The vision statement of the Arkansas Forests and Drinking Water Collaborative is, ‘Healthy Managed Forests and Clean Drinking Water. Understanding this statement requires understanding what a ‘healthy forest’ might be. The term is frequently used, but seldom defined. In-fact, many ecologists object to using the term ‘health’ as a description of condition because of its lack of specificity. However, most will agree that the term does provide some general indication that one forest is in better condition than another and therefore ‘health’ is a useful.
Forests are expected to provide a host of ecosystem services including timber and wood products, clean and abundant water, pollution abatement, temperature regulation, recreation, wildlife habitat, medicinal herbs, and spiritual renewal, and aesthetics. One’s definition of forest health depends on one’s desired use of the forest’s services.
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 their publication, “Forest Health; context for the Canadian Forest Service’s Science program” gives an extensive definition, “Forest ecosystems are healthy when their underlying ecological processes operate within a natural range of variability, so that on any temporal or spatial scale, they are dynamic and resilient to disturbance”. Then they go on to explain that managers and policy makers insist that the forest also be able to ‘provide competitive timber supplies and satisfy a wide range of environmental, social and cultural values”. So, they are bringing the concept of forest use into the definition. Things are getting a bit cumbersome here. But that’s the way it goes. They eventually settled on: “
“In general terms, 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 squishy about which resource is sustainable, timber, wildlife, water, air etc. But it can be assumed that they mean all of the above. Also, you need to know what the base-line for biodiversity, resiliency, wildlife habitat and aesthetic appeal are to make the definition useful. Then again, a person who manages their forest strictly for timber production likely views ‘resource sustainability’ differently than one who manages strictly for water quality or one who manages for 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 one however ignores the need for biodiversity, complexity, 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”.