Dave Anderson's Forest Journal: Managing our woodlands: Trees don't care, but we should
I tossed the fat roll of orange survey flagging to my son and bid him to follow me out to where I'd been cutting trees. I wanted to show him what I found while reopening a faint, former skidder trail from the 1960s through our backyard woodlot.
November spawns ambitious forestry ideas. The woods open up after the leaves fall off. Increased visibility with sunlight reaching the forest floor and cooler, comfortable temperatures for cutting trees or piling brush before snow arrives triggers an annual instinct to return to woods-work. Beavers do the same each November.
I always wander around slack-jawed, thinking about creating logging access or trails to reach trees that might one day become lumber or lower-grade cordwood. My son shares my tendency for admiring the trees of our woodlot.
"Look at all the sugar maples in the understory here," I instructed him. "If you follow this seam of rich, wet soil up the hill, I'll bet there are at least a hundred. I want us to flag them and count ..."
By the time we finished, we'd easily flagged a hundred, each 20 to 30 feet tall and ranging from four to 10 inches in diameter. We flagged a dozen larger sugar maples - large enough to tap for sap next March. If only we had a reliable way to reach them.
With the orange-festooned sugar maples now made visible on two acres of our certified Tree Farm, we began to think about cutting more cordwood and saw-logs from the red oak overstory shading the maples. This gets tricky: how to cut and then skid out larger-diameter red oak sawlogs and tops without smashing-up smaller understory maples?
A forester will tell you that sugar maples are well-adapted to partial shade. A radical flood of full sun would stress some maples to decline and death. Our goal is to favor sugar maples by gradually removing competition to improve spacing in a manner that doesn't shock them by admitting too much light too fast. The fact that sugar maples already grow here does not itself make our woods an ideal maple site. The seeds arrived following a heavy pine harvest in the 1960s and found their opportunity.
My son's long-term interest in hobby-scale maple sugaring and the overall poor quality of our site for growing maple suggests a modest sugarbush improvement is a good goal. "Releasing" the sugar maples by gradually weeding and thinning oaks and hemlocks will take time. Developing sugar maple forest for either saw timber for lumber or for maple syrup production are mutually exclusive goals. In either case, I won't live long enough to see the results. But as-yet-unborn grandchildren might.
It'll be a decade or more before the maples reach sufficient size for tapping - and that's the point of so much forestry. Decisions made by today's forestland managers are designed to benefit future generations. A Forest Society colleague, George Frame, is a longtime, licensed professional forester. He puts it this way:
"Foresters learn early in their education that they can't compete with tree longevity. The success of our management will be how readily or easily others can complete the next scheduled activity to harvest the accrued timber quality that we hoped for when we did our work. I can only hope that some future forester will enter a stand I have worked and thank me for what I have done, nameless as I then will be."
Foresight comes by understanding that forests operate on long timeframes. Forestland owners and managers are part of a wider, wood-using economy. We harvest some trees in order to better favor others. We can argue about the specifics our choices, but trees don't care; they just keep growing.
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A RELATED story comes from people who misconstrue the Forest Society's name to assume that our mission is to protect each and every tree. On one occasion, an old-timer chortled with disdain that we rather need a "Society for the prevention of forests." Given an opportunity, he schooled this college-boy naturalist in his classic New Hampshire dialect:
"When I was a boy, that mountain was all pasture, hay field and orchards. And now - thanks to YOU people - it's all gone back to trees! We lost the views, and there ain't no decent partridge hunting in them woods anymore!"
He's right. Our forests are resilient. I know one particular white pine attempting to hide behind a highway exit ramp sign just off the local interstate. For five years, that pine has evaded annual summer mowing by remaining inconspicuous while snuggled tight against the steel sign post.
The sign pine is the vanguard of a future forest that would quickly overwhelm and shade the entire highway exit complex should mowing machines retire forever. This proves we do NOT need to plant seedlings to replace trees as they are harvested in New Hampshire forests. We are fortunate to enjoy ample natural regeneration. If your lawnmower breaks or you ignore the backyard a few years, a forest of tree seedlings will readily colonize your lawn. The new forest composition will mirror the proximity of local seed sources. Maybe you'll inherit a forest of tiny sugar maples.
Foresters are second only to religious leaders when it comes to having faith. Forester Frame adds: "... my deepest faith is that forests are resilient enough to rebound from mistakes. Not necessarily forestry mistakes but the human development pressures that wreak havoc on the natural world ... In spite of us, the white pine grows behind the highway sign, and because of us, the sugar maples make it to provide sap and shade and fall color and beautiful wood."
The forest itself doesn't care. But we should.
"Forest Journal" appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education and Volunteer Services for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Forest Society Web site: forestsociety.org.