Growing old forests

This article is repeated from December of 2019 and is a sequel to last week’s article, “Are forests only commodities?” 

Northern Wisconsin was once covered with extensive old growth forests. Before Europeans came into the area these forests were complex ecosystems with a variety of tree species of many sizes and ages. As we all know, the pioneer farmers, loggers, and robber barons destroyed 99% of these awesome treasures. Had our ancestors been wiser in their use of these natural resources we still could have old growth forests in abundance. We could still have all the ecological, economic, and aesthetic benefits of old growth forests. The biggest tragedy of all this is the loss of what could have been.

It is easy to condemn our forefathers as shortsighted and greedy. Many of them were. But today we have many issues where we could do better but don’t. We know there are better ways of doing things yet often fail to do what is best. Current forest practices are an example. We can produce plenty of wood, do it profitably, and still have healthy forests. There are examples of forests managed for the long term with multiple age and old growth that prove it is possible. In this article we will look at two models for growing old forests.

Forest “management” in our national, state, and county forests has been primarily based on clear cutting even age stands of single species trees. Replanting and thinning are designed to maximize wood fiber production. Sustainability is defined as trees growing back to produce more wood fiber; not the ability of the forest to withstand disturbance, maintain diversity, or support other life. This management style replaces complex natural ecosystems with ecologically simplified forests. These are tree farms and not true forests.

An alternative strategy is uneven-age forest management. This provides a constant yield of timber while maintaining species, size, age diversity and maintaining forest diversity. Uneven age management periodically selects individual trees, or small groups of trees for harvest. It avoids damage during harvesting and mimics natural forest disturbances to provide light for younger trees. It manages for more than just maximum sustained yield of wood fiber. It can promote old growth trees while maintaining relatively undisturbed, complex forest ecosystems.

Clear cutting, and its variations called “selective” cutting, are defended as being more efficient and economical. But studies have shown that uneven age can compete economically while not degrading the remaining forest. In addition to being more ecologically sustainable, uneven age cutting can provide more stable income and employment. Harvesting as selected trees reach maturity is more continuous than waiting for whole stands to grow back decades in the future. This has been proven by two examples of better forest management.

Wisconsin has one of the world’s best examples of sustainable forest management. The Menominee Nation, 40 miles northwest of Green Bay, has a 234,000-acre forest with incredible stands of old-growth trees. But this is also a working forest that has provided income and employment for the tribe for over 125 years. The Menominee forest has produced 2 billion feet of timber, yet 1.5 billion feet are standing now and the quality of the trees and diversity of species is improving.

Menominee Tribal Enterprises manages the tribe’s forestry operations as a business but maximizing profit is not their only goal. The forest is managed for future generations, to provide for the needs of the Menominee people, and to maintain forest diversity in addition to providing income. Their goal is to restore the forest to the old growth characteristic of forests before logging. They believe this will ensure greater productivity and long-term sustainability of the forest.

Their claims are vindicated by comparing the nearby Nicolet National Forest with the Menominee forest. The Menominee forest is richer in large trees and in species diversity than the Nicolet forest. It produces more board feet of timber per acre. The Nicolet forest has lower species diversity of trees and less wildlife diversity. Though the logging practices on both forests are similar, the forest management philosophies are different. The Menominee base their decisions on their broad management philosophy using sound forest practices. The Nicolet management is based on the economics and short term maximizing of timber production. The U.S. Forest Service exists primarily to facilitate logging, and all other considerations are secondary.

Another successful use of uneven age management is the Pioneer Forest in the Missouri Ozarks. As in Wisconsin during the era of exploitation (1880–1920), virtually all of the  pre-settlement forests of the Ozarks were commercially liquidated. The Pioneer Forest resulted from the vision of one wealthy entrepreneur, Leo Drey, who purchased the initial acreage in 1951. Drey recognized that forests could provide both timber and ecological diversity. Today Pioneer Forest is an exemplary example of uneven age management that can be profitable without the ravages of clear cutting.

Currently Pioneer Forest is privately owned, has 150,000 acres and proves that good forest management using primarily single tree selection works. It produces timber profitably and provides consistent forest cover for wildlife, watershed protection, recreation, and other old growth values. Uneven age management and single tree selection makes sense because single tree selection mimics what happens in nature. Individual trees die, fall, and create sunlight and space for younger trees and other species. Natural disturbances like windstorms or ground level fires do the same thing. Nature seldom has events that mimic large clear cuts. But this approach requires patience and long term vision. The well documented results of the Pioneer Forest show that there are alternatives to the even-aged management practiced and promoted by federal and state forest agencies.

In Wisconsin, the legislature has arbitrarily mandated that 75% of state forests be managed for logging. This has nothing to do with any scientific forest management or considerations for the health of the forest. It is a purely political act to maintain campaign contributions and support from rural areas. This shortsighted policy is the exact opposite of what is needed. It is the exact opposite of the wise land use policies of the Menominee people. It is the opposite of the visionary, entrepreneurial, public spirited practices that Drey successfully used in the Pioneer Forest.

As with many of the the other problems we face, we cannot make improvements unless we change the way we think. We need to value long term, sustainable practices that meet people’s needs but also protect the environment. We need a better vision to grow better forests and a better America.