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Is Your Relationship with Trees on the Rocks?

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If you walk through the dense canopies of the Amazon or Borneo, or even the Appalachians and other forests in the US, you notice that nature has a way of “self-managing” to reduce the kinds of risks we face in highly converted neighborhoods in the United States.

In natural forests, trees grow together to form ecosystems that are self-supporting. Closely-spaced trees protect one another from wind. Old and sick trees are often overtaken by vines and insects; they eventually fall and/or die, and decompose. Younger trees in the understory take advantage of the canopy opening to access more sunlight and fill in the gaps. The diversity of shapes, sizes, and ages in the forest makes for fabulous habit for all kinds of other flora and fauna.

When left to their natural devices, drier forests, like those found out west, have historically experienced ground fires that would clear underbrush and thin out smaller trees, reducing the chance of dangerously hot blazes. Without these occasional burns, dense trees and thick underbrush serve as potent fuel for the massive burns we’re seeing this summer.

As I look out at my own backyard, I see where things have gone wrong.  A well-meaning former owner planted “low maintenance” English Ivy.  The invasive non-native plant, left untended, raced up several trees, creating wounds in their trunks into which marched colonies of termites and carpenter ants. As these trees died, their neighboring trees were robbed of the safety in numbers against wind and heavy rains, and the standing dead or wounded trees became liabilities when storms come through. Just last year, Hurricane Irene downed a termite-eaten hickory that nearly took out our shed.

Making matters worse, these decades-old icons of our neighborhood aren’t being replaced with new growth, due at least in part to gardeners routinely cleaning up “weeds” (which many people define as anything that grows where we don’t want it), thereby preventing young saplings from getting a strong foothold.

In the West, development interventions have caused even more dramatic problems. Last century’s policy of extinguishing all natural fires in American forests—for fear they would threaten people and property—has left us with a tinderbox of choking brush and densely packed trees that, in the face of a warming planet, takes little to ignite.

Unfortunately, we can no longer simply let nature do its thing.  We’ve altered the landscape so much over time that the trees need a little help.

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32 comments

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2:18AM PDT on Aug 2, 2012

There's such a variety of trees, all beautiful, some majestic, and who could imagine a world without them? They will still be here when the last humans have finally destroyed one another.

What better way to spend a hot afternoon than to read a good book, sitting on the ground with your back against the trunk of a tall tree with its branches shading you from the sun and a breeze whispering through its leaves. And if you nod off, what wonderful dreams you'll have.

7:07AM PDT on Jul 29, 2012

Plant a tree. Plant a garden. PLANT!

7:05AM PDT on Jul 29, 2012

I love the trees in my yard, even the sweet gum which, after stepping on a dry seed pod you sometimes think horrible thoughts about the trees worth. I have planted one that I will enjoy for years to come but now I will plant more. Maybe move the house up in the trees and we can all go together when its our time.

6:22AM PDT on Jul 29, 2012

Trees are not only beautiful but they provide shade and are Earth's lungs. We need trees, that is why God gave them to us.

2:47PM PDT on Jul 28, 2012

Had a good comment ready to send...hit the wrong key...poof!
I throughly enjoyed your article ..Nature Conservacy..Sarene M. I gave away 14, 2'-4' spruce trees that started from seed themselves from my nearby spruce trees. Hubby wants to cut them down, as is afraid if a bad storm they could hit the house. They are healthy, and I am not letting these go yet!??

1:16AM PDT on Jul 28, 2012

Very good and interesting article. Here in Brazil we have a website for those who are fans of trees. Every new member subscribed a tree is planted. I invite everybody to join this group. The website is http://plantearvore.org.br

10:11PM PDT on Jul 27, 2012

Plant more trees! We need more trees! Trees are the earths lungs, therefore they become ours too. Earth is battling to breath as there are so few trees! That's way we have so many respiratory diseases. Asthma is increasing in children. Sure pollution is a huge problem but trees will reduce that, plus they are very cooling, and their benefits go on......

6:25PM PDT on Jul 27, 2012

thanks for sharing

5:18PM PDT on Jul 27, 2012

I live in The Whitsundays on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Our house is within what was previously, a bird sanctuary but sadly no longer. However, we are in a beautiful valley surrounded by trees of all types and sizes and varieties and a variety of weeds, grasses and palms with a creek which runs through. We would never dream of cutting down a tree for any other reason than that it has become a danger due to cyclone damage or age. The birds are still here, along with a variety of other native animals, including snakes ... ugh! They, the animals, also need the trees and the vegetation. In Australia, we are not immune to bushfires and it was quite normal for councils and other agencies to carry out controlled burns but someone thought it was a good idea to discontinue the practice for many, many years. This stupid decision resulted in an increase in bushfires causing terrible tragedy. In the past few years, controlled burning has been resumed ... sensibly. Our Aboriginal people are the masters of controlled burning and it was always part of their survival and culture. They are the sensible ones. I reject the theory that having too many trees eventually is the cause of too much methane gas. Whatever methane gas that emanates from falling leaves etc is far outweighed by the fact that forests act as carbon sinks. So they actually drink in carbon and retain it. When wood is used for housing, the carbon remains within the wood and therefore does not escape back into the atmospher

5:15PM PDT on Jul 27, 2012

I live in The Whitsundays on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Our house is within what was previously, a bird sanctuary but sadly no longer. However, we are in a beautiful valley surrounded by trees of all types and sizes and varieties and a variety of weeds, grasses and palms with a creek which runs through. We would never dream of cutting down a tree for any other reason than that it has become a danger due to cyclone damage or age. The birds are still here, along with a variety of other native animals, including snakes ... ugh! They, the animals, also need the trees and the vegetation. In Australia, we are not immune to bushfires and it was quite normal for councils and other agencies to carry out controlled burns but someone thought it was a good idea to discontinue the practice for many, many years. This stupid decision resulted in an increase in bushfires causing terrible tragedy. In the past few years, controlled burning has been resumed ... sensibly. Our Aboriginal people are the masters of controlled burning and it was always part of their survival and culture. They are the sensible ones. I reject the theory that having too many trees eventually is the cause of too much methane gas. Whatever methane gas that emanates from falling leaves etc is far outweighed by the fact that forests act as carbon sinks. So they actually drink in carbon and retain it. When wood is used for housing, the carbon remains within the wood and therefore does not escape back into

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