Even though there are benefits to reforesting cut areas, sometimes the best environmental practice is to let nature fix itself

Tree planting has been marketed to current generations as a way to combat climate change, but who and what exactly does it benefit? Though aspiring tree planters’ first answer might be: “I’m helping the forests!”, it's not that simple.

Logging industries fund the efforts of tree planters, and corporations sometimes care more about profit than the planet. Most trees are being replanted after clearcutting, and there’s a connection between timber harvesting and climate change.

Even though logging has been linked to deforestation and wildfires, the industry claims to practice sustainable forestry. Logging industries claim that they’re replacing what they’ve used, and that they’re managing forests and eliminating the potential risks for wildfires through cutting. Logging and thinning may produce jobs throughout the industry, but it doesn’t prevent destructive wildfires.

Leaving forests intact, with naturally decaying trees and a self-sustaining ecosystem, makes trees more resilient to wildfires while also preventing them from happening in the first place.

What are we replanting?

When occasional—and even veteran—tree planters go into forests to replant, very seldom is biodiversity or native flora and fauna taken into consideration. This is of no fault of the tree planters, but of the companies who provide them with the equipment, seedlings and information. Unless the company is specifically targeting protecting and reinstating biodiversity within forests, planting trees can often cause more harm than good.

Not only are non-native trees more prone to drying out (because they’re not designed for a specific region) and contributing to wildfires, but mass tree planting is essentially a monocrop forest. With only one type of tree, and not building any understory, we are eliminating biodiversity, sacrificing the conditions in which trees thrive in, and making it harder for forest life to re-establish itself. Forests are made up of tens of thousands of tree species, fungi and organisms, and it’s impossible to recreate that by hand.forestPhoto by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Protecting and sustaining biodiversity for climate action

The mentality has been that if all forests are managed, we’ll be able to control fires and the ecosystems that they attack; but what if the very thing we’re using to “prevent” wildfires, is what’s causing them?

Clearcutting is responsible for an estimated 26 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually (which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 5.5 million vehicles). This comes from cutting down mature trees. The oldest trees are the ones that have stored the most carbon throughout their lifetime, and though the ideal tree to protect is 70 to 125 years old, those are also the perfect trees for the sawmill.

One million acres of boreal forests are clearcut each year, and a single year’s worth of clearcutting across Quebec equals to 62 percent of the annual emission reductions they promised to make by 2020, while Ontario’s is 31 percent. Planting trees isn’t offsetting these effects—it’s contributing to our carbon debt.

The alternative is managing our forests and grasslands and allowing them to spread out themselves. If we practice this “proforestation”, we can sequester twice as much carbon from the atmosphere by protecting old-growth forests. Older forests store more carbon than new trees that are planted, so without cutting them down, we’re not releasing more carbon into the atmosphere and are maintaining a “carbon sink.”

Even though it feels good to plant trees and restore deforested areas, we have to think about who it’s benefiting in the long run and what we could do instead.

Think before you plant (some tips from the Natural Resources Defense Council)

  1. Work with Indigenous communities to develop forest management practices that keep unharvested areas intact and healthy, while maximizing in-place carbon storage and preserve ecological benefits
  2. Return harvested areas to resilient, long-lived and complex forests
  3. Educate yourself on forest regeneration outcomes, greenhouse gas emissions linked to forest harvest, and changes in important ecosystems across Canada (and the world).
  4. Rethink tree planting and support organizations working to protect and preserve biodiversity, get involved, and allow forests to regenerate themselves.