We've been favoring political science over environmental science in how we manage our forests. That has to stop.
We need to disturb some forests. We need to step in and put the hand of man on the landscape...if we want the diversity of wildlife species to be abundant and thriving. Allowing all of our old growth forests to remain old growth forests is not sound management. It may be sound politically, but environmentally? Not so much.
"To do nothing is as much a conscious decision as doing something," says New England Regional Biologist Andy Weik.
Weik is at the forefront of an environmental shift, to return some measure of old growth forests to young growth forests; for the health of the forests and wildlife populations.
"We're at the point where we need to create disturbances in the forests, in a planned manner, to sustain habitat for our wildlife," Weik says. "One of the best ways that we can do that is with timber harvests. The timber harvest is a tool to remove mature trees to allow young trees to grow."
Clear cutting. That's a dirty word to most people. When they clear cut a section of old growth forest in New England in 2009 it didn't sit too well with many people. All a lot of people saw was an ugly scar on the landscape. Politically, in the short term, it was a disaster for the state. But those in the forestry service knew better. Just wait, they said. Wait and see what this will bring.
"All of our wildlife species on the landscape, in viable populations, requires us as stewards to cut timber, to cut trees," says Weik, "to regenerate patches of forest to provide the habitat, because it's not going to happen on its own for the most part."
In 2016, weaving through a stand of young growth aspen where only seven or eight years earlier a scarred landscape stood, Weik pats an old, fallen black cherry tree. This tree, he says, makes a perfect ruffed grouse drumming tree. He points to some grouse droppings on the log. This, in a place where once grouse were few.
Tom Brule points out the hurdle of convincing the public to get on board with this new environmental ethic. If the public can see the longterm benefit of cutting down trees, he says, and put the pressure on politicians to adopt the practice, that would be a good thing. But it's a tough sell, at least it was back in 2009. It might be a little easier today.
But why not let nature run its course? Why do we have to intervene?
"A big reason that just letting nature take its course doesn't work very well is because our forest is so much different today," declares Weik. "It's less prone to a lot of the natural disturbances that historically, prehistorically, had made young forests. Wildfires, beaver activity, you know, beaver flooding shallow wetlands."
We restrict beaver activity because we don't want flooding. We fight natural wildfires because we don't want our property burning. We cannot count on tornados to knock down trees in the right spots.
Humans are everywhere and are involved in everything it seems. Much of it is necessary, and it's the way things are today. So we do need to step in and manage our forests wisely.
"We need all stages of forest growth," concludes Weik. "We need the big trees, we need the old growth. We need the middle aged pole stands of forest as well. But we need the right mix. The species that do need that young forest, we need to have that scattered across the landscape as well."
It is a conservation message for our time. A better, healthier conservation message.
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