Do Dead Trees Have Value?

In 2016, I graduated from Gonzaga with degrees in Political Science and Environmental Studies. Almost immediately, the Sierra Club hired me to work on forest issues in California.

Following a semester featuring two environmental ethics courses, I was frankly happy to leave the days of debating whether or not a tree has intrinsic behind. I was ready to enter the “real world” of pragmatic policy discussions and commonsense decision-making.

Daniel Barad_429x354Then, I arrived in a state where 129 million trees had died in the past five years due to drought and beetle infestation. Massive fire seasons dominated national headlines and displaced thousands of Californians. In the most progressive state in the Union, legislators and bureaucrats alike called for the removal of all 129 million trees by whatever means necessary; hard-earned environmental protection laws be damned!

Contrary to intuition, dead trees are not, in fact, driving fire behavior in the West. The most destructive fires in California do not occur in the forests, but rather in coastal shrublands. A year after dying and losing their needles, dead trees are no more flammable than live ones.

Dead trees, particularly charred trees, play a vital role in forest ecosystems. The black-backed woodpecker, a threatened species, requires areas with large numbers of dead trees to survive. Additionally, California northern spotted owls like to nest in old growth forests bordering areas of high tree mortality so they can more easily see their prey as they fly (this phenomenon is aptly named the “Bed and Breakfast Effect”).

The science is clear. The ecological benefits are undeniable. So why are there prevailing calls to remove dead trees in remote areas that pose no threat to human lives? Because what we have here is not a scientific query; it is an ethical dilemma.5E5C4EF5-BFE7-495A-9123-C8682787E5DB

Does a tree have value after its death? Those who value a tree for its contributions to humanity would likely answer no. If a tree is no longer producing oxygen, it has no value in the forest. It ought to be salvaged promptly for wood products or bioenergy.

Those who value a tree in and of itself might also say that it need not be considered after its death. Alive, the tree had interests; it soaked up the sun, absorbed CO2 and drank as much water as it could so that it could be the highest and best version of a tree. Dead, the tree no longer has interests.

Finally, to those of us who see a tree as a part of an irrevocably intertwined web of existence, the dead tree has value where it stands and eventually falls. While it stands, the tree is home to crucial forest fauna. As decomposes, it is nutrients for wildflowers, native vegetation and new trees. In turn, the wildflowers nourish bees and other insects while the vegetation feeds herbivores who later feed carnivores.

A dead tree is not a valueless tree unless one views it as an individual or a commodity. A dead tree is an irreplaceable part of a whole, a component part of a complex web of being.

After graduating, I could not leave ethics in the rearview mirror. Instead, I headed full speed into a forest of dead trees, backward policy and conflicting values. The “real world” is not an escape from ethical dilemmas, it is where they matter most.



  1. Thanks for sharing your thought process with us. I have been fascinated with environmental ethical considerations for decades–maybe since first reading “Should Trees Have Standing” in the mid 1970’s. Maybe you know of that book. It was a legal consideration. Pauline

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  2. Thank you for sharing. I love how after college and in your career, you needed to revisit a ethical frameworks from college courses. Sometimes I sit in class and wonder what value do the theories and discussions held are to my personal and professional life especially within core classes. Your story is a good reminder of how the Jesuit education prepares us to think critically and deeply about life around us. Our knowledge and practice gained in the classroom allows us to face the issues of today and the future.
    I think that environmental ethics is very important now and moving forward as climate change continues to increase and more destruction of the planet occurs. There will be questions about what deserves value and what that looks like. There is no escaping the debate on who is in the scope of direct moral concern.

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  3. Daniel,
    Your post highlights ecocentrism, which we having been learning about for the past few weeks in my Environmental Ethics class. You explain how a dead tree has value within an ecosystem, though not necessarily as an individual. Therefore, it depends whether one values the ecosystem as a whole in how one treats dead trees. This is a great example of how one’s worldview affects policy. It sounds like your job provides you an avenue to consider both the basis for what makes one value something, and also the practical approaches to living out a specific ethic.

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  4. Because I am currently in Environmental Ethics and thinking about my personal ethic, this post was reassuring to read. As others have commented, I often feel like the theories that we discuss in class can seem unnecessary or trivial; I want to discuss pragmatic ways to make change and learn about ideas that are immediately applicable to real world issues. But as I read your post and as I have been thinking more and more about my personal ethic, I’m realizing that the theories that we discuss in class are the basis of every personal ethic that we each have, whether we realize it or not. I believe I also follow an ethic that is closest to ecocentrism, as I see each part of nature, including humans, to be one piece of a much bigger whole.

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  5. Hi Daniel,
    I was raised in Southern California, and I grew up watching wildfires from my backyard. Luckily, there has only been one occasion when we were asked to evacuate; we didn’t and we did not lose our house, thankfully. Forest management means a lot to me because it can be the determining factor of whether or not people do lose their homes and even their lives. Around my house, I have often been concerned about the dry and brown brush that usually means good fire starting material. I have never given much thought to dead trees. I would probably have to say that once the tree is dead it has no intrinsic value; it does however have instrumental value to the animals, insects, fungi, and plants and those do have intrinsic value. I think if the science supports the conclusion that dead trees do not contribute to addition fire risk, then they should be left alone to be used by other members of the ecosystem. 🙂

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  6. The ideas you discussed in your post really reminded me of the times I went camping in California as a child. On most of these trips I went on walks with the forest rangers and learned about the life-cycles of the forest and how each different part is home to different creatures. Even the dead trees are eventually broken down by decay, insects, and other animals. This period of breakdown is what fertilizes new growth in its place. There are some plants, such as the lodgepole pine and eucalyptus, that can only grow after their seeds have been activated by a fire. I would really like to find out about the outcome of this issue, and I hope that clearer heads will prevail.

