Becca Costello and Rebecca Thiele
If you’ve spent any amount of time in southern Indiana, you know logging is a controversial issue. While activists say the state cuts down too many trees in state forests, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources says its foresters are following good management practices.
We aimed to find out: Do other forestry experts approach management like Indiana’s state foresters?
We got responses from more than 90 forestry experts in North America who work in all aspects of forest management — including state departments of natural resources, private companies, colleges and universities.
What we learned was forestry is complex. A lot of the decisions that foresters make are based on a variety of factors specific to that forest — not only considering the health of plants and animals in the area, but also what the people who own the land want.
The healthiest forest is one that has no active management/little active management
Several of the forestry experts we surveyed said though there are some situations where a forest doesn’t need active management, they’re becoming more rare.
John Innes is the dean of the faculty of forestry at the University of British Columbia in Canada. He says humans have dramatically changed the planet through altering the climate and spreading invasive species.
“So if we really want to try and maintain as natural a forest as possible it may, ironically, require some management actions by us to enable that to happen,” Innes says.
Two healthy forests may look very different
The Indiana Forest Alliance favors more old-growth forests — or forests that have been allowed to age without much disturbance. But the Indiana DNR says it needs to cut down some older trees to make room for younger trees and shrubs, which can be good habitat for species like the ruffed grouse.
We asked forestry experts for two examples of kinds of forests that could be considered healthy.
Richard Kobe is a professor of forest ecology at Michigan State University and chairs the university’s forestry department. He says he doesn’t like to use the term “healthy” because he thinks that can be subjective, but he did say that it’s possible for two very different forests to meet important goals.
Kobe says one example of a forest meeting its goals could be young, Jack pine forests in northern Michigan which need the heat of a fire to open their pine cones. These forests are also home to the rare Kirtland’s warbler. Its populations were in decline, but now its numbers have grown enough that the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service is considering it for delisting under the Endangered Species Act.
“In this situation, the goal is really to preserve habitat for this rare species that we want to keep as part of Michigan ecosystems,” Kobe says. “But fire is no longer a really viable management option — at least not extensively, like natural fires would come through in these Jack pine forests historically. So a lot of the fire has been replaced with a fairly frequent harvesting — and it's clear cut harvesting to mimic what would happen in the situation of a fire.”
But older forests can meet their goals too. Todd Ontl is a U.S Forest Service ecologist with the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science. He says another forest type in Michigan is a northern hardwood forest. It can have all kinds of tree species, like sugar maples, red oaks, white pines, red pines, and spruces.
“It's a pretty diverse forest type in terms of the number of tree species, and pretty long lived, as well. So not uncommon to see very large old trees in this forest type,” Ontl says.
Many forestry experts we surveyed came back to this idea that diversity is often a way that you can tell a forest is resilient — diversity of species, ages, even a balance of living and dead trees.
How the forest is used will drive management
The Indiana Forest Alliance often talks about the benefits of the state’s forests including hiking, tourism, and wildlife — but there are other things that can drive management such as hunting, fishing, and timber.
Many of the forestry experts we surveyed said a combination of several of these things drive how they manage a forest and it’s a forester’s job to strike a balance to meet those goals.
“You've got to know what you have and what it's capable of doing. And look at the objectives of what you're trying to accomplish over time, reach into your toolbox, blend those together in order to best solve the problem and meet those needs,” says John Bailey, professor of silviculture and fire management at Oregon State University.
Timber harvest is one tool that can be used for healthy forest management. Timber harvest is a necessary part of healthy forest management. The risks of timber harvest (aside from single tree selection) are worth the benefits to forest health.
The Indiana Forest Alliance says the state doesn’t need to log so many trees on state forests, while the Indiana DNR says that logging is sometimes necessary.
Many of the experts we surveyed said cutting down trees can be helpful for things like controlling invasive species — such as the emerald ash borer. It can also recreate natural disturbances that some of these forests no longer experience, like fires.
Oregon silviculture professor John Bailey says in some areas, like the Pacific Northwest, not having that disturbance might create bigger problems.
“As we’re finding out on federal lands, many of [the tree stands] are overgrown — they have more fuel than they’ve ever had, the acres are more connected than they’ve ever been. And so they’re burning in bigger and bigger and more intense chunks,” he says.
Forestry experts say timber harvest is a tool — if used well, it can be beneficial for a forest.
What should the top priority be for forest management?
From this survey, we learned that what a forester prioritizes on a site depends on the forest — so it’s no surprise that “it depends” was the most popular answer.
Some forestry experts noted that we didn’t list climate change mitigation or resiliency as a priority. Trees can be managed to take more carbon out of the atmosphere as well as to survive better in a changing climate.
“The more tree species that you have, the less likely it is that the majority of a forest — of the trees in a forest — will be negatively impacted when something like an extreme drought hits or when an insect pest come through,” says Todd Ontl, a U.S Forest Service ecologist with the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.