Are Trees a Renewable or Nonrenewable Resource?

People use a lot of resources.

From water and wood to oil and coal, human life on earth takes what the earth gives.

In some cases, those resources are renewable: they will be recreated by nature as long as we don’t over-exploit them.

Other resources, however, are nonrenewable: once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Are trees a renewable or nonrenewable resource? The answer is a little complex.

There are Trees

We use trees for a huge variety of things. From timber for building, paper and cardboard, rubber, food, some medicines, and even certain types of cloth like rayon and tencel, trees provide us with so much.

When a tree is cut down, it usually won’t grow again, although in some cases, methods like coppicing can allow trees to regrow. However, it is possible to grow another tree from a seed or even a shoot or cutting. This means that, as long as there are seeds and trees from which to take cuttings, trees are a renewable resource.

That doesn’t mean that we can use and harvest them indiscriminately. They’re living beings and an integral part of the planet’s environment and ecosystem. Sustainable tree management is absolutely essential, not only for the trees themselves, but for the myriad of other organisms that depend on them.

From mosses and fungi to insects, lichens, birds, and animals, every thread of the web of life is closely related to, and dependent upon, trees. Even people!

And that brings us to the way in which, while trees themselves may be renewable, they’re very often part of something that most definitely isn’t.

And Then There are Forests

Forests are nonrenewable. They can be re-planted, yes, and in the case of young-growth forests or those that developed through forestry planting initiatives, it might be possible to see them as a renewable resource. However, even in those examples, the answer is not clear.

A forest is more than the trees it contains; a forest is a living ecosystem. Home to an incredible diversity of life, a forest habitat develops slowly. An old-growth or ancient forest will have taken centuries or more to get to its current point, and the complex interaction of life that it sustains will have evolved naturally over time.

Lichen Moss Wood Forest Biodiversity by Kira Nash
Forest Biodiversity by Kira Nash at kiakari

If that forest is cut down, life won’t just return to normal if someone plants more trees. The ecosystem will be destroyed, the forest’s inhabitants made homeless, and the forest’s contribution to preserving our planet’s delicate balance will be lost.

The carbon it sequestered will be released, and it will give no more oxygen back to the atmosphere. A forest’s contribution to soil and water health, biodiversity, healthy air, and a healthy planet will be lost instantly.

You could say that it will grow back eventually, but that’s a bit like saying that there might be more oil in time: you just have to wait a hundred million years and have the right conditions for it to form. In practical terms, oil is nonrenewable. In those same terms, forests are too. The amount of time that it would take for a newly planted forest to achieve the maturity of one cut down is just too long in real terms.

Shirakami-Sanchi Beech Forest Japan
Shirakami-Sanchi Beech Forest by Kanenori at Pixabay

What’s worse, when old-growth forests are cleared, they’re often replanted with monoculture: one type of tree that is the best for a certain quality of timber, or to make a particular product. Monoculture plantations can never hope to achieve the diversity that exists in a natural forest, with its myriad of different species all co-existing. They can even increase the risk of disasters like forest fires, as is the case with Portugal’s eucalyptus plantations.

And as scientists believe that there are still many undiscovered medicines and remedies in the forests, and in the rainforests in particular, we risk losing them forever if those forests are destroyed.

Even in the case of young-growth forests that are cut down for timber harvesting, the damage can be significant. Clear-cutting any forest — or worse, burning it — causes severe destruction to the entire area.

The soil’s chemical make-up is changed, other plants that grew in the forests are damaged, destroyed, or can no longer survive without the ecosystem in balance. Forest animals die or go elsewhere. Even the local climate is altered, and the loss of trees can negatively affect rainfall levels for many miles around.

Birds-eye-view of a wood pile
Photo by Pok Rie at Pexels

What’s the Solution?

People will continue to need the resources that trees can provide, so we need to focus on growing, managing, and harvesting trees sustainably. Never, ever cutting down old-growth or ancient forests is a good place to start.

In terms of tree plantations or managed, new forests, diversity is always key. Avoiding monoculture helps. But even in monoculture plantations, the damage can still be mitigated if forestry companies harvest sustainably. Never take too many trees at one time from one area. Replant. Avoid the use of destructive, heavy machinery that will damage the forest floor.

So ultimately, yes: trees are renewable. But forests, in all that they are beyond just the trees they contain, are not. Trees are alive, forests even more so. If we remember that, and try to live as responsibly and sustainably as we can, hopefully we can continue to enjoy trees for all their benefits, from wood to apples to peace of mind, for many years to come.

Featured Image by Hans Braxmeier at Pixabay

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