The science of how organisms react with each other, and interact with the environment of a forest ecosystem is called forest ecology. The key structural components of forest ecosystems are plants, animals, microbes, soils and the atmosphere. Forest ecology describes and provides an explanation for, and an understanding of, the differences between forest ecosystems in different places, and the changes in any one forest over time. Studies on forest ecology may include the importance of both old and new growth forests, the threat level of invasive animal and plant species, and the impact of human activity on the local environment. Over many years, forest ecologists will collect data due to the fact that forest ecology requires time recording for species that are changing in the system. New data will be compared with the data that was collected in the previous years and this will provide a better idea for what the long-term trends of the area tend to be. The increase or reduction of species may be cause for special concern.
In the forest, energy is both created and consumed. Plants and trees are the earth’s energy producers. Trees and plants are referred to as autotrophs (“self-feeding”, from the Greek autos “self” and trophe “nourishing”), because they combine carbon from oxygen in the air, combine it with water and nutrients from the soil and with sunlight they create energy through photosynthesis. This energy created by trees and plants is then spread throughout the ecosystem and is the sustaining force for most all life on our plant. Trees and plants are then consumed by heterotrophs (heteros = “another”, “different” and trophe = “nutrition”), which are organisms that consume other organisms as their energy source. Herbivores and omnivores consume the trees and plants for nutrients, which then are consumed by carnivores and other omnivores. This energy cycle continues as all organisms die and their body’s nutrients are returned to the soil where they can once again be utilized by the autotr
ophs to create energy. This incredible system is well described by the University of Minnesota Duluth from a study of an invasive exotic worm and there is a more concise explanation located at forestlearning.edu.
Soil ecology is the study of interactions among soil organisms. This also includes the interaction between abiotic and biotic aspects of the soil environment. To have healthy soil ecology it is important to have stabilization and formation of the pore structure, as well as to have a healthy spread of pathogens.
Soil is concocted by a multitude of chemical, physical, and biological entities. Soil is made up of broken and weathered minerals along with decaying organic matter. With the proper amount of water around it, it supplies sustenance for plants, with full mechanical support. The abundance and diversity of the soil ecosystem exceeds most other ecosystems. Competitiveness, establishment of plants, and growth is all governed by the ecology taking place below ground. It is the understanding of the soil ecosystem that is essential in terms of plant sciences.
Incredibly diverse organisms make up the soil food web. Their size ranges from tiny one-celled bacteria, fungi, algae, and protozoa to nematodes and micro-arthropods, and then to earthworms, insects, plants, and small vertebrates. As these organisms grow and find their way throughout the soil, they make it possible for clean air, water, healthy plants, and water flow.
The forest ecosystem is remarkably efficient in it’s ability to store, distribute, and filter water. Since the forest is so efficient with water, it plays a critical role in the overall hydrological cycle. The process of transpiration describes the movement of water through soil and vegetation. This process helps capture and store water to mitigate floods in periods of heavy rain and ensures steady water flow during drier seasons. Forest soils absorb water and, as a result, surface runoff rarely occurs outside of streams in forests, causing important water catchments to form beneath. These catchments not only store valuable fresh water, but also increase the quality of water since forest cover reduces erosion and evaporation from the forest floor. This helps give the vegetation of the forest accessible water year around.
I remember the Biscuit Fire of 2002. It was the summer before my sophomore year of highschool, and the dry heat of southern Oregon provided just the sort of conditions necessary for a lightning strike to start the blaze. My first memory of the fire is driving over the Jacksonville Hill, into the Applegate Valley and towards home to see a haze covering the horizon and descending on the valley like a fog. I remember the smell and the feeling of breathing in smoky air. I remember the fear I felt. I could tell that driving home was actually getting me closer to the fire, and not knowing how extensive it was, I envisioned my house up in flames.
Fortunately, I would come to find out that the blaze, while destroying a few homes and around 15,000 evacuations, did not cause any deaths or pose a danger to my neighborhood in Ruch, Oregon. Still, that experience brought into focus for me why forests have historically been a source of fear and seen as a universal enemy to be combatted. The goal has been forest fire prevention and suppression, which might at first glance seem the sensible thing to do. However, fire’s importance to the ecology of forests is better understood today than ever before.
Fires provide the space, soil, and nutrients necessary for some species to thrive and thus for the animals who depend on them to survive. Fires provide snags and other important habitat for many species of insects, birds, and mammals. Forests have a natural cycle by which they burn and regenerate, and disrupting this cycle can have negative consequences not only on the forest and the animals that call it home, but can cause a build-up of debris that will only lead to larger and more intense fires down the line. We must be careful not to react emotionally out of a natural fear of fire, and realize that it is an integral and necessary component to the systems required for the beautiful and intricate natural ecosystems that we love.
Silvics involves understanding how trees grow, reproduce, and respond to environmental changes. “Silvology” is the study of forests and woods. “Silviculture” is the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, and quality of forests in order to better serve economic demand. Quite simply, silviculture is about agriculture. Jack C. Westoby, an internationally famous forester known for his influence on using forestry as a means for social and economic development, once remarked that “forestry is concerned not with trees, but with how trees can serve people”. Active management is required for silviculture practices.
Silviculture is divided into three phases: regeneration, tending, and harvesting. Careful attention is paid to planting the right trees best suited to the environment around it and which phenotype will grow the fastest and healthiest in the shortest time period available. Thinning controls the amount of available growing space for trees with the intent of having fewer trees growing faster and larger in a much shorter timeframe. Thinnings are not intended to establish permanent canopy openings or to create new “crops” of trees. Silviculture looks at the timber crop currently available for harvest but also takes into consideration on the effects it will have on the next harvest. Ultimately, the logging practices and decisions made will effect growth of these forests for the next 40 to 80 years and will massively shape the ecology of the forest.
In 1993 two friends, attorney Greg Dyson and musician John “Lenny” Rancher, began a call to action after witnessing vast clear-cuts and old-growth logging while exploring Mt. Hood National Forest. They began to hike each timber sale, noting the markings in the forest and calling attention to discrepancies between action on the ground and agency documents. Soon they discovered that others shared their passion for protecting Mt. Hood, and began training them to “groundtruth” as well. Eventually, Greg brought together a diverse array of dedicated professionals and passionate activists to form a working board of directors and Bark was born. Bark was officially founded in 1999 and has since trained hundreds of volunteers about the basics of forest policy and protected nearly 10,000 acres of forest from the chainsaw.
To learn more about Bark and their involvement in protecting the ecology of Mt. Hood’s natural forests, please visit http://www.bark-out.org/.