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"Forest Journal" columnist Brenda Charpentier learns that it's more fun to plant tomatoes when you know they'll get enough sunlight to thrive. (JON CHARPENTIER)

Forest Journal: When a tree is cut in the forest, everything else gets growing


My back Yard wants to be a forest. This is a problem, because I want it to be a gardener's paradise (with a little room conceded to the rest of the family for badminton and barbecuing). Towering maples and birches conspire with the yard from the edges. They hurl their seeds into my oh-so-accommodating gardens so profusely that I end up yanking tree sprouts all season long.

"Back! Back!" I mutter to the encroachers.

Then there's the shade. For years, I've wanted more sun. Without it, flowers and vegetables have struggled valiantly, only to end up leggy and leaning together to the southwest as they reach desperately for the afternoon light.

All of that is changing now. It all started when, in utter frustration, I grabbed an ax from the garage and started chopping down one of the shady maples at forest's edge. I stopped only when my husband drove into the driveway and saw his sweaty, maniacal and mosquito-tormented wife wielding an ax. It's hard to smile sweetly and say "Welcome home" in that situation.

Since then, we've much more calmly and methodically cut down about seven of the trees shading the back yard. This wasn't easy, because we love trees as much as we love home-grown veggies.

It occurred to me that this conundrum is a little like the one that forest managers deal with on a much larger scale. Sometimes, people unfamiliar with sustainable forestry assume that all logging is detrimental - the opposite of conserving.

When they see private or public conservation lands being logged, they say, "Hey, aren't we supposed to be protecting those forests?"

The answer is yes, and cutting trees responsibly is a practical way of doing so, especially here in the Northeast.

The Northeast forest is amazingly resilient. As long as it isn't covered by asphalt, it grows back - quickly - on its own, with no help from us, and it doesn't even need to rely on seeds; stumps work well, too. (Just this week, I noticed that one of the stumps from a maple tree we cut last fall already has sprouted a replacement tree.)

None of us needs to look far to see evidence for this regrowth from seed and stump. Much of New Hampshire was cleared for farmland until the late 1800s, and now just look at us: the second most forested state in the nation.

I've been watching with fascination a similar transformation in the former field next to our place. Our neighbors used to mow it every fall but stopped about three years ago. When I visited last week, the maple, oak and cherry saplings were shoulder-high, and white pines about a foot tall were popping up among the milkweed.

So logging done responsibly doesn't hurt the forest, and there are many ways that it helps - while at the same time providing us with wood products, from firewood to furniture.

Landowners who own a lot of land can use the money gained from selling timber to pay their taxes and/or provide enough incentive for them to keep the land intact instead of selling it into development for a profit. (The Forest Society is a landowner, too, and the money gained from selling timber from its properties helps the organization conserve more land.)

Timber harvesting is also a useful tool for improving wildlife habitat, which often takes the form of "patch cuts." Patch cuts mimic natural events such as ice storms, wind storms and forest fires. All of these events naturally create holes in the forest canopy and allow for sunlight to reach previously shaded areas and new growth to emerge.

Patch cutting is used to replace mature, less diverse forests with grasslands and young forests, which both provide habitat for many species that need it badly here in New Hampshire, such as the endangered New England cottontail, American woodcock and many other birds.

Because of people's aversion to logging and the temporary messiness that comes with it, along with our suppression of forest fires, New Hampshire forests are growing mature and homogenous. Old sameness in any realm is pretty boring, but with forests it also means less diversity of wildlife and plant life, something we can mitigate with sustainable forestry.

It's kind of like my back yard. It's sunnier now that we thinned the crowd of maples. Rather than growing anemic peas and only shade-loving flowers, I'm looking forward to a robust crop of veggies and "full-sun" flowers I couldn't grow before.

I just hope the deer, rabbits and woodchucks will stay in that juicy young forest up the road.

"Forest Journal" appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Brenda Charpentier is communications manager for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email her at bcharpentier@forestsociety.org.

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