Trees, needs and forestry

Learn how forest management can improve both tree health and forest health.

Many times you can hear phrases such as: “The wood needs thinning” or “Cutting trees helps the forest stay healthy.” How can this be? It would seem that cutting trees can’t possibly be good for a forest.

In fact, forests don’t need management. That’s right. Forests grow just fine without the assistance of human beings. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Forests existed long before people began to tinker with them, although people have been tinkering with forests for thousands of years.

On the other hand, people need forests. That’s the reason for management. Wood, water, wildlife, recreation, and inspiration are some of the benefits we seek. Management provides more of all these things.

Over the last few decades, per capita consumption of wood and the use of forest lands have grown. Our population size has also risen. However, the amount of “working” forest has shrunk, although the total amount of forest land has actually increased. One does not need to be a math wizard to understand the “squeeze dynamics” of this trend.

So, when a forest “needs” thinning or harvesting, that implies a design for the current and future generations of people. Management can improve both tree health and forest health. It can alter habitat conditions that benefit particular suites of wildlife and provide a balance of habitats for all species of wildlife. Well-managed forests maintain or improve water quality, keep soils intact, and enhance many ecological processes. A financial value helps keep forests intact, rather than converting them into parking lots or sites for second homes. This is exciting stuff.

It’s not so much a question of “if” we should manage forests, but more a question of “how” we should do so. Our long-term survival as a species may be at stake. Without management and conservation, our future generations will probably look back at us with considerable disdain, wondering how we could have been so foolish or selfish.

Forest management employs ecological knowledge to enhance the forest in ways that society demands. Defining “demands” has been contentious and goals are moving targets. Science, economics, and sociology determine the fate of forests and measure the sustainability of our impact. Management sculpts forest landscapes to meet the wide-ranging and variable requirements of society. A lack of management will also sculpt the landscape, but the outcomes will probably be disappointing.

The “natural” way that forests grow may not provide the kind of forest that people expect or need. Forests don’t grow with people “in mind.” Natural is not necessarily better and oftentimes leaves us with more problems than solutions. Many western states are learning this lesson in a painful way. We, in Michigan, also have some serious challenges. Past civilizations have fallen, partly due to their lack of forest management.

Forests are not sacred objects. They are resources needed to build our future. Forests are renewable, unlike petroleum, plastic, steel, and concrete. Replacing wood products with non-renewable materials is unwise from an environmental perspective. We should be using more wood whenever possible and abandon the “save a tree” mantra. After, you can’t “save” trees. They are biological organisms that die.

Management practices are not always pretty, which is probably why many people object to tree cutting. Sociologists have demonstrated that most people possess an innate love of trees. So, resistance to tree cutting becomes understandable and conflicts with the less romantic scientific body of knowledge. These values often out-trump fact and reasoning. Unfortunately, too many people use visual quality to assess ecological health. That’s sort of like saying someone is a nice person just because they’re good-looking.

An abandoned or unmanaged forest is not a natural forest, whatever “natural” might be. If natural means something similar to what we had 200 years ago, then the objective is impossible. People have forever changed the path of forest change and returning to what “was” cannot be done, even if we wanted to. If the goals for a particular forest are restoration of some sort, then management (including tree cutting) will reach those goals quicker than benign neglect. Besides, it is unlikely that “hands-off” management will lead to a “natural” future condition. Wishful thinking won’t impact the direction of ecological change.

People who own forest land have a special opportunity to help shape the future. They control the activity on about 8.5 million acres of Michigan forest. Whatever these roughly 320,000 owners do, or don’t do, will provide a legacy. Our grandchildren have no choice with depending upon the decisions that we make today. Some would argue that forest owners have a huge moral imperative to manage their forest wisely. Maybe so. Perhaps more important, forestry can be an intriguing and incredibly satisfying endeavor. It might also send little Susie to college or pay for a nice nursing home. Not a bad deal. Forestry is one of those few things where you can have your cake and eat it, too. 

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