Question No. 32

Why doesn’t your website call for specific actions? For example, one could plant productive forests thus making money and at the same time improving the environment.
Answered 17 December 2016.
Question author: Oleg and other readers.
Asked 22 May 2016.

In brief:

The environment, including the water regime, is regulated by natural undisturbed ecosystems. Such ecosystems consist of a strictly defined set of key species -- bacteria, fungi, mosses, lichens, trees, herbs, insects, soil worms, protozoa and others. Every species consumes a strictly defined share of ecosystem productivity and plays a strictly defined role in the complex machinery of environmental stabilization by the biota. Natural ecosystems do not maximize productivity. They maximize their own stability and the stability of their environment.

An arbitrary set of plant and animal species selected for their economic profitability is unable to perform biotic regulation. Such species do not possess the genetic information necessary for the complex process of environmental stabilization. On the contrary, such malfunctioning biological systems can only destabilize the environment (a simple example with alien cacti or eucalypts undermining the native water cycle was discussed here).

Highly productive tree plantations provide for our demand in wood and other tree products (including the aesthetic pleasure of seeing trees). If considered unrelated to the strategic goal -- to stop exploitation of natural forests and facilitate their self-recovery -- tree planting per se has an additional downside: it creates an illusion of something being done to improve the ecological situation. However, within a broader strategic restoration framework, large-scale tree plantations could become a powerful tool in natural forest recovery. To this end, productive tree species could be planted near industrial centers to cut transport expenses and meet the population's demand in wood such that tree cutting in natural ecosystems could be abolished. This requires a state strategy of saving natural forests, cooperation between the forest business community, state and society. Also needed are successful cases of productive tree planting under different climatic conditions in Russia.

Below we illustrate these propositions in greater detail on the example of spruce plantations in the Czech Republic.

On forest plantations and forest pests

There are two questions:
1) what could one do to improve one's own living conditions and elevate self-esteem;
2) what can one do to preserve the environment in a suitable for life state regionally, globally and in the long-term.

The biotic regulation concept provides answers to both questions, but it focuses on the second one. The biotic regulation website is intended to inform people interested in strategic planning and in solving problems that reach beyond one's lifetime. The biotic regulation concept explains how the biosphere is organized and how the biota functions. In particular, it emphasizes that environmental regulation is an ultra complex task that requires processing of huge information fluxes. In each region biotic regulation is performed by native ecological communities comprising a strictly defined set of biological species. Randomly assembled sets of species are incapable of environmental control.

If private tree planting is performed on small areas by a few people, these plantations won't have any large-scale environmental impact. If such private plantations, where each person plants some trees of her choice, are performed on a large scale, the resulting "incorrect" biological system will most likely seriously undermine regional climate conditions instead of improving them. In fact, such plantations can become a time bomb for the next generation. The more productive a malfunctioning "ecosystem" is, the more dangerous it is for the environment and climate.

High productivity is not related to high efficiency of biotic regulation. Natural ecosystems maximize environmental stability, which may or may not imply maximum productivity. By analogy, human body can develop high metabolic power (energy spent per unit time) when the human individual is performinig some intense physical or mental work; but at the same time high metabolic power can be an indication of a serious illness (fever). As we wrote earlier, "a conflict (rarely appreciated or discussed) exists between the modern commercial value of a forest and the forest's ability to regulate the regional water cycle and to be self-sustainable: these parameters cannot be maximized simultaneously".

People concerned about the persistence of life within the Russian borders should prioritize conservation of the yet remaining natural ecosystems, struggle against their ongoing destruction and facilitate their recovery towards the undisturbed state. The definition of this undisturbed state, which implies self-sustainability and environmental competence, is by itself a fundamental scientific problem. Every person should consider his or her opportunities and resources to decide how to contribute to these goals. A most important task today as we see it is to raise the ecological awareness and the level of ecological education in the population, including the decision-makers. Ecological education is not about industrial pollution. It is about how the biosphere works.

Let us now consider a typical example of an ecological calamity and general chaos associated with large-scale plantations. We got to know about this situation from our colleague and friend from the Czech Republic, professor Jan Čermák, world's top expert in tree ecophysiology. Several decades ago in the Šumava Mountains there were large deforested areas. Some presumably well-meaning people decided to plant spruce trees on these areas: these were productive trees indeed but they did not quite belong to the native ecosystem.

