Can Cutting Trees Down Actually be a Good Thing?

Fagjun | Published 2017-04-19 02:46

Conventional wisdom says that cutting trees down is a bad thing for the environment. After all, trees provide habitats, shelter, food, and oxygen. However, in at least one part of the world, clearing trees away is good for the planet.

Up in the north of Scotland lies the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve. The RSPB systematically cuts down millions of trees to keep the balance in the ecosystem in the area.

A Hoard of Carbon Lying Just Under Layers of Peat

The Dubh-lochain pool system and the flow lookout tower
[Photo via RSPB]

RSPB had quite an interesting beginning. In the Victorian Era, bird feathers were a popular and fashionable decorative material for women's hats. There was so much demand for plumes that it nearly destroyed certain bird populations, like egrets and birds of paradise.

Nowadays, the RSPB is working towards nature conservation and the helping the recovery of various species.

One of RSPB's conservation projects is at the RSPB Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve in northern Scotland. In this nature reserve, RSPB is cutting trees down in over 13,000 acres of land. This sounds like large-scale deforestation, but it's actually for the benefit of fighting climate change.

Felling trees in this area is an important part of vital conservation and restoration efforts. The nature reserve had once been mossy, boggy peatlands. This moss had absorbed a lot of carbon. The soil in the area had been wet and acidic, which means that when the moss dies, it only partially decomposes. This leads to the formation of about one millimeter of peat each year. Peat locks carbon in the ground and prevents it from dissipating in the atmosphere.

RSPB estimates that there are 400,000,000 tons of carbon lying underneath the peatlands. This amount of carbon is equivalent to about 20,000,000 trucks carrying petrol. In fact, some parts of the reserve store over 8,000 years' worth of carbon.

How Can Cutting Trees Down be a Good Thing?

Apparently, losing even just 4% of the peatlands can lead to the release of as much carbon as Scotland's annual household and industrial carbon emissions. “Peatlands store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem in the planet,” says Roxane Andersen, a peatland ecologist at the Environmental Research Institute. “So for that, they are very important for the global climate regulation.”

In the 1980s, however, the demand for timber called for millions of trees to be planted in the peatlands. This led to the peat drying out and breaking up. Exposure to the air made the peat oxidize, which then released carbon into the air.

This is peatland degradation, which unfortunately is necessary in order for trees to thrive in the area.

The trees that RSPB is removing from the peatlands should have never been planted in the first place. Restoring the peatlands means cutting down trees in the area. Another thing that conservationists have to do is to make the dry land wet again.

RSPB began restoring the nature reserve in 1997. Scientists estimate that it may take another 20 to 30 years before the area returns to its natural state. Luckily, though, the efforts have been working well. This may be the only way that cutting trees down is actually beneficial. Slowly but surely, the peatlands are becoming themselves again.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!