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.
Then, 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.
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.