Don’t plant a tree for Earth day, cut one down (or eat a burger)

Want to do something this Earth day to help out your local ecosystem?  If you live in the Midwest, it would probably be more beneficial to cut down a tree, than to plant one. Yes, trees sequester carbon, and that’s a really good thing. But we have more trees here now than many times since the glaciers melted 12,000 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I love trees. I mean, I really love trees. Especially oaks, hickories, and walnuts. These produce high quality wood, nuts, and support wildlife populations more than any others. These trees also can survive periodic burning, which keeps the ground flourishing in lush grasses and wildflowers capable of feeding diverse populations of grazing animals. In these savannas, trees and grass work together as the base of highly functional and productive ecosystems.

But these aren’t the trees that are growing up in our woods and forests, and these are not the ecosystems they support. Instead, our once open prairie, savanna, and woodland ecosystems are in various phases of mesophication, the process whereby shade-tolerant mesic forest replace shade-intolerant prairie and savanna vegetation. These mesic forests have much less diversity, support less wildlife, and are less functional. The ground underneath mesic forest trees is usually bare, or else sparsely populated by a few species of nitrogen-loving woodland plants. But no grasses grow here, and these forests don’t have the capacity to support large grazing animals and the valuable ecosystem goods and services such as meat, dairy, and wool, those animals can provide.

Right now, the Midwest is covered in corn fields and mesic forests. We don’t have cows, sheep, and horses grazing on grasslands. We still have cows, but we keep them in confined feedlots where we feed them corn, which is really expensive in terms of the social and environmental costs of corn production (soil erosion, pesticide and fertilizer run-off, eutrophication, etc…). But grass is free! All you need is to let sunshine hit the ground. And grass evolved to be eaten; they are actually more productive and healthier when grazed. So well-managed grasslands provide not only food and fiber, but myriad ecosystem services. They sequester carbon, and actually build soil. They filter water, allowing it to recharge underground aquifers. Unfortunately, cattle don’t get as fat as quickly when grazing grass as they do when eating corn in confinement. So we no longer have any use for grasslands. But you can change that. Support some of the few but growing number of farmers that choose to graze their cattle in pastures. Grassfed beef and dairy is not just less harmful than conventional products, but, if managed correctly, actually fosters ecological diversity and health.

So this Earth Day, you can plant a tree. And of course there are environmental benefits in doing so. But if you really want to help out your local ecosystem, find an ash, maple, box elder, or buckthorn tree growing in the shade of an oak tree, and cut it down. Let the light in so the grasses and wildflowers can grow. But that’s just the start. Once the grasses and wildflowers can grow, we need animals to graze them, so they stay healthy and productive. So do the Earth a favor. Cut down some trees, and buy a goat, cow, sheep, horse, or buffalo, and enjoy the benefits of sunshine, grass, a healthy ecosystem, and a happy Earth. Or at the very least, just eat a (grassfed) burger.


Rebekah Phillips

…on my way to the store for an axe…….