Fallen logs are one of the forest’s most valuable assets. Unfortunately deadfall is often thought of as natural ‘trash’ that needs to be cleaned up. From an ecological perspective, old logs provide a bounty of needed benefits to the next generation of forest life. Granted there can be peripheral yet important issues associated with allowing logs to decay naturally on site, but in terms of ecosystematics, decaying trees form an important basis for ensuring a continued thriving and diverse forest.
Should I allow a fallen log to remain on my property?
There are many reasons from a permaculture and ecological perspective that point to a ‘yes’ answer. These include:
Fallen logs provide communal and foraging habitat,
Dead fall slows the flow of stormwater,
Decaying trees may be considered a carbon sink,
Snags are full of nutrients and food for the forest and forest creatures,
Decomposing trees replenish soil lost through erosion,
Log fall supports full spectrum life biodiversity,
And much more.
Field observations have long proven the value of standings and fallen dead trees. All types of wildlife use snag trees and hollow logs for shelter. From bears, raccoons, snakes and opossums, to woodpeckers, kestrels, owls and osprey to ants, beetles, salamanders and lizards, decaying trees are sought out by refuge and food seeking wildlife. A forest can be truly alive through the presence of decaying, fallen logs.
Deadfall also serves to slow stormwater flow across the land, redirecting rainfall sheet flow back into the ground and reducing erosion. A forest with fallen logs possesses effective methods of dispersing, managing and retaining important water resources. Snag trees and logs play an important role in proper forest stormwater management.
Decaying logs also lock up carbon and mitigate carbon flow back into the atmosphere, ultimately returning most of the carbon back into the soil. Preventing excess carbon release into the atmosphere is a significant part of addressing climate change challenges.
Old logs too, are full of nutrients for both plants and animals. I am always amazed with the expansive amount of biodiversity I see inside a fallen log. These forest logs are full of vibrant, functioning communities each seeking food, shelter and community and contributing back to the integrated health of the ecosystem.
Decaying trees, full of compost from the wood and also full of excrement from life inside the log, are a rich source of fertile matter for new forest soil production.
Additionally, old fallen logs play a mostly unobvious but highly important role in maintaining the health of an ecosystem. Intensive land use practices such as agriculture and subdivision construction have conditioned many of us to think of fallen logs as ‘trash that needs to be cleaned up’, and there are some issues associated with allowing deadfalls to remain on the property.
Land owners should be aware of trip hazard liability, injury from wildlife in the logs (bees, snakes and other critters), termite infestations and even land use restrictions. I have actually seen local governmental entities designate parcels with snag trees serving as home for migratory birds (American kestrels) as ‘conservation parcels’, restricting land use options without compensation to the land owner.
However humans must balance their reasonable needs from the land with all important good earth stewardship. Awareness and education can help us achieve a sustainable equilibrium between land use and sustainability. Oppressive land use restrictions by governmental agencies can do more harm than good by disenfranchising land owners. But burning fallen logs or haphazardly bulldozing snag trees also disrupts local native ecology and can significantly damage ecosystems for generations to come.
Sharing the importance of fallen logs with others will help communities understand how our ecosystems can properly function and ultimately add value to the planet.
Next time I step over a fallen log on one of my adventure hikes I’ll not only keep an eye out for pit vipers but also thank the log for the richness it adds to life. Fallen logs are friends, and food too for the critters.