Jack Savage's Forest Journal: Smaller landowners are key to restoring forest balance

By JACK SAVAGE May 05. 2017 6:37PM
Uncontrolled clearcutting, as was common in northern New Hampshire in the early 20th century, contributed to today's lack of forest diversity. This 1911 photo shows a clearcut area on the Profile House property in Franconia Notch. (WHITE MOUNTAIN NATIONAL FOREST)

ACCORDING to a new report released by the American Forest Foundation (AFF), the more than 100 million acres of forestland in 13 Northeastern states - Maine to West Virginia - are "imbalanced."

Let's hope that doesn't mean that all those trees are about to topple over!

Just kidding. What the AFF report does mean is that, in general, much of those forests are "even-aged." This is a consequence of how people have used the land over time.

"During the 19th century, heavy clearing of forests took place for farming, shipbuilding, fuels, charcoal and development of communities, setting up a dynamic of abandonment and regrowth," reads the report. "Over the last century, forests have reclaimed millions of agricultural and industrial acres in the Northeast."

The trees grew back. That's good news, right? Well, sure, given all the ecological benefits of forests.

The issue, however, according to the report, is that "the majority of the forests in the region today are roughly the same age and composition. Because of this, northeastern forests lack the diversity in both tree species and age needed to provide healthy and sustainable wildlife populations throughout the region."

The solution, argues the AFF, is more active stewardship of those forests. And that stewardship could prioritize "uneven-aged management", which promotes forest stands that differ significantly in ages (technically, the spread of ages of the trees would exceed 25 percent of the planned life span for an age class). The Forest Society often employs this strategy on some of the 55,000 acres we own and manage.

The American Forest Foundation runs the American Tree Farm program, among other initiatives that focus on forest stewardship by private forestland owners - often families. And given that focus, they also point out that 11 million acres of the Northeastern forests are owned by families and individuals.

And therein lies the ultimate point of the report, that collectively the many family forestland owners represent an opportunity to, in their words "restore the balance" of the forest composition through targeted stewardship activities. Thus the title of the report, "Hidden in Plain Sight". (You can read the report online at https://www.forestfoundation.org.)

The Hidden in Plain Sight report goes on to argue that while this "balance can be restored" through widespread, targeted stewardship activities, landowners throughout the region are lacking the markets, tools and resources to implement these activities on the ground.

They note that family woodland owners who consult with a natural resource professional do more than twice as much to protect and improve wildlife habitats through active stewardship.

Of course, here in New Hampshire, UNH Cooperative Extension has been engaging family landowners in exactly this way for decades.

In order to be strategic and effective, the AFF analysis identified 30 watersheds with high-quality family woodlands where stewardship activities can make a particularly important contribution in the near future. Where "both the target and surrounding watersheds have an unhealthy shortage of early- and late-successional forests."

Some of those target areas are here in New Hampshire, as the map shows, where 5.8 million acres are about 80 percent forested.

Crowd-sourced, large-scale forest stewardship may well be the 21st century key to long-term forest health. In the early 20th century, when the forested slopes of the White Mountains were being systematically cleared via unsustainable industrial logging, (and leading to problems with the Merrimack River watershed in particular), the solution was to establish a large mixed-use forest block owned and managed by the federal government. Thus, thanks to the Weeks Act, the White Mountain National Forest was established nearly 100 years ago.

Perhaps a century from now, we will be celebrating the collective efforts of thousands of private forestland owners who embraced active forest stewardship.

Jack Savage is the Executive Editor of Forest Notes, the quarterly magazine of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached at jsavage@forestsociety.org or follow him on twitter @JackatSPNHF.

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