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  7. Hi Daniel,
    I really enjoyed this post of yours for several reasons. First, I think it hits on a real issue that we are facing right now, which is the fact that many people seem to hold a worldview consistent with many aspects of capitalism. Many people, but not all, seem to believe that the minute an object, such as a tree, seises to have any instrumental value or monetary value to humans, then it must be replaced or destroyed to make room for something that can benefit us in some form or another. As an environmental studies major and someone who holds an environmental ethic closer to an ecocentric view, it is somewhat concerning hearing that my home state of California, one of the most progressive states in terms of environmental policy, failed to recognize the value of tree beyond their instrumental value to humans. Second, this ethical dilemma brings up the idea of systemic value in a great way. Humans tend to ignore the value that various organisms have to the entire system of which they are a part, choosing to focus solely on their function with regard to humans alone. What this does is give the impression that humans are not part of this system and simply a distant player in the game where we make the rules. Thanks for the post!

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  8. ” If a tree is no longer producing oxygen, it has no value in the forest. It ought to be salvaged promptly for wood products or bioenergy.”
    This truly represents an anthropocentric worldview- and that is ok! The only ethic we have learned about where dead trees would have intrinsic value would be ecocentrism. Ecocentrism is very broad and can be hard to wrap one’s head around, but I think you’re doing an excellent job. Very good that you’re applying ethics in the workplace!

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  9. Going into the article, I was expecting the content to focus more on the theoretical side of things but was pleasantly suprised that it mixed the two. The author detailed how he himself had preconceived notions of what working in the industry would be like and ended up surprised at the difference. He was surprised to find that politicians and officials were actually calling for trees to be torn down in some parts while realizing the enormous amount of trees that die each year in CA. Furthermore, I found it particularly insightful when he examined how the “theoretical” matters most in the practical world. In many ways, it made me think back to earlier readings where similar sentiments where mentioned and basically argued that theories can help shape policy as well as influence peoples decisions. It was refreshing hearing that from someone other than an author.

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  10. Daniel this was such an interesting read as it plays into the current trends we are seeing with fires in Washington and California. This was a powerful line, “I headed full speed into a forest of dead trees, backward policy and conflicting values.” We are taught at Gonzaga to consider the ethics and moral behind decisions and as you talk about to think about how a you consider a tree in this realm. To read about how your experiences after Gonzaga shows how pertinent these ideas really are.

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  11. Daniel,
    I always assumed that dead trees contributed to fire danger, so hearing that they do not was interesting. I know poor forest management has led to so-called “mega fires”, but it never occurred to me that dead trees were not a big part of this problem. We are taught early on in biology classes that live trees provide oxygen and dead trees and dead organisms in general are helpful because they provide nutrients back into the soil. The people who want to get rid of the trees seem to only be looking at one side of the benefit of trees-the living side. I hope that eventually people come to realize the other side of the benefit of trees.

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  12. This blog post highlights a very important issue in forest management today. The contradiction that a dead tree should be cut down because it serves no purpose is overlooked. Clearly, a dead tree still has a purpose to fulfill within an ecosystem. The complex relationships between organisms, mentioned above, illustrate why dead trees are valuable to keep. The other side of the argument is focused on the benefit that a natural resource has exclusively relating to people. This raises the question about how to measure the value of things within the natural world. For example, if people in the ‘real world’ only assess value by benefit towards people then they fail to see the value of nature as a whole and are entitled to exploit its resources. When you consider that there is value beyond an anthropocentric stance, then you are able to realize that maybe we shouldn’t cut all these dead trees down but let them contribute to a diverse ecosystem.

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  13. I’ve always thought of fallen trees as still having value and purpose in its ecosystem, but I never knew the true extent of this dilemma and think it is a very intriguing one. This makes me think back to all the summers that I would spend camping with my family and grandparents at Mt. Rainier and how we would hike the trails and see fallen trees all over. They would teach us that it was all part of the cycle of life and how they would become places for new life to begin and new trees to sprout. Never once did I look at a dead tree and see anything other than another piece that makes up the forest. It’s really disappointing to hear about the controversy these trees have caused and how so many people fail, or choose not to, realize their value.

    On another note, I found it very interesting how dead trees over a year are no more of a fire hazard than living ones, I definitely would not have guessed that!

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  14. Daniel, I really enjoyed reading your article. I really think you brought up some great points, which looked at the deeper valuations of trees. For example when you said “While it stands, the tree is home to crucial forest fauna. As decomposes, it is nutrients for wildflowers, native vegetation and new trees. In turn, the wildflowers nourish bees and other insects while the vegetation feeds herbivores who later feed carnivores.” I agree with your point that trees are part of a complex interconnected system that contributes to nature even after they die. This is something that has value, and in the case of trees, an important value that helps to sustain life and ecosystems. Especially when looking at political policy, this value should be taken into account.

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  15. Hey Daniel, Fellow GU enviro major from California. I really liked your article and thought you had a lot of great points in there about ethics as well as your personal life after graduation. As someone who frequents California state and national parks it makes me sad to see the effects things such as drought and bark beetle have had on our forest. Pair that with all the fires we’ve been having and we get a real mess. Anyways, I thought you did a great job with your article!

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  16. Hi Daniel! I love this story on how environmental ethics’ importance transcends the classroom and is important in the “real world.” As senior about to graduate in three weeks, I have been pondering whether or not I will continue to question issues like who does & doesn’t belong in the moral club. I definitely think that everything in nature plays a role in a broader ecosystem whether alive or dead, so I agree that dead trees have value. Thanks for sharing!


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