Dr. Keith Swenson, professor of natural sciences, shares some fascinating thoughts on forest regeneration in honor of Earth Day, celebrated nationally on April 22.
There still seems to be a common understanding within some circles that Earth Day and Christians don’t mix. Is this perception flawed? Let’s consider two of our great western forests.
I remember when Mount St. Helens blew. That was 36 years ago. Our family was on the Oregon coast that beautiful Sunday morning, so we didn’t witness the initial blast. But as we drove home to Portland later in the day, we saw an eruption plume rising 60,000 feet over the volcano. Later we began to learn the full extent of that day’s eruptive activity and its effects on people, landscapes and the region as a whole.
Certainly the great forest surrounding Mount St. Helens did not escape the volcanic maelstrom. Instead of producing an upward column of ash, St. Helens’ first salvo surprisingly was sideways, directly over the forest to the north. This oven-hot “stonewind,” as it was called, spread outward, producing a fan-shaped area of destruction, later named the “blast zone.” In the space of only three minutes, 230 square miles of old-growth and plantation forest was “disturbed” (to use the language of ecology) to an extreme degree. Days later, scientists observing the monotonous gray desolation, exuded dire predictions concerning the forest’s return to life. Many called it a “sterile landscape,” predicting it would be at least decades before significant recovery occurred.
But a surprise awaited! The forest began recovering from its destruction much more rapidly than prophesied. Within three years, 90% of the forest’s plant species were back and much of the animal life as well. It appeared that the forest ecosystem was equipped with mechanisms enabling it to rapidly react to cataclysmic disturbance. In ecology, an ecosystem’s ability to respond to a disturbance is termed “resilience,” and the blast zone forest at Mount St. Helens proved itself to be highly resilient.
But is an ecosystem’s resilience bounded by limits? Can humans, for example, do whatever they wish — or think best — to a forest, assured that it will bounce back? Could a forest be highly resilient and yet somewhat fragile at the same time? Let’s consider a second forest.
In 1910, a seminal event catapulted the U.S. Forest Service into national prominence. That event was a great wildfire in the northern Rockies of Montana and Idaho, usually referred to simply as the “fire of 1910,” or the “big burn.” In the span of 48 hours, three million acres of prime western white pine forest was incinerated, along with human lives and property, including the mining town of Wallace, Idaho. The fire was so monstrous that it got the attention of the nation. Something had to be done to protect our forests from fire. That job fell to the fledgling Forest Service, which over the better part of the twentieth century attempted to prevent forest fires – with some measure of success. Fires on the public lands of the West were markedly contained, but at what cost?
Through careful scientific study, much more has been learned about forest fire in more recent years. For many forests, fire is as essential for their health as good soil and adequate rain. Periodic fires control the buildup of brush and other forest fuels, provide a needed pulse of nutrients into the soil and enables certain tree species, including Douglas-fir, to regenerate. Oregon State University forest ecologist David Perry puts it this way: “We now know that fire played a crucial ecological role in these systems, and its removal set in motion a chain of events that wrecked the health of forests throughout the region, increasing their susceptibility to insects and pathogens, and making them vulnerable to fires that are much more destructive (and difficult to control) than we fought to exclude.”
So, on this Earth Day, how should we view our relationship to our forests that are sufficiently resilient to rebound, but fragile enough to degrade from decades of fire suppression? The Bible provides some guidance. First, it tells us that the “earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1). He created it, and He owns it. But to our first parents (and to all mankind) God gave dominion over His creation – a mandate to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air . . . and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:26). It’s clear now that Christians and Earth Day do mix. But how are we supposed to successfully rule over the fish of the sea (like Pacific Salmon), the birds of the air (Osprey) and creatures that move along the ground (Red-legged Frogs) today when all these creatures are dependent on healthy Northwest forests?
Dave Perry suggests the following: “Avoiding similar disasters in the future will take more than good intentions (those early foresters had the best of intentions); it will require knowledge” (emphasis mine). I see an implicit requirement in God’s dominion mandate to scientifically study the creation He’s given us (such as forest ecosystems) in order to understand it and thereby successfully manage it for His glory – and the benefit of mankind. We will never do that perfectly, but we can do it better.
- “Mount St. Helens” is always written with an abbreviation for “saint.” The Baron of St. Helens, for whom the mountain is named, is said to have been so humble he never wanted “saint” in his title spelled out.
- Reference on the Dave Perry quotes: David A. Perry, Forest Ecosystems (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), p.9