Old Growth Trees Protect Us From Forest Fires

Photo of Sharol Tilgner
Path into forest.

We Need To Focus On Healthy Forests

I realize the causes of the forest fires are many and complicated. However, we are focusing on symptoms just as we do in health care.  As always, there are underlying causes that can not be ignored if health is to be achieved in our forests. Currently, we are creating tinder boxes waiting to burn.

Monocropping Trees (Industrialized Tree Farming)

It is my opinion that the main issue that has turned our forests into tinder boxes is monocropping of our forests and the use of chemicals on them. This is the underlying issue that creates a sick forest. This type of industrialized forest practice grows trees that are prone to stress from lack of nutrients and water. When the trees are no longer vibrant, they are prone to infestation of insects, infections and other disease, that in turn leads to dead trees, which are tinder waiting to burn. To understand what I am talking about, I need to share a little bit more information with you.

Commercially trees are monocropped for lumber. It is often conifers that are grown in these forests, generally fir or pine. Growing large swaths of one tree species is similar to growing big fields of one type of vegetable, fruit or herb. These plants usually do not do well unless they are coddled by the farmer. They lack community and protection. The environment lacks the soil biology that supports their ability to receive nourishment and moisture from the soil. This sets them up for poor health and eventually they attract insects that see the large monocrop area as a smorgasbord of their favorite food. The lack of health, and vitality of these monocropped plants/trees makes them more susceptible to the insects, drought and disease. Monocropping of plants/trees additionally leads to greater use of insecticides and herbicides by the industrialized farmer.

Trees like to grow in tight groups. They grow their branches away from each other but their roots are intertwined in a loving embrace. Groups of trees grow together from the time they are young. Scientists have found that mother trees support their young and many trees share resources.  Older, mother trees are the most important to the network. When mother trees are removed this social network collapses and it is a disaster for the trees left. They will most likely die. When trees in a forest are harvested and the older mother trees are removed, bushes, fungi, and other plants, lichens, bacteria, and other commensal soil critters that keep a forest healthy all disappear or at least have a very hard time trying to eek out an existence.

In contrast to a natural forest where trees grow together, and share resources, monocrop trees are a vast group of loners who do not communicate and support each other. They don’t receive help from the others as takes place in an older interconnected forest and are more susceptible to any type of environmental stress.

Heart shape made by the leaves of trees coming together.

The fungal web

Trees have an amazing web of fungus under the soil that interconnects them. This underground fungal mycelium network allows them to communicate and share resources. All of the forest, both under, and above the ground are interdependent on one another. For details on how this works see Suzanne Simard’s Ted Talk on how trees talk to each other.

How trees share resources through this underground network is interesting. The mass of fungal micorrhiza connect to the trees and network the trees together. This fungal mycelium connects to similar species as well as disparate species. They move things like nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, water, defense signals, and hormones form one tree to another. This shows a mutualistic symbiosis between many trees.

These micorrhizal fungi associate with  trees all over the world. The fungi help the trees take up minerals and water, while the trees provide sugars from photosynthesis to the fungi. This relationship protects the trees from stress and drought. Under the soil, the fungi create a vast network that links the trees. The network becomes a hi-way for the trees to send messages or nutrients to each other.

Mother Trees and Tree Networking

Older mother trees tend to share their resources more with their young than they do with the other trees. They favor their children. They assist them in their growth to help them get established when young, and continue to communicate more with them than other non-related trees. Mother trees feed their young with a carbon solution. The biggest mother trees have the most links to others. When the mother tree dies they send out carbon and defense signals to their children.

The trees nourish each other and warn each other of impending threats. Trees under attack, tell the others of the issue by using the fungal network.

Trees need other trees and need a variety of trees, and other plants, fungi, and critters to be healthy. Like us, they need community to be healthy and productive.

When you take out too many mother trees, the forests networking system collapses. Trees become stressed and sickly. They are unable to share nutrients, water, and information. They are more susceptible to stress. Insects can more easily devastate a monocrop forest. I have been watching this happen to the beetle infested evergreen forests in the Western United States for years. Beetles are leaving dead trees all over the place. These dead trees are perfect fire tinder.

Encouraging Old Growth

Old growth forests have a lot to share with us, as do sustainable forests. The mother trees, the underground world of micorrhizal fungi, and other beneficial organisms are all important, and they all need to be nurtured, and remain as a unified system, or the whole system collapses and the forest dies. This sets the ground-work for unlimited fires, that will continue until all the monocrop forests are burnt to the ground.


Horse Logging, A Sustainable Future

How should we be harvesting trees? Currently, very large machines are removing trees in the forests. They are heavy and damage the micorrhizal fungi under the soil, and they decrease pore size in the soil which in turn decreases the water available. Less water available in the soil leads to stressed and dying trees.

Horse logging is safe to the soil and would not cause the damage to the soil pores and mycorrhiza. Selective cutting with horse logging will protect the forest as an organism. It will also provide additional jobs sorely needed in logging communities.  We need to be thinking about growing, and logging families of trees in methods that add to the forest's health, or at least does not detract from its health. We don’t want to monocrop rows of trees, we want to selectively remove trees in a radiant forest, and only to the point where the forest can still remain intact and healthy.

Reducing Consumption, Reusing, Recycling

Additionally, we need to reduce consumption, reuse and recycle what we are able to, as well as reduce population growth on the planet. Yes, I did just mention population growth and reducing it.  If we don't all get on board with this idea, we will simply die in our own excrement, just as bacteria do in a petri dish.


These are basic ideas I am presenting and I am sure you have many great ideas on how we can improve our forestry farming practices. I would love to hear about them.


I suggest you watch a 45-minute movie from Amazon called "Intelligent Trees"

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