Could Tree Planting Work?

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On a permaculture design course a while ago, I first learnt that the natural base state of nature is a forest. It blew my mind when a clear image of succession was presented to me which illustrated the constant flux in our ecosystems towards a mature climax forest. Pioneering species begins to build the soil, intermediate species continue the work and increase the biodiversity until a fully formed dense mixed forest stabalises.

Tree planting seems to be the hype at the moment with Ethiopia recently breaking the record with 353 million trees planted in 12 hours. Closer to home, conservatives are promising 30 million trees a year, Lib Dems going double that at 60 million and Labour promising 2 billion in 20 years which equals to 100 million a year. But I’ve been having some serious doubts about the long term viability of these initiatives.

After the war, and up to the 1970’s Japan incentivised the population through subsidies to plant pine and cypress on a massive scale. This led to huge swathes of ancient woodlands being deforested to make space for monoculture forestry. Then in the 80’s, imported higher quality timber from Scandinavia became cheaper, collapsing the industry while the densely packed monoculture plantations were abandoned nation wide. These unmanaged plantations that spans across Japan are ecological dead zones with no understory species without light penetrating to the ground level resulting in the absence of insects, birds and animals. To add the the insult, their dense plumes of pollen fly to far away cities causing hay fever epidemics.

Monoculture desert

I understand that to meet challenging emission targets on time, we must act fast to capture and store carbon, part of which must take the form of planting trees, especially with top soil degradation leaving less than 40 harvests in the UK. But if we do not ask HOW they are planted, WHICH species are planted, WHERE they are planted and WHO takes care of it, then what we perceived to be a solution may turn back and bite us hard.

How?

Let’s look at each of the questions above briefly, starting with how the trees are planted. Many of these planting schemes look at the ‘number of trees’ as a big factor probably because it’s the easiest to use for marketing. If done right, structured planting schemes like Ecosia’s initiatives can fast track the ecological succession and work on a large scale. But perhaps letting huge swathes of land to re-wild itself with minimum human intervention may prove to be the cheapest and the most natural form of regeneration.

The term ‘rewilding’ feels like it is more commonly used and embedded in public consciousness than even 3 years ago but I can see how political parties would find it difficult to use it. It’s incredibly complex to assess the success of regeneration through rewilding. You’d need to track the diversity and health of countless trees, shrubs, animals insects, microbes over multiple decades … Compare that with a simpler ‘X’ number of trees planted in 4 years in political power and it become quite clear.

Another possible direction is to design a forest (particularly for forests planted closer to human settlements) strategically so that it creates its own microclimate suitable for growth, has mineral accumulators and natural ground covers and at the same time provide us with plenty of food. We call this ‘forest gardening‘ in permaculture. It is a method of replicating how healthy forests function with the addition of cultivating edible species with minimum input.

Which Species

In Ireland, Sitka spruce is the dominant trees planted by the government, favoured for its speed of growth and multiple economic uses once harvested for timber. They plan to turn 8000 hectares a year into these monoculture plantations devoid of biodiversity which is clearly another form of industrial extraction with a green washed cover. By degrading the soil and eliminating the bio-diversity, these tree plantations are thought to be net emitters of carbon, while mixed forests have been proven to store multiple times more carbon.

Many argue for mixed native species to be planted, but with climate predictions ranging from minimum 2 degrees to upwards of 5 degrees by 2100, and on the other extreme, with a possible scenario of gulf stream stalling through Greenland ice melt resulting in colder winter, it makes far more sense to diversify the species we plant. Some that will thrive in hotter, drier conditions, many native species and those that will be hardy enough to withstand harsher winters. Not all will survive but in the time of great uncertainty, having at least some that will be well adapted for the change will be a wiser move, especially when we are planting trees that will live past our human lifespan – into an unimaginably different world of 2100’s.

Where?

A recent post on Global Center on Adaptations titled ‘Let half of Britain’s farmland go wild and it benefits us all‘, the author states that at least 80% of farms don’t produce much, relying the majority of their income on subsidies while degrading the soil and decimating the wildlife ecosystems. He continues with a proposal to convert half of the farmland which only produces 20% of the UK’s total agricultural output to go wild.

Imagine the abundance if even a fraction of the UK farmland was turned into a forest garden, providing edible food at multiple heights with minimum human input. Just imagine the barren depleted fields turning into an ecologically diverse, resilient and robust food bank accessible to everyone and build top soil. A sweet image to behold but the technical challenge of designing and implementing forest gardens on a national scale is difficult to comprehend at this moment in time. Perhaps it can be incorporated into schemes closer to human habitats while farmlands that are more remote could be devoted to mixed forests and rewilding.

Who Takes Care Of It?

Planting seedlings is the start and not the end. Trees require care when young – watering, protection from deer, frosts, wind, pests and diseases. Many schemes have mobilised local communities and weaved in value to taking care of the trees – for food crops, for water security, for tourism etc. In the UK specifically, I would like to propose a system where young people who’ve partaken on a holistic forest management course (including forest gardening) are given a manageable plot of land to reforest and the freedom to live on it, provided the house they build meets the highest ecological standards.

Just imagine how well the reforestation would be managed with so many young people retraining to be guardians of forests and its eco-systems. Imagine reaching negative carbon status by solving the housing crisis, increasing food security, building soil and enriching biodiversity.

To finish off, here’s a really good video by Ecosia that outlines the questions I’ve raised above.

To sum up, the narrator suggests asking these four questions when confronted with tree planting schemes.

  1. Have the trees actually put in the ground? Are they monitored or are we dealing with a feel-good but ultimately unrealistic pledge?
  2. Are local communities equal partners in the project? Will the trees benefit them? Will they take care of the trees?
  3. Are the tree species native to the area or imported and possibly invasive?
  4. Have they planted a diverse forest or a monoculture?

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