-structured forest systems. We can’t ignore the very real possibility that in 2123 foresters will be wondering who thought it was a good idea to leave a legacy of these crazily complex forest landscapes.

These silvicultural attitudes directly link to the way society thinks across a much wider array of subjects. This is particularly true of the monocultural plantations which are embedded in an era of modernist philosophy. The space where a house became a “machine for living” and where design was reduced to straight lines and minimalist ideas. Modernism brought us to where we are today and is a piece of critical history in the making of modern Western society (and creates some incredible aesthetics). But in forestry it is still the backbone of how we provide our timber needs.

How do we deal with this?

How do we navigate the concept that ethical responsibility might be linked to cultural fashions. Rather than being an innate human instinct that transcends lifetimes? Yet, silviculture is an ethical responsibility that has to transcend lifetimes? There are probably few answers to this, at least none from this corner of the woods, but it feels like we need to do more than just doing our best now based on our best available science.

Where now?

It feels like we need to have a better appreciation of the complexity of decision making and concept of time in forestry. Whilst everyone dives headlong into the world of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). A quite justified focus of our need for such knowledge. We run the risk of losing sight of equally important philosophical concepts and (dare we say it) arts and ethics that underpin human thought. There is a real danger that we lose the capacity to critically reflect on ourselves and on our decisions.

In forestry, the repercussions of bad decisions made today will be felt in 100 years. Perhaps we silviculturists, more than anyone else, need to take up the reins of critical thinking. To at least think more carefully about our focus on forest structures. Is philosophy a core subject of our forestry schools? Should every Chartered Forester have to prove an underpinning ability to critique? The answer almost certainly is no, the question is, should it be yes?

Photo credit Alice Carfrae, Multimedia Storytelling

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