Forest management: Doing the right thing

ESCANABA — Managing a forest is an exercise in both personal gain and providing benefits for many others, including a raft of wildlife species. Our forests require tending in order provide most of the goods and services that we expect.

The casual drive through the sugar maple forest was a deep, dark green, even though the day was about as clear and sunny as a day could possibly get. As a forester and wildlife biologist, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of young trees, the near absence of any flora on the ground, and the excessive number of trees. And, the trees were all the same age. I could see a hundred yards with the dearth of anything growing under that heavy shade.

Then, all of a sudden, the world lightened up. The trees looked larger and there were far more birds singing for territories and mates. I could almost hear the trees sigh with relief because they were getting enough light to grow uninhibited. What we had just entered was a fresh timber sale, and a well done one at that.

The deep forest of dark hues was not a “natural” forest, at least not in the sense of what might have been found on this site, say, 200 years ago. No, this was a single-aged forest that had grown back from the clearcutting of the historic logging era, probably to support the now-extinct mill that was not too many miles away.

Sugar maple was about the only tree species, overstocked with the good, the bad, and, yes, even the ugly. Those trees were quietly moaning under stress for the lack of sunlight. Too many trees, too close together, in densities that were both unnatural and unhealthy. Some might assign high visual quality to this park-like forest, but it was an ecological mess.

Enter the foresters with paint guns. The first trees to receive paint were those not likely to live another decade or so. Next, came the crooked and diseased trees. Lastly, when necessary, additional trees were painted to bring the stand density down to a point where the remaining trees could grow well, for at least the next 10 to 15 years. Interestingly, there were a number of older, rotted trees that were intentionally not marked. These trees were left as habitat for particular species of wildlife.

However, the job was far from completed. This winter, a logger had harvested the painted trees. Undoubtedly, the timber sale bid was competitive. Most likely, the highest bidder had been awarded the job. The foresters were kept busy by monitoring the sale. It was a large sale, many acres, with multiple sale units.

I exited the car and entered the freshly-opened forest. I needed to take a look around. This forest would be a bit warmer and drier. The snow would have melted somewhat sooner. I could find no ruts and very few dinged-up trees. In this case, the leftover tops were cut low to the ground. The logging job was excellent.

It was a pleasure to view work done by those who care about what they do.

This forest was within the Lake Superior snowbelt, so deer over-browsing in the spring was not going to be a major issue with the recruitment of seedlings into saplings. Here, the use of high, tangled tops weren’t to be needed to help protect vulnerable tree regeneration from the rapacious deer.

Subsequent harvests will provide for multiple generations of new trees that would eventually replace the current single-aged second growth. Yes, this will be a very high quality stand of sawlog sugar maple in the future. Investors will be happy. Warblers will be happy. Hopefully, vacation homes won’t gobble it up.

The tree spacing throughout the part of the harvested area was about right. It wasn’t entirely even, as various sized gaps were left in order to encourage tree species other than sugar maple. This was a forester’s explicit attempt to promote species diversity. Time will tell if enough seed source is available to take advantage of those well-intentioned gaps. I have my doubts, but foresters tend to be optimists, and they are comfortable with waiting many years for results to take hold.

With the encouragement from clouds of mosquitoes and black flies, I got back into the car. We continued to slowly drive down the seasonal county road, marveling at the skillful forest management. Blue boundary paint marked the lines between harvested areas and blocks that were not to be harvested, although post-harvest, the boundaries were quite apparent without the blue paint. No paint marks within those dense stands. Probably different forestowners, and rather unfortunate for the trees and associated suites of wildlife.

“Doing the right thing” has much to do with defining “right.” In this case, it’s all about correcting mistakes of the past and providing as many benefits to people, forests, and wildlife as possible. Then, “doing” begins with making a decision. Sometimes, this is the hardest part.

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As an MSU Extension forester, Bill Cook provides educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Forest Biomass Innovation Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres.

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