The forest standard time
Tree growth and forest growth possess an element of time. Humans are often faster-paced and place more emphasis on short-term perceptions. This asynchrony masks a range of benefits.
One blatant example of not fully recognizing the relationship between time and trees is planting a tree, or thousands, or even millions. The promotion of tree planting campaigns sports rosy promises that make us all feel good. However, what is too often omitted is that it takes decades to see advertised returns in full, and a lot of planted trees die long before their prime. Even a twenty-foot tree in the front yard won’t yield thermal benefits to a house until it’s large enough to cast a sufficient amount of shade. By then, the kids will be grown and out of college.
For wild-land forests, the steady, persistent, intangible, life-supporting benefits of forests are typically grossly under-valued, perhaps because they’re seen as “permanent”, or not seen at all, and the values get lost in the background of every-day living. We take them for granted. The loggers of 150 years ago thought this way about white pine. Forests constantly evolve, at paces closer to glacial speed rather than a daily commute. So, the changes go unnoticed.
These persistent ecological forces are complex, with many working parts, but general directions can be observed and predicted by those who have learned to read the landscape. Ecologists have a term for this process, forest succession. Foresters use this knowledge to manage forests, nudging them towards outcomes that forest owners would like to see for the future.
These slow-moving drivers are masked by the time they consume to affect change. People may not see the all the “noise” from growing trees that compete with one another for space, light, water and nutrients.
Generations of wildlife respond to these changes, however. As forest conditions move along a continuum, so do habitats. One suite of species gradually moves out and another suite moves in. For wildlife, the landscape is a kaleidoscope of variable habitats. Few humans are aware of these life-altering dynamics.
A fairly new driver of forest change will be climate change. However, forests are probably not good barometers for these phenomena. Forests are resilient and, in true forest-fashion, long periods of time will be required to reshape them. Some of predictions we hear about won’t likely manifest themselves for decades. Calls to action, wise as they may be, should include patience.
Forests paint themselves anew with many brushes. Photosynthesis and sugar production reign supreme. This life-line to solar energy might be spread among thousands of trees per acre, but that number will gradually decline as the winners gain the high ground at the expense of all the others. Nature is a cruel and unforgiving place. Foresters and forest owners can have a say in which species will be winners. However, time is needed to see the rewards of such work. In the meantime, the usual benefits continue to accrue.
The forest under story remains subjugate to the amount of light that the forest canopy allows to reach the ground. Here, perhaps, the successional benchmarks may be easier to discern. As canopies close, and the years stretch-by, the flora will change to those that can survive with more shade, and to those that can complete their life cycle in that narrow window between winter thaw and green-up.
Solomon’s seal, trillium, Dutchmen’s britches, and trout lilies are among the many spring ephemeral that find a few weeks of bright sun enough time to do what they need to do. Familiarity with these under story plants will reveal much about the timeline of a particular woodland.
Of course, forests remain subject to some knee-jerking fast changes, too. Wildfire, windstorms, pest outbreaks, and other factors will set-back the clock. However, the underlying forces of succession remain the same, simply working from a renewed set of forest characteristics.
Forest lovers tend to see these rapid changes in a negative light, and in some cases, they are, indeed, troublesome, especially when caused by exotic pests. However, those drivers of change deliver essential elements of regeneration. Ecologists sometimes use the term “catastrophic disturbance” for these rapid changes. These events are breathtakingly refreshing for people (and plants and animals!) who can see and appreciate the forest processes in action. Forest management can mimic these changes.
This slow process of forest succession provides benefits that too many people seem to under-rate. Forests seldom attract the attention of the public and deep pockets. Grant providers want to see deliverables at the end of the fiscal year. Organizations are funded by whatever is socially popular at any given time. Politicians want outcomes to use in the next election cycle. Forest owners want good hunting habitat now. Homeowners too often fail to recognize that a fruit tree might need a decade before yielding enough fruit to fill one of the canning shelves.