Re-wilding is good, but research into the ecosystem roles of ancient trees shows we must preserve existing wilderness.

There are a lot of different ways to approach climate change as an issue. The primary focus is, rightly, on power generation and on ending fossil fuel use, but there’s plenty of other stuff that we can be doing at the same time. Returning cleared or developed area to some form of ecosystem – managed or otherwise – is a big part of that. For myself, I tend to focus on the more active, progressive, and left-wing angle of environmental justice. This means thinking about how to change the relationship between people and their environment, as well as eliminating the political and economic structures that, for example, prevent indigenous people the world over from managing their land, or simply pushing them off of any land that a (usually white) corporation decides it can use to make money.

A lot of environmentalism over the last century has been heavily informed by the white supremacy of the colonial powers, and has been used to justify preventing development in poor countries, as well as preventing people from living off the land. The misguided notion that humans must exist in conflict with nature let to the equally misguided notion that caring for the natural world means, mostly, keeping humans out of it, which has caused problems for a lot of people, mostly non-white. All of this is why the focus on environmental justice caught on, and the intersection between environmentalism and other subjects like racism, economics, colonialism, and so on.

That said, there are a lot of things that the environmental movement yesteryear got right, and taking care of trees is one of them. Specifically, it turns out that there are measurable benefits to having very, very old trees around:

“Ancient trees are unique habitats for the conservation of threatened species because they can resist and buffer climate warming,” write the authors, including Gianluca Piovesan (@Dendrocene) and Charles H. Cannon (@ruminatus). Some of these trees, such as bristlecone pines in the White Mountains, USA, can live up to 5,000 years and act as massive carbon storage.

Ancient trees are hotspots for mycorrhizal connectivity, the symbiotic relationship with underground fungi that supplies plants with many of the nutrients they need to survive. This symbiosis with fungi also helps reduce drought in dry environments. Ancient trees play a disproportionately large role in conservation planning and yet are being lost globally at an alarming rate.

Of course they are, and in case it wasn’t obvious, that deforestation is being driven by the greed of a small number of humans with way too much power, not by human need, or any vague bullshit about human nature. Fortunately, as with most of our environmental problems, it’s pretty clear what we should be doing, if we can get together the power to do it:

The researchers propose a two-pronged approach to protect ancient trees: first, the conservation of these trees through the propagation and preservation of the germplasm and meristematic tissue from these ancient trees, and second, a planned integration of complete protection and forest rewilding.

“Mapping and monitoring old-growth forests and ancient trees can directly assess the effectiveness and sustainability of protected areas and their ecological integrity,” they write. “To carry out this ambitious project, a global monitoring platform, based on advanced technologies, is required along with public contributions through community science projects.”

Currently, protecting ancient trees in forests, woodlands, historic gardens, and urban and agricultural areas remain limited by national policy levels. “The current review of the Convention of Biological Diversity and Sustainable Development Goal 15 ‘Life on Land’ of Agenda 2030 should include old-growth and ancient tree mapping and monitoring as key indicators of the effectiveness of protected areas in maintaining and restoring forest integrity for a sustainable future,” write the authors.

“We call for international efforts to preserve these hubs of diversity and resilience. A global coalition utilizing advanced technologies and community scientists to discover, protect, and propagate ancient trees is needed before they disappear.”

I will add that for those with the ability, I think there’s a lot to be said for  direct action. That can be anything from the long-standing tactic of camping out in trees to keep them from being cut down, to the ongoing movement to defend the Atlanta forest. This kind of activism is dangerous, both because of the inherent dangers of aerial camping, and because it will bring you into conflict with governments and with capitalists, both groups with a history of violence against environmentalists.   I also want to make very clear that if we are acting to preserve the ecosystem services provided by ancient trees, then that means we also need to make sure that younger trees get a chance to become ancient. There’s merit in defending very young forests, because they won’t always be young, if they have a chance to grow.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *