What is Forest Health?
Forests are tree-dominated communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms that interact with each other and abiotic components such as soil, water, and the climate. The interactions are complex, and each component of the forest has an effect on the others. Trees affect which plants and animals reside in the forest, protect soil from erosion, reduce runoff and improve water quality, and clean and cool the air. Likewise, the tree species found in a forest are determined and influenced by the forest's abiotic and biotic components. Humans are also an important constituent of forest communities. We rely upon our forests for a wide variety of resources, we value them for a range of social and cultural reasons, and they are an essential component of a healthy planet. Many forests are managed, protected, or preserved to meet the goals and objectives of those who utilize and rely upon them; or are altered in ways that are detrimental to the forest community.
A healthy forest is a forest that possesses the ability to sustain the unique species composition and processes that exist within it. There are many types of forests found in North Carolina, each representing a unique forest community with a unique set of species, interactions, and processes. The health of our forests must be preserved to ensure the survival of plant and animal species that make the forest their home, and to protect those processes that maintain a healthy environment. A healthy forest must also be able to accommodate the present and future needs of people for a variety of values, products, and services.
A healthy forest can have unhealthy trees, just as an unhealthy forest can have healthy trees. Forest health can be determined on a variety of scales ranging from an entire forest ecosystem to an individual tree. A single dead tree in a large forested tract can provide wildlife habitat or make room for other plant species, whereas a dead tree in an urban forest could represent the loss of a high-value shade tree and pose a hazard to people or structures. Alternatively, the loss of many trees in a forest may not significantly impact forest health if other individuals of the same or similar species are able to support the community, but complete eradication of a single tree species by an insect or disease could have catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem. The determination of forest health must be made relative to the species, processes, or resources of interest.