After a while the spruce plantations became part of a national park. Being unnatural even-aged tree stands, as the spruce trees grew up the bark beetles began to attack them. This ecological function of forest "pests" -- to destroy malfunctioning trees -- is analagous to the function of a healthy immune system recognizing and eliminating malfunctioning cells in a multicellular body. From "the beetles' viewpoint", these spruce trees should not have been growing where they were. (By the way, locusts devastating agricultural fields "think" along the same lines.)

Spruce plantations in Sumava National Park destroyed by bark beetles
Spruce plantations in the Šumava National Park killed by the bark beetles.
Photo provided by J. Čermák.

Obviously these spruce trees, being themselves on the verge of survival, could not regulate the water regime. They were not a biotic pump. They remained alive as long as the national park workers kept protecting them from the bark beetles.

In this situation forest experts called for a gradual modification of the species composition of these "forests" towards the native ecological community, stable and capable of self-recovery. This strategy presumed small-scale cutting, planting carefully selected tree species and unconditional continuation of protection against the bark beetles. In other words, one had to treat these trees as patients in the intense care unit.

But the new administration of the park decided differently. The spruce plantations were proclaimed "wild nature", which can care for itself. Protection against the bark beetles was discontinued. Local community was manipulated to support these actions since the level of ecological literacy was low. Expectedly, a massive die-back of the spruce trees followed. The process had its beneficiaries, since the dead and morbid trees could be cut and sold. To hide the fact of tree death caused by the bark beetles, dead tree stems were manipulated with a chainsaw to imitate windfall.

Trees killed by bark beetles
Dead stems of trees killed by the bark beetles were modified with a chainsaw for the beetle epidemics to look as a windfall. Both photos provided by J. Čermák.

Trees killed by bark beetles
A closer view of how the stems were modified

Thus, those well-meaning people who a hundred years ago planted these highly productive spruce trees, instead of facilitating natural forest recovery, are indirectly responsible for the ecological disaster currently unfolding in the national park.

There is another important dimension of the forest pests problem. In the United States a massive forest die-back is ongoing associated with various forest pests including the bark beetles. The reason to be immediately named by a forest biologist appears obvious: it is the global warming! Longer summers (or warmer winters, this is under discussion) allow the beetles to reproduce more successfully, such that their numbers grow and more trees are infected.

Bark beetle activity on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
Bark beetle activity on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska in 1972-1998. Data from "Assessing the Consequences of Climate Change for Alaska and the Bering Sea Region" (Fig. 2 on p. 32)

This "global warming bugaboo" explanation is an excellent excuse for continuing forest exploitation. Indeed, if it is the global warming to blame, no one can be held individually responsible for the massive forest degradation. A fact invariably kept out of this convenient narrative is that undisturbed natural forests suffer much less from forests pests than exploited forests or plantations.

In other words, if the forests were kept in their pristine natural state -- rather than weakened by continuous cutting -- they could possibly withstand the rising fertility of bark beetles and remain relatively unscathed.

In natural forests massive tree die-back caused by bark beetles is very rare. The pests attack individual presumably weakened trees
In natural forests massive tree die-back caused by bark beetles is very rare. The pests attack individual presumably weakened trees. Photo provided by J. Čermák.

Simultaneously with the Alaskan forests experiencing severe beetle attacks, the undisturbed boreal forests in eastern Fennoscandia (i.e. at about the same latitude) remained safe (Gromtsev 2002). Gromtsev (2002, p. 52) noted (our emphasis) that "in spite of the significant age of the surveyed forests, lack of management, frequent fires and a relatively high abundance of potentially damaging species, stem pests mainly attack already dead and dying trees, the die-back of which was induced by other reasons".

Global warming is a serious indication of climate stability on Earth having been broken. At the same time, "global warming" as a popular mem can be used as a convenient excuse for a great variety of irresponsible practices, including forest exploitation, that are destroying regional environments. Ordinary people must be exceptionally well informed about how the biosphere functions to struggle successfully with such destructive practices and preserve their environment.

We once again emphasize our main proposition: natural ecosystems are stable: they are capable of self-recovery if the disturbance does not go beyond the stability threshold. Namely these ecosystems regulate and stabilize the environment. Randomly assembled sets of plant and animal species are unstable themselves and destabilize the environment. It is necessary and urgent to preserve natural ecosystems, allow for their self-recovery where such a recovery is still possible and learn how to restore them elsewhere.

Let us preserve natural ecosystems