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What is Forest Health?

(Bob Morgan, August, 2018) #Foresthealth - The vision of the Arkansas Forests and Drinking Water Collaborative is, "Healthy Managed Forests and Clean Drinking Water." Understanding this statement means understanding, what is a healthy forest? The term is frequently used, but seldom defined.

Forests are expected to provide a host of services including timber products, clean and abundant water, recreation, wildlife habitat, medicinal herbs, spiritual renewal, and aesthetics. So it may be that health depends on one's desired use of the forest. In his essay, ‘The Land Ethic’ Aldo Leopold health (of land) as “the capacity of the land to renew itself”. That is likely a good place to start, but it says nothing about the ability to utilize the multiple services and products that forests provide. The Canadian Forest Service in a publication about Forest Health gives an extensive definition, but highlights "that (forests) are dynamic and resilient to disturbance... a healthy forest is one that maintains biodiversity, resiliency, wildlife habitat, aesthetic appeal, and resource sustainability.”

That is pretty good. But it still is a bit unclear about which resource is sustainable, timber, wildlife, water, air etc. It can be assumed that they mean all of the above. Also, there is a need to know what the base-line for biodiversity, resiliency, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic appeal are to make the definition useful. A person who manages the forest strictly for timber production may view ‘resource sustainability’ differently than one who manages for water quality or hunting and fishing. So, some element of meeting management goals needs to be included.

A really simple definition might be, “a healthy forest is one that meets management goals both at present and also in the future”. This however ignores the need for biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic values entirely. Can a forest be truly healthy if it doesn’t meet those requirements?

So, putting all of this together, it seems that the North Carolina Forest Service provides us with perhaps the best definition.

“A healthy forest is a forest that possesses the ability to sustain the unique species composition and processes that exist within it and accommodate the present and future needs of people for a variety of values, products, and services (North Carolina Forest Service, 2017).

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